Network Symbiosis in Action – CityStudio Vancouver shares their take on Pillar’s Network Approach

Our Network Approach outlines four essential principles for building networks that create positive impact – collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion, and storytelling and impact. While each of these principles are equally important in building strong networks, the value of connection and knowledge sharing amongst network members can’t be understated. At Pillar, belonging to a larger network of organizations invested in social good has helped us towards our own goals in immeasurable ways. When we partner with, and rely on, the insights and experiences of other organizations in our sector, we can all achieve more together. 

When we set out to achieve one of our audacious goals – to enhance campus community collaboration for social change – we turned to CityStudio Vancouver. As a result of this partnership we successfully launched CityStudio London in September 2019. While Pillar has learned countless lessons from CityStudio Vancouver, in true network collaboration fashion, they have also looked to our Network Approach for guidance. CityStudio Vancouver’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Duane Elverum and his colleague Alix Linaker, their Canadian Network Coordinator, were kind enough to sit down and share how they interpret each of our four network building principles in their own work.

CityStudio is “a model of experiential education and civic engagement that is helping to develop tomorrow’s leaders by turning the city into the classroom.” The program began in Vancouver in 2011 when Elverum and his colleague Dr. Janet Moore heard a common theme from their students expressing their sadness about the state of the environment and their disappointment that upon graduating they wouldn’t be fully trained to help begin work that could help the planet or deal with social justice issues. Their solution: give students the opportunity to work on these problems while in school as part of course work and for credit, co-creating solutions with city staff that contribute directly to city needs – a mutually beneficial arrangement that gives students tangible experience and inspires new approaches to solving society’s wicked problems while providing city staff with faculty and research expertise.

Elverum and Linaker both expressed that looking to our principles has served as a map for strengthening their network and a tool for deep reflection as they continue their expansion (at present, they’ve licensed CityStudio to 14 network members across Canada, Australia and Norway, and are still very much scaling up). In sharing CityStudio Vancouver’s interpretation of our network approach, we hope to share another layer of depth to the principles. In showing how they can be applied across different nonprofit organizations we hope to continue this generative conversation with you as you consider their application for your organization.


When asked how the network approach principles align with the mission of CityStudio Vancouver, Elverum responded, “how do they not”? In speaking with him and Linaker it is clear that they have and continue to put a great deal of thought into applying all four network building principles. But, the work of connecting students, universities and city staff within the local CityStudio requires a special focus on ensuring effective collaboration.  

At CityStudio Vancouver, learning how to lead and convene their network of multiple stakeholders, who often have differing agendas, has been an iterative process. Elverum explains two key lessons that shaped their approach to collaboration. The first, that trust-based relationships must precede collaboration, has become the foundation of CityStudio Vancouver’s theory of change. 

“The theory of change came about because we were trying – often struggling – to undertake projects before we had built a good relationship, and so we began to see that the success of our entire organization could hinge in the quality of individual relationships, our entire world has to be about building trust,” Elverum explains. “At first, we thought maybe collaboration was the first step in our theory of change, but it didn’t work. In order to have collaboration we needed to have relationships, but that didn’t fully work either – in order to have relationships, we needed to have trust relationships, rather than simply instrumental relationships, or financial relationships.”

Building this trust, however, requires a second tenant of effective collaboration. The network or backbone organization must establish itself as an impartial convener who places the goals of the collaborative above their own.

“What started to become apparent was that in order to fully collaborate properly, we needed to put ourselves in the middle, aim to have no agenda, and really start to amplify the agenda of the people we are trying to collaborate with,” Elverum notes. “To collaborate, you have to say my agenda doesn’t matter at the moment, what matters is our shared agenda.” 

Today, Elverum thinks about the 14 CityStudios in the network model as a kind of brain with each of its collaborators and network members as neural nodes communicating in real time with all the other nodes. The continued growth of the network brings the need to evaluate how to best share information between members in a real time way to optimize opportunities to learn from one another. This also involves an analysis of how best tactically to share information and support different stakeholders with different needs. 

“We are really strategizing and intentionally thinking about what’s the best mode of communication and for what purpose,” Linaker explains. She adds that as they plan programming to enhance member engagement, they take time to understand the differing needs and cultural contexts of their audiences. This involves a continual feedback loop to understand preferences such as the preferred methods of content delivery, the frequency of communication and the pace of collaboration.

Leadership and Governance 

When managing an organization that involves leadership of and collaboration with such diverse groups of stakeholders, from students, to city staff, to organizational staff, clear organizational governance is also of the utmost importance. Today, with an organization, charity, board and staff, Elverum explains the great care that is placed on ensuring principles used with students and staff are the same amongst all stakeholders, in what he calls front of house and back of house. 

“In regard to the governance of the organization, my goal is to test what practices can be applicable to front and back of house with staff, the board [and other stakeholders] like distributed leadership, and consensus-based decision making,” Elverum explains. “We are not always sure which ones should appear in both places, but we are trying to test it. We question the cultural practices that the movement uses so that we don’t draw a distinct line between governance and management as frequently as your average organization might.”

