In Conversation with Julia Allworth: A New Space for Innovation and Community at The Student Commons

 By Betelehem Gulilat, Content Writer & Julia Allworth, Manager of Innovation Projects  

When you hear the word collaboration, what comes to mind? Likely a group of people working collectively with a shared goal and ultimate purpose. In the age of technology and COVID-19, we discovered that collaboration does not have to be confined to a physical space but can in fact exist virtually to enable team members to work together from just about anywhere in the world. We discovered the values, setbacks and new approaches that come with collaboration virtually and for nearly two years this was our reality, up until this early October 2021… 

Student Commons - UTSU - University of Toronto Student Union
Student Commons Building Exterior:

We’re excited to announce that the Innovation Hub now has a physical location at the Student Commons building at 230 College St, on St. George Campus! Recently redesigned by the University of Toronto’s Student Union (UTSU), the Student Commons is a dynamic hub for students to meet, relax, study, collaborate, get involved and connect with the UofT community all in one place. This space adds to a growing network of positive student spaces aimed to meet students’ needs of finding community. Since its inception in 2016, the Innovation Hub has operated without a physical space of our own and we cannot help but be excited to continue designing with and for students at our new collaborative space.  

In Conversation With Julia Allworth

Julia Allworth

To get a better picture of the journey embarked to reach this newest milestone, I had the absolute pleasure to interview Julia Allworth, the visionary leader behind the Innovation Hub at the University of Toronto (UofT). Over the years Julia has worked collaboratively with hundreds of students, staff, and academics to improve the campus experience using equity-based design thinking. She shares the story of the Innovation Hub, its profound impact, what’s most important to her, and the ongoing vision of building a culture of social innovation in higher education.  

How the Innovation Hub Began 

Julia: I guess coffee meetings were how I built the Innovation Hub. I’d invite folks from the UofT community for coffee at Starbucks. During that first year I connected with was the President of the UTSU. He was finalizing plans for the new Student Commons. During one meeting as an aspirational comment I said, “Wouldn’t it be great for the Innovation Hub to have an actual “hub” at the new Student Commons?” 

It’s amazing how that single comment would spark a series of events. Eventually, the Innovation Hub became one of the organizations slated to reside in the Student Commons building. It seemed like a natural fit for the Innovation Hub to be located in the space where students are.  We are excited to finally be in this space! 

A Space for Students: Connection, Collaboration, Community  

Julia: From day one my goal has always been to focus on the students coming into our work. I want us to be a space where students can find a sense of belonging outside of the classroom. Our students collaborate within an interdisciplinary team comprised of students whom they otherwise would have never met, unified by a common goal: to create a better campus experience at UofT. Spending time deeply thinking of ways to create better experiences for students in the process fosters friendships and a sense of community. 

Student pointing to a whiteboard and collaborating together

We’ve always wanted to create safe, equitable spaces where students can truly be themselves, trust one another and be vulnerable. A common practice in our work is sharing failure stories. Creating a space where failure is safe and seen as learning puts everyone at ease. We can only be true disruptors, innovators, and design thinkers by also practicing what we believe in.  

By cultivating this culture of learning, growing and understanding one another, people are driven to work harder in contrast to the fast-paced, deadline-driven environment. We really care about producing the most amazing work for our partners and want to showcase how students can produce the high-quality work that would be expected from high-powered consultants. There is lots of great design thinking work happening across the University. I think what makes the Innovation Hub unique is the focus on students and helping them acquire career skills by working on real projects that impact their own student community. 

Finding Moments for Connection 

Students working together on a white board activity, while another is taking notes virtually.

Julia: From my experience, there’s something special about being in a physical space that can be more difficult to fully emulate virtually. Before and after meetings there are small moments that happen where connections and conversations begin. Having done this work both virtually and physically over the last five years, I feel like I am biased to in-person models. However, my hope is with our space we can bring back opportunities to connect in these ways while also appreciating the positives that have come out of working virtually. 

Working completely virtually has had its challenges, but it has also opened up access in different ways & embrace new ways to connect with others. For instance, in the last two years team members were living all around the world joining our meetings from different time zones which was incredibly cool to see. There are things that are wonderful about the virtual model that I hope we don’t lose. Lots of important learning moments were spent virtually, that we can apply to make our practice better moving forward.  

Defining a Space for Innovation, Collaboration and Connection  

Sticky note with three hands collaborating on ideas.

From this interview, we learn that space is not defined by its physical existence but by the individual and collective group itself. The shared purpose, common goal, and qualities of each individual is what truly defines a space. The Innovation Hub is a community of students, staff, and UofT partners with a shared purpose of co-creating a campus experience designed for all students to flourish academically, socially, and personally. Over the years, this work has taken place in many spaces across campus and virtually during the pandemic. Now the Innovation Hub is excited to launch a physical space for innovation, collaboration and connection at the Student Commons. We hope to see you there soon!  

If you’d like to learn more about Design Thinking from Julia, check out her newly published book Design Thinking in Student Affairs: A Primer.

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