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Public Engagement in Experiential Futures

A research collaboration with Gladki Planning Associates and the City of Mississauga has been established in developing strategic recommendations on the future of suburban malls in the area. The study aims at providing policy direction for these shopping malls and their surrounding areas to ensure that any future development is done in a way that will contribute towards healthy “complete communities".

Complete Communities

One of the main pillars of exploration that both urban planners and the City of Mississauga are interested in is how these shopping malls might move towards contributing to the larger planning concept of a “complete community”. As a requirement of a preferred future for the city, “complete communities” is an urban planning term used to describe communities that “meet the day-to-day needs of people throughout all stages of their life” (Mississauga, p. 7-1) in order to nurture a quality of life that allows people “to not only live and work, but also thrive” (Mississauga, p. 7-1). The City of Mississauga’s Official Plan identifies a pillar for “completing” its neighbourhoods, which addresses elements of urban living that include housing, community infrastructure, heritage planning, cultural infrastructure, distinct identities, and urban agriculture.

State of Malls

The current state of suburban malls in Canada is in flux as they are trying to navigate what some might call a retail meltdown. This state of flux can be traced to factors that include the online shopping revolution led by online retailers like Amazon; the fact that North America is now seeing the consequences of “mall sprawl” during the era of suburban development in the 70s and 80s, where overstocked malls are now failing to meet actual customer demand; and changes in retail behaviour that is shifting from valuing material goods to greater value now placed on experiential social retail as can be seen in the growth of restaurant and entertainment industry sectors.

The negative results of this retail shift have hit suburban malls harder than those in dense, more affluent city centers. In the suburbs, big box retail stores like Sears and Target have left malls, while some, like the case of Zellers,  have gone bankrupt all together. This void has affected the ability for these malls to attract other smaller retail anchor stores, making the retail offering to customers that much weaker. In the United States, this sudden decline in retail power has forced many malls to shut down entirely, as documented by the website:

Moving towards change

Despite these retail barriers and failures, some suburban malls have found ways to adapt to the changing retail landscape by listening and responding to the needs of the communities they are a part of. Some of the approaches include catering to specific ethnic and cultural demographics as seen in some of the ethnic malls that are emerging in Canada. The Pacific Mall in Markham, Ontario is an example as it caters almost solely to the Chinese community – to a point of seeming exclusive. Another adaptation approach has been through reimagining the purpose of malls altogether, moving away from retail and exploring mixed use models for residential housing, professional offices, recreational community centres, and even green agricultural spaces.

Critical Uncertainties

While it is encouraging to see some of these malls adapt to the changing retail landscapes, some of the critical uncertainties these malls will need to be mindful of in moving towards contributing to “complete communities” will be in how these communities identify themselves and how these malls might respond to the needs and wants of these communities. These two critical uncertainties were uncovered through the synthesis grouping of trends as shown below.

As multiculturalism continues to grow in Canada, there exists a tension between preserving the cultural customs of one’s homeland and assimilating into the broader Canadian culture. The challenge for suburban shopping malls here will be finding a way to create spaces for newcomer and immigrant communities to maintain and practice their culture, while being part of a larger multicultural Canadian whole.

Understanding and responding to the needs and wants of different communities in a way that creates value to the larger “complete community” will also be a challenge that these malls will need to consider. On one side of the spectrum, malls could contribute to complete communities as spaces that interpret and fulfill the basic needs of communities through social and health services catered to diverse communities. On the other side of the spectrum, malls could contribute to complete communities as spaces that are shaped by what communities want, responding to how mall patrons value aspects of the mall as evident by the way they spend their money and direct their support.


When we explore the different future trajectories that could come from the critical uncertainties highlighted, the following scenarios were generated:

Scenario A: “Members Only"

In this future, malls contribute towards complete community by providing basic needs services that are mandated by policies to exist in all malls and that are to be equally distributed between cultural communities within each mall. These regulations “formalize” equality in a way that can be seen as “forced inclusivity”, and that is not necessarily reflective of shifting demographics around the mall, which can sometimes lead to wasted resources. Access to services are policed and monitored based on mall patrons’ engagement with their communities, which pressures patrons to maintain sometimes inauthentic relationships with specific cultures, and leads to program abuse by patrons who claim to be part of many communities.

Scenario Painpoints:

  • Tracking the level of authenticity of memberships as there is pressure through IoS to maintain relationships and the potential for multi-membership abuse.
  • Trying to provide for the diverse needs of many communities is costly and can be sometimes wasteful.

Strategic Options:

  • Have communities design qualitative ways (volunteering their time and engaging in decision making) in which memberships are maintained.
  • Work with communities to understand what their critical common needs are and design services they can share that address those common needs.

Scenario B: “Cultural Turfs"

In this future, malls contribute towards complete community by providing a free open marketplace for authentic cultural expression, to the extent that communities compete with each other for cultural dominance over the marketplace. Community leaders emerge as advocates of their culture for mall resources, leading to clear cultural hierarchy and exclusion from public spaces based on cultural identification. Dominant community bubbles emerge as there is no need to interact with other communities.

Scenario Painpoints:

  • Dominant cultural enclaves might grow to a point where it might make it difficult for other enclaves to exist in that space.
  • There are conflicts between communities vying for the same resources.

