The future of design is 
collaborative, considered, 
and life-centered.

June 2022: Industrial Designer Ranee Lee launches a collaborative design lab focused on social and environmental sustainability at CF Toronto Eaton Centre. The innovative lab, in partnership with Cadillac Fairview and OCAD University, builds on Lee's long standing co-design relationship with The Toronto Centre for Learning and Development in Regent Park. The lab's creative collective leverages design as a powerful tool to foster collaboration among the Community, Academia, and Corporations, through hands-on learning experiences.

"The Cycle Starts Here", Mural Illustrated by Daria Joyce

Design for Social Innovation

An article written for Gray Magazine 

by DESIGNwith Founder, Ranee Lee

As an industrial designer, I often find myself observing the margins and intersections in the fabric of society, as I believe that’s where most design opportunities lie. I started DESIGNwith, a lab for social and environmental sustainability, in June 2022, but it has been a project “in-iteration” for the past eight years. In June 2015, I read the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy plan, which used the words “prosperity for ALL.” The phrase made me question what design can do for those who live in the margins. How could society value the inherent skills of immigrant women, for example, and, through participatory design, share in the city’s prosperity through the production of an alternative economies?

Around that time, I met a group of women sewists from the Regent Park Sewing Studio (RPSS) in the Toronto Centre of Learning and Development (CL&D) and I decided to merge academia and the design of soft goods with the sewing collective I found in the community. Together with the students in my design courses at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD University), where I am a professor in the industrial design program, we codesigned products, including bags, baby products, and apparel. We planned to design these marketable soft goods for sale as part of a livelihood program helping women and single parents access sustainable income while maintaining flexible schedules that enable them to meet family responsibilities. 

A good design project should be improving itself-iterating for the betterment of all stakeholders. And that’s exactly what ours did. Over the years, what started as a group of sewists designing products in an OCAD University classroom slowly evolved into an immersive participatory design project. My university course moved off campus and began to take place within the community of Regent Park. The project iterated from codesign to participatory design-creating products collaboratively, from initial design all the way through to the final product. This flattened the hierarchy of teaching and learning, blurring the line to produce a more meaningful way of engaging and sharing design knowledge. 

Through this partnership, I learned that cities like Toronto are made up of highly skilled and educated immigrants-many of the sewists came from places outside of Canada. I learned that design could produce alternative economies through the discovery and valuation of people’s creative skills. And I learned that a values-based design lab can be the basis of a new way to explore design for social innovation. As I began to explore new ways in which this partnership could evolve, the pandemic struck, and we all moved to remote work. I continued teaching my design studio course from my basement, and started to observe a shift in the retail landscape as the global pandemic became our new normal. 

Aligned Partnerships

In the depths of the pandemic, the world around us changed, and I started to imagine a brick-and-mortar space for DESIGNwith. When most people were hoping to get back to normal, I started to imagine what a new normal would, and could look like. 

I presented this opportunity to a group of thoughtful individuals from Cadillac Fairview, the owner and manager of the CF Toronto Eaton Centre (Canada’s busiest shopping mall, which attracts more than 50 million visitors annually), in the form of a design proposal. Together we imagined what a design incubator could do for community engagement while fostering Cadillac Fairview’s company-wide goal of supporting initiatives that are "Transforming Communities for a Vibrant Tomorrow.”

Through collaboration with Cadillac Fairview, OCAD University students, and industrial design experts, the lab was designed with care. Bringing together thoughtful Cadillac Fairview employees and trades while OCADU students Katya Koroscil and Ernesto Ramirez, industrial designers Lee Fletcher, and founder Ranee Lee, the team co-created the Furniture Line. As an innovation hub, the lab's adaptable contents, including the furniture and tool library co-designed by service designer Claire Orange, facilitate modular adjustments, supporting diverse programming throughout the week.

The lab acts as a bridge for collaborative creation within the circular economy. Whether it's upcycling large windows and lighting fixtures from previous CF retail spaces or conceptualizing an inclusive sneaker workshop, the lab operates as a caring-design lab on multiple fronts.

•    •    •

Co-design x RPSS

Amount Awarded: $200,000 (Two-years)

Stream: Resilient Communities Fund (2023)

The Resilient Communities Fund supports community-based organizations that deliver programs and services in Ontario and need funding to recover and build capacity, resilience and sustainability.

Supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, our collaboration with the  TTCLD and RPSS has grown into a strong partnership since 2015. On a weekly basis, we participate in collaborative design sessions, where we transform industry by-products into marketable soft goods.

Notably, this collaboration has resulted in four members from the Regent Park Sewing Studio securing sustainable employment opportunities. These creative collective members play integral roles in the design and production processes, extending their impact by assisting in instructing community workshops.

Using Format