As a leader and voice for the nonprofit sector, he is also focused on answering the question of belonging in the sector while questioning its inherent limitations. “The charitable sector can likely do far more in Canada than it is being enabled to do, the rules are sometimes in opposition with fast movement and change,” says Elverum. 

He further notes his acknowledgement of complexities around social justice and obstacles to diversity and equity that make the sector more challenging than it needs to be. He is personally committed to continuing conversations around systems change with other impact sector leaders.

Equity and Inclusion 

For Elverum and the CityStudio Vancouver leadership team, distributed power is central to their philosophy on equity and inclusion. He often explores the idea of what it means to have power, to distribute it and how to gauge that it’s being shared in genuine ways. One way that he strives to ensure this principle is through empowering open and honest feedback from his employees and colleagues. 

“I promise my staff that I will be the most responsive person to feedback that they’ve ever met, that’s my aim, and if something is not working I am not devoted to these ideas, I am devoted to the principle,” he explains. “At times it’s the hardest thing to say this is exactly what I asked for, but it’s the most exciting thing to know that my staff feels power with me.” 

Linaker shares that the organization is also focused on developing strategies around how the network can use their power to influence in positive ways. CityStudio Vancouver is developing an agenda for what they want to achieve within a Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization and Inclusion (JEDDI) social justice framework, and to do this, they ensure that they are listening to the voices of all of their network members and marginalized future members.

“We think about inclusivity and equity in the sense of different levels of power from top leadership to staff to students,” she notes. “Something that I really like about the CityStudio model is how it empowers students to get involved in civic issues and understand that their voices and ideas and needs are important.” 

At this time in history, with calls for long overdue racial equity and justice, CityStudio Vancouver is also examining their blind spots – the places where they haven’t been looking for ideas, where they weren’t focused enough on student inclusiveness, and the cities or towns where they licence CityStudio to be developed. Even the naming of the organization is being called into question when thinking about licencing to smaller municipalities and how the language of rural versus city influences people’s perceptions.

“Something that we are working on is looking at is what’s the role of a CityStudio network in smaller cities or smaller municipalities, instead of going to larger or mid-sized urban centres. Those students may not have the same level, quality or number of opportunities to get this real world type of experience,” explains Linaker. “We’re thinking about what we do to better support underrepresented student segments.” 

“What started to become apparent was that in order to fully collaborate properly, we needed to put ourselves in the middle, aim to have no agenda, and really start to amplify the agenda of the people we are trying to collaborate with. To collaborate, you have to say my agenda doesn’t matter at the moment, what matters is our shared agenda.”

Storytelling and Impact

For any organization, two important elements of good storytelling are a balance between a well-defined tactical communications strategy and a strong underlying brand story. As CityStudio continues to grow, the organization is working hard to deliver on a communications strategy that will allow them to increase storytelling for the overall network. As part of this plan, CityStudio Global social channels, a newsletter, and more news and stories for their blog are in the works. They’ve also recently launched an online CityStudio member platform and are exploring how that will help them share learning, successes and build awareness about the network from within the network and publicly. 

The narrative aspect of building a brand is very much understood at CityStudio Vancouver, and it’s something Elverum thinks often and deeply about. The story of the organization being a one-stop shop for universities and cities to work together for civic benefit is the current thinking, but supporting that message when selling the concept requires a deeper dive into the reasons why this is needed.  

“A key part of that story is a question, how is it possible that our two largest public institutions don’t easily and naturally work together in the everyday business of city building? That’s an existential question that I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Elverum explains. “The more we talk to cities around the world, the more important this question has become for us. There’s an important story to be told around how in North America, and around the world, our public institutions don’t know how to or don’t want to work together.” 

Getting people on board with the concept of CityStudio, of course, varies depending on the city, the stakeholders – city staff, faculty, institutional leadership, etc. – and different cultural contexts. Some respond to the fact that systems underserved youth and how their capacity is left to idle, while others may be more motivated by mobilizing youth for social justice impact or for the benefit of economic development. The team always explores what each city needs and shows them how the model would support them.  

While CityStudio does have a formal impact measurement framework based on their theory of change, it aims to capture much more than quantifiable measures of the number of participants and cities enlisted. Through their reporting, they aim to showcase measures of how the overall network is helping to shift the system of how post-secondaries and civic governments collaborate. As the number of network members grows, they’re also exploring how to capture impact measurement for the network as a whole. 

Impact measurement can also be challenging in a world where many would think that success looks like the number of student projects that are implemented in the real world. Part of their challenge has been shifting the culture around outcomes and deliverables to a more nuanced understanding of the value of expanding minds through exposure to new ideas and relationships, and understanding that experimentation today can seed ideas for future benefit. 

During our interview, Elverum expressed his belief in the value of dialogue between network members, and the importance of deep reflection on the principles of network building. 

“Asking these questions [about the network principles] and allowing us to think about them and generate our own new thinking around these questions is itself evidence of the network approach,” he said. “The interview itself becomes a kind of network mechanism, and trust building relationship mechanism. This is really working, this is mutually beneficial and mutually exciting and powerful. The network approach is in action through this process.” 

We hope this conversation may be a seed that allows you to think, explore, and reflect on how the network approach can serve your organization to maximize your impact.