Our CEO, Brock Hart, gave the Keynote at the Kitchener Public Library Staff Day this month. Here’s what he had to say:

It goes without saying that we’re living in a time of dramatic and accelerating change. At Overlap, we subscribe to a belief that better is absolutely possible, and to believe that means to believe in an abundant future for all. Trying to make something better in a world that is changing rapidly can be tough.

The period between 2000 and 2007 saw major changes in technology, which had big impacts to our communities and culture. This was the time of the iPod and the rise of smartphones. The first iPhone was sold in June 2007. The internet changed drastically during that period as well, becoming more ubiquitous across households, public institutions, and businesses. It opened up a global platform that anyone could post to, meaning we now share information much more fluidly than we did before. Apps also exploded during this period.

All of this incredible design-driven technology has changed the world and changed us—it’s made us more connected than ever and more isolated than ever.

Technology is developing in leaps and bounds, faster than ever before.

2000 to 2007 was the beginning of digitization, which is part of a bigger narrative around exponential technologies. The thing that matters most about exponential technology is that it’s deceptive and its disruptive. Deceptive because we’re really bad at understanding what exponential is, but also these technologies lay below the surface of the mainstream after we hear about them. For example, we’ve heard about autonomous cars, but… that’s just sci-fi, right?

Disruption is easier—we’ve seen that and can tell stories about it. Disruptive innovations are those that change the way markets and products work: they change our perception of that product or thing in a big way. Usually they start as a new way of doing things that people don’t pay much attention to, eventually gaining momentum such that it takes over the market. A well-known example here would be that of Kodak and Instagram. Kodak, at its height in 1996, had 145,000 employees, a global revenue of $16 billion, and was worth over $31 billion. It was the 5th most valuable company in the world. Digital disrupted Kodak and its competitors in a big way. Instagram has since stepped in with its 13 employees, $500 million in revenue, before being sold to Facebook for $1 billion.  

So when we say the pace of change is increasing, this is what that looks like.

Exponential technology

 (image source: Uday I/O article “Predicting the Future and Exponential Growth”)

The future is about artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology—this is the next wave, and it’s changing by the hour… Take bio-tech, for instance, in 2003 the Human Genome project finished mapping the entire human genome with a $2.7 billion price tag. By mid-2015, the cost to map an entire human genome was around $4000, and by late 2015 the price had dropped to $1500. Business Insider quoted Raymond McAuley, the Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Chair at Singularity University, saying that we’d be sequencing genomes for pennies by 2020—and that timeframe has since narrowed dramatically. 

In all this fast-paced development, there’s been lots of great design—Human-centred design, and also many examples that have made us more isolated, have challenged our concept of identity, and changed how we relate to each other. And this is part of the context that we’re trying to do our transformative work in. We’re working to facilitate those transformations in organizations, communities, cities and institutions, and, by extension, ourselves.

We get to do community engagement and human-centred design work across sectors and internationally. We work in libraries, in healthcare, in national and international NGO’s and foundations, and the list goes on. After just a few of these types of engagement projects, we realized we were seeing the same themes arise over and over and over again—and continue to see them today.

Each of these sectors we work in are constantly adapting to the burgeoning technologies that continue to develop at this exponential rate. The themes that keep coming up are often linked to these adaptations. It’s made us think a lot about the role of libraries, the role of cities, the role of institutions, and organizations, as well as teams and leaders. Their roles are different now than they have been in the past when we were experiencing the relatively flat technological growth.

Image source

Community Complexity

One insight we consistently see is that humans are complex. We tend to think of complexity as the image to the right. I’ve found it helpful to instead explain complexity using a spectrum with three markers: Easy, Complicated, and Complex. People have wildly different worldviews, perspectives, and needs. So when social institutions adapt to and use the technology around us, they need to consider the type of technology and how it connects to human values and emotions. If we’re going to make sense of the complexity and think critically about the role of technology in our lives and how it shapes us and our interactions, we need to consider the cultural implications. Technology creates complex chain of causality and in our current economic climate and funding realities, there isn’t a lot of appetite for that type of deep understanding.


Inclusion is about equality and it’s about access. Belonging, on the other hand, is about identity, human connections, and feeling welcome. Beginning with our work with the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation and arising from much of our work since then, we have identified three foundations for belonging: authentic interactions, feeling welcome, and sharing experiences.

Technology has created thin human connections. We spend more evenings watching television than sharing meals with friends and family. Introducing more diversity into our communities has short term challenges and long term benefits—we’re still figuring this out in Canada. We’re working on bridging and bonding, and we’re beginning to understand what it is to live in a pluralistic society.

The big question for libraries to consider with respect to this theme is: how we might create a sense of belonging for our patrons? How can we use new programming, new technology that we bring into the library to create authentic interactions between people? To create a feeling that you’re welcome? To share experiences?

Using Design Thinking to design for complexity and belonging

Design thinking has proven to be a well-suited approach for libraries due to the complexity of the problems libraries face. They’re wicked problems, which means they’re particularly resistant to resolution, require re-evaluation of traditional systems and approaches, and often expose new problems as progress is made.

Using design thinking, we define the problem, research to deepen our understanding, ideate solutions, prototype them, and test them. Although it sounds neat and tidy, it can be messy. It’s Lean in that it identifies the areas you can improve upon, but rather than focusing on efficiencies it focuses on gaining user insights to improve their experience. At its core, design thinking enables us to explore the needs of the end user, and match these needs with solutions we know to be desirable by them and feasible for the system.

Design thinking is rooted in empathy, which means we always put the user before the system.

The Opportunity for Libraries

There’s an opportunity here for meaningful engagement. Community engagement, no matter the sector, is often viewed as painful, useless, and confusing. More and more, community engagement is required by provincial ministries, and is becoming a political imperative. Plus, we demand it. We want to be involved. The internet has shifted us to a culture of participation—and easy participation that requires almost no real skill.

So everyone wants engagement, yet so much of it is bad. Community engagement is not a glorified quantitative survey delivered by an organization. Instead, it is a deeply qualitative exercise rooted in empathy, curiosity, and discovery. It should be more about the person you’re speaking with than it is about you.  

I think that ongoing, meaningful engagement with the public is a critical capacity that cities and communities need to enable co-design with communities. Community engagement also helps us better understand how the changing world is affecting us.

What you do now

  1. Keep doing community engagement. Don’t become jaded by the surface-level way community engagement can be done and commit to a deeper level of engagement with your community.
  2. Brainstorm questions, not solutions. Community engagement is only useful when you’re learning from it, which requires listening.
  3. You download the Gates Foundation and IDEO toolkit“Design Thinking for Libraries”.


Libraries that embrace deep empathy for the customer and their communities are going to be on the leading edge.

Bringing a fresh approach to community engagement through the power of empathy, through design, is what ultimately helps libraries shape a new social contract with their communities. And we need you. Our communities need you desperately. Technology and the rapid changes that are coming are neither good nor bad. The world that is emerging around us will be shaped by us and I think libraries will continue to be a place where that abundant future I believe in will be made possible because libraries will help us be better humans.