Social change by design: An interview with Linh Nguyen

Guiding me through the new Student Learning Centre at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Linh Nguyen turns to me and says, “Let’s go to the beach.”

The Beach, as it turns out, is not outside. It is the aptly named sixth floor of the innovative eight-story building, where every floor has been uniquely designed to encourage more productive and positive student experiences. With colourful tiered seating that slopes towards a sweeping floor-to-ceiling window highlighted with splashes of blue, the Beach is meant to be a place for students to relax, connect, and interact with one another.

Linh has taken me here to show me an example of “behavioural design.” Grounded in the belief that people and place are interwoven, the approach aims to create physical spaces that can make you feel and act in positive ways. Seeing this idea as an opportunity to influence social change, in early 2014 Linh founded the Bodhi Collective, a group of Gen Y creatives that wants to use physical space as a vehicle for social good.

While in Toronto, I had the chance to talk with Linh about the Bodhi Collective, and their work to create social change through design.

Can you tell us a little about the Bodhi Collective?

LN: We’re a creative firm designing environments to change behaviour for social good.

Unhealthy habits are a pattern that demands disruptive change. We’ve stopped assuming that our decisions are always rational – we’re humans! So how do we do this? We believe art, design, and the space around us can catalyze this shift because our philosophy is grounded in belief that people and place are infinitely related.

What compelled you to start the Bodhi Collective?

LN: My ‘aha’ moment was so similar to yours, Joe!

Thinking about our challenges in building a sustainable future, it was easy to realize our shortcomings as vulnerable, raw individuals. We falter and occasionally give in, even those with strong, social convictions. How do we bridge this gap? What’s missing?

This realization, I knew, was more than raising awareness for a green, clean future. To spark this critical mass, we need more. The Bodhi Collective was founded to fill this need. Negative human behaviour sits at the root of our greatest challenges and it’s the physical space around us that has the ability to change this.

Bodhi Collective team members working on a project to convert an empty pond into an urban oasis with natural greenery and crafted flowers made from upcycled materials
Bodhi Collective team members working on a project to convert an empty pond into an urban oasis with natural greenery and crafted flowers made from upcycled materials

 

You use the term “behavioural design” to describe the work you do. If you had to explain it to your grandmother, how would you describe behavioural design?

LN: Behavioural design understands how the space around us can influence our emotions, actions, and experiences. We take this belief and build it into tangible form: it’s architecture meets a real human touch.

We’re creating spaces that can make you feel and act in positive ways and we’re doing this using a co-creative approach. We’re designing an environment with the user as part of the design process – we’re doing this with you.

Let’s hear about one of your success stories. Can you share a recent example of a space the Bodhi Collective has transformed?

LN: From an open space, bare studio…to an immersive art installation with colour, lights, and clouds.

Art Can Change is an installation co-created with Madeleine Co that asks What Can Art Do For You? The piece began in Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design, a converted 19th century warehouse that was transformed for Creative Catalyst, a symposium on art and social innovation. Art Can Change redesigned the second floor into a space with meaning.

The installation posed the idea of using art to confront our fears. It provided an experience: users were greeted by a large yellow wall that prompted each individual to answer the question ‘Art Can Change ___’ digitally on a screen. The natural flow then took individuals to another participatory exercise that asked three questions ‘Are you an artist?’, ‘What are your greatest fears?’ and ‘What can art do for you?’ Answers were displayed anonymously on an 18-foot wall that ended with an artificially crafted cloud of origami paper, LED lights, and changing colours that responded to each new answer.

This was a piece that brought together a community of people believing in the opportunity for art to create better possible futures. It was intended to start an open conversation followed by an act to spark this change. This has a focus on social sustainability: how we’re able to build community, increase our well-being, and quality of life through art and design.

The Bodhi Collective transformed an open, bare studio into an immersive art installation, called Art Can Change
The Bodhi Collective transformed an open, bare studio into an immersive art installation, called Art Can Change

 

How do you think your work has impacted others in your community?

LN: Our work is intended to provide immersive experiences and change behaviour through design. Social change can be sexy, exciting, and real – that’s the deep-rooted impression we aim to leave in every engagement piece we design.

For example, our first project is anchored in environmental sustainability and takes a simple idea that tackles a complex problem. Increasing stair usage at Ryerson University began as a design experiment. What if we re-engineered this space to make the decision to take the stairs easier? We proposed the idea of placing ‘prompts’ to do this: floor tiles carving a path to the stairwell doors that lit up in a rainbow of colours and an art piece that subtly directed your line of vision to the doors. Once we captured interest and had people in the stairwell, it then became an immersive experience. We brought the outdoors in with a vertical garden, rainforest mural and seating area that doubled as a phone charging station. This change of space is designed to make taking the stairs natural, exciting, and enjoyable – ingredients that transforms a high-impact experience into a newly adopted behavioural pattern.

We hope to apply this concept in a number of applications, from increasing recycling practices to making healthier food options.

Transforming a mundane stairwell at Ryerson University into an experience that makes taking the stairs exciting and fun
Transforming a mundane stairwell at Ryerson University into an experience that makes taking the stairs exciting and fun

 

Imagine for a moment that you could wave a magic wand and instantaneously transform a neighbourhood in Toronto into the picture-perfect urban space. What would it look like? 

LN: This neighbourhood would be empathetic to the needs of its residents. It would be a space that is co-creative in nature and encourages human interaction – a fuse between beauty and function, while contributing to a positive environmental impact. There would be a variety of functional attributes and services to enhance day-to-day living (residential, commercial, mixed-uses); laneways for multi-modal transportation (pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers); social activities, community involvement, safety and security; and  emotional attraction: laughter, energy, optimism, and purpose.

From a big-picture perspective, what do you think it will take to shift human behaviour to a more positive, sustainable path?

LN: It needs to be more than raising awareness and educating. These efforts need to be complimented by our natural and built environments that catalyze change in sustainable, meaningful ways. We need spaces that are conducive to positive behaviour.

Finally, what advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

LN: Talk about it, share it, and be in love with it. Everything else will fall into place.

Linh Nguyen is the founder of the Bodhi Collective, a creative firm that designs environments to change behaviour for social good. Her passion also extends into politics, where she is the Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Ontario and serves as a Shadow Cabinet critic on youth-related policy.