AU researchers, staff, collaborating to help address social issues in Athabasca region
Athabasca University has partnered with The Social Impact Lab Alberta to host the collaborative and multidisciplinary Athabasca Design Lab
Athabasca University (AU) is partnering with a Calgary-based non-profit to come up with creative and sustainable solutions to an important social issue identified by community members in Athabasca: support for residents around social issues such as mental health, housing, and transit.
Athabasca is one of two rural communities in Alberta to benefit from the work of The Social Impact Lab Alberta. The multidisciplinary team works with partners to accelerate innovation and drive change for those struggling with inequitable systems.
“As an open and research university, AU is glad to seek out and support partnership approaches to co-create knowledge and drive opportunities of shared needs,” said Dr. Andrew Perrin, associate vice-president of research. “Doing so with the community, on our campus, is an ideal way and space to think together.”
The Social Impact Lab has done this type of work in the Calgary area since it was founded in 2018 by the United Way of Calgary and Area in collaboration with design studio J5. It was awarded a Government of Alberta grant in 2022 to expand this work provincewide. It has now begun similar work in two rural Alberta communities: Athabasca and Brooks.
“As an open and research university, AU is glad to seek out and support partnership approaches to co-create knowledge and drive opportunities of shared needs. Doing so with the community, on our campus, is an ideal way and space to think together.”– Dr. Andrew Perrin, associate vice-president of research
Collaborating to make an impact in Athabasca
The work in The Athabasca Design Lab began in April 2023 through consultations with community members—including many AU staff living in the region. This helped organizers to build a list of potential issues and challenges that could be creatively and collaboratively solved in the Athabasca area.
Through several other consultations, organizers worked with community members to identify visions of what they would like to see in Athabasca, narrowing down the list of potential topics for the Athabasca Design Lab to cover. At an August workshop, participants voted and chose to focus on one of the many challenges identified: increased support for people around social issues such as mental health, housing, and transit.
The work to tackle these challenges, and to design prototype solutions, began with an Oct. 19 meeting hosted by AU at its Athabasca campus. Those efforts will continue through the next year with workshops planned to define the problem that can be solved, brainstorm potential solutions in collaboration with a wide variety of community members, create a prototype of a potential solution, and implement some of these ideas in Athabasca.
How Athabasca University is supporting its home community
The Athabasca Design Lab participants from AU see great potential for this work, and also for AU’s role in supporting the work in the university’s home community of Athabasca.
“The ongoing design work is all happening on our campus. We are also working with our researchers to provide expertise where needed as well as having staff participating in the process as community members,” said Alyse Pearce, research partnerships broker with AU and one of many staff members participating in this work.
Perrin said from his perspective, this collaboration with community members to identify the most pressing concerns in Athabasca is a critical part of the process to make a meaningful impact.
“As a member of the community, we don’t want to solve problems that don’t exist. We would far rather solve together to ensure that if, where, and when research can support, The Social Impact Lab knows we are glad to partner,” he said.
He added that the idea of making an impact highlights the priorities The Social Impact Lab Alberta and AU’s researchers share. As an open and research university, the word “impact” is an important part of AU’s identity and purpose.
“It is this shared word and commitment to seeing research effect change and drive opportunity that is what got us excited to be part of, and a partner in, The Athabasca Design Lab.”