Innovation at the Northern Centre for Sustainability

Wed, Mar 13, 2019

We worked with Ecology North to develop a strategic vision for the innovation hub at their proposed Northern Centre for Sustainability.

Innovation at the Northern Centre for Sustainability

Ecology North is an environmental non-profit based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Since 1971, Ecology North has been promoting sustainable ways of living in the North through a variety of programs, educational initiatives, and partnerships. Ecology North contracted Superorganism to work on their Northern Centre for Sustainability (NCFS) initiative. As Ecology North and local partners, stakeholders, and residents have envisioned, the proposed NCFS will be a living demonstration of green building design in downtown Yellowknife, with the aim of enabling climate action across the North. An innovation hub inside the building will serve as a centre for knowledge exchange, partnership development, and research in the areas of green design and community sustainability.

Ecology North hired us as design researchers to help them frame what innovation might look like at the NCFS and how it could participate in transforming communities in Yellowknife and throughout the North. We spent a few weeks preparing in Toronto for our trip up North, and in late February, three short weeks after our first phone call, we found ourselves at the Ecology North offices in snowy Yellowknife. We spent one week in Yellowknife conducting primary research using processes informed by our principles developed for transition designing. After that, we had a few weeks in Toronto to put together a report for Ecology North.

Lines of Inquiry

In order to frame innovation for sustainability within the context of Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories and understand what it might look like within the proposed NCFS, we oriented our research around the following lines of inquiry:

  • What does sustainable innovation mean to Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories?
  • What current challenges could innovation for sustainability address in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories?
  • What existing strengths provide opportunities for innovation?
  • What might happen at the NCFS to encourage innovation?

Our Process

Our process involved background research before heading to Yellowknife, interviews with various community members and organizations, and a public co-design workshop. The combination of these methods allowed us to understand the project contextually and involve the community in the process. The actual shape of our engagements, however, did not take form until we were in Yellowknife. We were comfortable improvising because our process was scaffolded by the principles we set out beforehand, and we wanted our methods to be specific to the research as it developed on the ground.

Background Research

We spent a few weeks conducting background research to better understand the concepts of sustainability and innovation in the context of Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. We reviewed models of innovation hubs from elsewhere from which we might draw best practices. We read about place-specific priorities in documents from the City of Yellowknife, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. We tried to learn as much as we could about the history of Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories, and we conducted some initial scoping interviews with Ecology North to learn more about the project development.


During our primary research phase in Yellowknife, we conducted ten interviews with representatives from Ecology North, the City of Yellowknife, the Government of the Northwest Territories, private businesses, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and the community. The purpose of these interviews was to understand innovation within the specific context of Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories and to inform the design of our workshop.


Our primary research culminated in a co-design workshop with 20 participants recruited through our interviewees, word-of-mouth, public posters, and Ecology North’s circulation channels. Our participants collectively imagineed which innovation models, activities, and practices at the NCFS would bring the greatest value to communities in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. We facilitated a series of activities that we used to develop a detailed concept for what innovation might look like at the NCFS.

Hanging Out

Hanging outWe also consider the time we spent in Yellowknife not “officially” working as part of our research. By intentionally treating our time hanging out as research, we were able to acquire a better understanding of the context and community in which we were working than we would have through solely more formal methods. To encourage conversations, we spent a lot of our time outdoors and in public settings wearing stickers that invited people to come talk to us about innovation.


You can read our final report here.


Ecology North