Strategic Options:

  • Create a governing board of cultural directors with representatives from different cultural communities with a focus on co-developing a shared identity reinforced by programming that allows communities to better understand each other.
  • Communities that grow to a certain size must invest in resources for emerging communities (“% for culture”).

Scenario C: “One Canada for All"

In this future, malls contribute towards complete community by providing space and basic needs services that support the fulfillment of civic needs. Mall patrons are identified by their city and nation, and the mall itself is a place to celebrate the all things Mississagian and Canadian. The mall  provides citizens with resources, such as utilitarian public services and neutral facilities like professional offices and recreation centres, as well as programming to celebrate broad civic cultural events, enabling patrons to better connect with Canadian culture.

Scenario Painpoints:

  • Newcomers might find it difficult to navigate and access resources as they have yet to assimilate into Canadian culture.
  • A focus on civic services makes it difficult for the wider community to have the space and infrastructure for cultural practices.

Strategic Options:

  • Provide tools to community leaders that allow them to better leverage their informal cultural networks to help newcomers navigate the system of services.
  • Encourage civic institutions (libraries, farmers markets, recreational centres) to partner with cultural communities in the design of cultural programming.

Scenario D: “Marketplace of Cultures"

In this future, malls contribute towards complete community by providing a free open marketplace for novel experiences of remixed cultures. Cultural appropriation is the norm and is seen positively as cultural remixing for mall programming that is developed to appease to popular national and global trends that shape the taste in culture of mall patrons., leading to complete erosion of authentic traditional cultures.

Scenario Painpoints:

  • Cultural appropriation unfairly rewards those who find a way to profit off the cultural products of another community while neglecting to compensate or credit them.
  • The constant remixing of culture results in cultural burnout and high business turnover.

Strategic Options:

  • Mall businesses will be required to articulate how their offering speaks to the history of the communities of the mall and how it plans to build on and contribute into their future.
  • Support businesses in renewing their business models annually to encourage models that are open and flexible enough to adapt to changing trends.

Scenario windtunneling

With the strategic options developed from the pain points identified in each future scenario, we created a strategy-scenario matrix for windtunneling to test whether implementation of those strategic options would be possible and whether each strategy would survive the conditions of these possible futures. We utilized a 0-5 grading system to analyze the strategic options with respect to 4 aspects of each scenario: 1) cultural fit; 2) strategic fit; 3) financial fit; and 4) risks. With 0 representing “no fit” and 5 representing “a very good fit”, we asked the following questions:

Cultural fit: Does the strategic option align with the values and worldviews of stakeholders in this scenario?

Strategic fit: Does the strategic option fit with the how the mall is designed? Does it meet their strategic objectives?

Financial fit: Will this scenario have the resources and capacity to be able to implement this strategic option? and

Risk: Will this scenario put stakeholders in harm? (0 (high risk) – 5 (low risk))

We then ranked the cumulative scores to determine the highest ranked strategic options to be use for crafting provocative tensions ripe for critical discussions that will be highlighted in our foresight walk.

Click to enlarge the full scenario windtunnel chart

Andre Flores

Participants were asked to embody the character of Andre Flores – a newcomer who has moved to Mississauga to care for his aging uncle. In this walk, we get a glimpse of what the experience of newcomers is like in the year 2027 and how suburban malls play a role providing for their needs.

Artifacts from the future

To give further dimensioning to the scenario and the persona we asked participants to embody, we designed artifacts that were to be engaged with throughout the Foresight Walk. Along with the story, these artifacts helped give participants a background context into the life of  the main character, Andre, his aspirations, and the resources he has to meet them. Artifacts were also designed to show how the mall is implementing the strategic options the Foresight Walk aims to explore.

Andre's wallet contains his Canadian work permit, transit pass, bitcoin card and a photo of him and his friends back home in Peru

On the back of his photo is a personal message from his friends

A newcomer community membership is provided by the mall in 2027 as a way to aid newcomers in entering the wider community

A community events board was designed to showcase the different events the mall is a part of in 2027.

Walk and facilitation

During the span of a weekend, a total of 3 walks were executed at the Sheridan Centre mall in Mississauga with over 30 participants ranging from city officials, community representatives and mall visitors. Each engagement session consisted of an introduction of the foresight walk scenario, a 20 minute immersive audio walk and a 30 minute facilitated discussion.

Data and synthesis

There were similarities between all participant groups in their responses to the pre and post-walk questions. It is interesting to note that the pre-walk responses were generally very surface level. Participants mainly viewed the role of the mall as an important shared space with a sense of place. In comparison, the post-walk responses took on a much deeper level of thinking – it was evident that the Foresight Walk experience and discussion have moved participant perspectives beyond the obvious of physical space to involve deeper marginal views.

To understand which future considerations and trends resonated most with participants, we asked them to map parts of the foresight walk where they felt positive or negative about the scenario they were in. These points of resonance would later be discussed during the facilitated discussion.

A scenario resonance matrix was created to organize and synthesize the data collected from the foresight walk participants. In seeing which details of the narrative and interventions resonated most with participants, strategic recommendations could be made in moving forward to future phases in wider engagement and planning processes.