Design in Action: Durham Region Social Services Innovation Labs – Part 3:

Design in Action: Durham Region Social Services Innovation Labs – Part 3:

Design in Action: Durham Region Social Services Innovation Labs – Part 3

Designing Through Empathy
By: Laura Stephan Policy Advisor Innovation and Research Unit, Erin Valant Manager Affordable Housing and Homelessness Initiatives, Darren Levine Manager Innovation and Research Unit

In our last article we talked about the importance of the “human side of innovation”. In the third and final part of this series we want to share an example of a project from our Social Services Department that embodies this notion – balancing the human and technical sides of a service innovation project geared at breaking down silos and improving the citizen experience.

In November 2018, the 9th Annual Innovation and Research Forum was hosted by the Region of Durham Social Services Department’s Innovation and Research Unit. This Forum is a chance for staff from across the organization, as well as community partners, to share innovative projects they have been working on. With more than 100 staff and community partners in attendance, this annual forum offers an exciting exchange of new ideas, as stories of experience including successes, failures, and lessons learned are shared and celebrated. Staff from all points in our organizational hierarchy share with, and learn from, one another.

Part of this day included a panel of staff sharing short stories of innovation projects they are leading. One of the presenters, Erin Valant with the Housing Services division shared a powerful talk on embracing empathy, and the importance of keeping end-users at the heart of the design, development, and introduction of a new technology to enhance the citizen experience.


We sat down with Erin to learn more about her experience leading this project.

Tell us about the project HIFIS 4.0

We wanted to break down the technological silos between agencies and be more client centered. The various agencies a client facing homelessness might go to for services didn’t talk to each other. The client would have to share their story several times, at several agencies. Electronic information systems storing client information were isolated at each agency, and they didn’t interact. This wasn’t providing the best experience possible for our clients or our service providers and something needed to change.

This new “HIFIS” system (Homeless Individuals and Families Information System) is a federally created internet-based system that can share data and information across agencies delivering homelessness programs. This system can share data and information, breaking down the silos and improving the experience of our shared clients. It eliminates the need for one client to share the same information with various agencies, and streamlines their experience accessing services. Partner agencies can now also see what work was done by another agency and continue to build on that. We are now able to build stories around a client, rather than individual snapshots of information.

How is this project different than other software changes?

This whole project had a huge focus on both the staff and client experience. Our goal was to have a greater ability to coordinate between agencies and offer wrap around services for our clients. There was a working group which in itself was a collaboration, made up of individuals from various agencies. We had a common goal of wanting to improve services those facing homelessness in Durham.

This project is innovative because it is about an ideological shift, rather than a shift in technology. The end product was a new technology, but this was not the focus of the project. The implementation of this system allows for a new mindset, that this is not just “my client” but this is one person whom we can work together to provide the best possible experience to in order to help them achieve their goals.

Were there any barriers to implementing the new system?

We needed high level buy in across the various organizations for this to happen. We started out with a project plan and time line for moving forward. We quickly learned we needed to be flexible with our initial plans. Because this project is primarily about the ideological shift, it was important to make sure we were all on the same page and not leave anyone behind. The steps in between our technical project steps and project plan were just as important. We wanted to get front line staff involved, make sure we had high level buy in and ensure the working group was comfortable and involved in all decisions.

What was the experience of presenting at the Innovation and Research Forum like for you?

The Forum was great! It is exciting to be able to share some of the innovative work going on in the Housing Services Division. We have several exciting projects happening and it was a great opportunity to showcase some of the innovative work that we’ve been doing.

I was part of a panel of short “lightning talks” where front line staff shared their leadership through various innovative projects. It was so refreshing to see presentations from front line staff who were empowered to not only share their ideas but to follow through with them to implementation. There was a lot of interest in the work I presented, and I am eager to explore how other divisions might be able to benefit from this type of system.

As we highlighted in our previous article, nurturing the human side of innovation is about ensuring that empathy – both for the end user and our staff – is front and centre at every step of the design and innovation process. As an Innovation and Research Unit, “compassion” is one of our guiding values. In our Unit, we believe that “sustainable transformational change requires that we co-create new possibilities in equal partnership with stakeholders and end-users, design through empathy, and recognize the expertise each individual brings” (Durham Social Services Innovation and Research Unit 2019 Plan, p.4).

Every staff member in our organization, irrespective of position, title, or years of experience, holds a piece of a potential new innovative breakthrough – a unique perspective, a unique set of skills and experiences – and we must put our pieces together to drive transformational change. Nurturing a culture of innovation is about unlocking the creative leadership potential in every staff member, one voice at a time.

For more information on the HIFIS 4.0 project or our Innovation and Research Unit, contact us at

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