Four-year project teaches and inspires us

Every once in a while, a project comes along that feels transformative.

It challenges what we know as consumers and as communicators. It affects our choices and behaviours. It reminds us that we can be part of something with long-term impact; something that matters.

In late 2018, we were invited to develop branding and messaging for a City of Guelph/County of Wellington bid to secure a four-year, $10 million federal Smart Cities Challenge grant to develop the region’s first modern circular food economy.

We know: circular what, exactly? It is an age-old practice, but in the modern and decidedly linear and wasteful food system, it’s obscure, too. Our first challenge: help the community understand what the project was all about. Our Food Future was born.

The pitch in Ottawa was successful and by December 2019, a leadership team and bold strategic plan were in place. Over four years, the work would meet three goals: increase community access to affordable, nutritious food that might otherwise be thrown away; reduce waste across the food system from farm to plate; and inspire new businesses and social enterprises with ideas that are rooted in the circular economy.

Our team was honoured to stay on board as the project’s communications and design leads, working alongside more than 150 food experts and community collaborators. We were, well, hungry to learn, and excited to help get the word out.

Fast forward to a bittersweet day in January 2024 as the four-year project wrapped up and a lot of now close friends parted professional ways. In that tumultuous four-year period, projects pivoted in a pandemic, new learnings inspired change, goals were met and exceeded, and Guelph-Wellington garnered international recognition and praise. The brilliant people who led the work moved onto new challenges knowing that the principles of the circular economy are firmly embedded in municipal plans and policies, more than 100 new circular businesses are contributing economic impact in the community, and dozens of new food access initiatives are serving the community. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that will live on. We’re awfully proud to know the folks who got us here.

Some things we learned along the way:

  • Collaborate effectively
    Collaboration is important, and it’s hard. This was by far the largest joint initiative of Guelph and Wellington County’s local governments. But the whole idea is that they were just holding the wheel while the power in the engine came from the 100+ individuals or organizations that all played a role in the program’s success. Not only did this require a steady commitment to keeping that group up to speed and motivated about the work, but “creativity by committee” was frequent. As any designer will tell you, that can be overwhelming and even stagnating. It required exceptional listening, top notch gathering and distillation skills, clear and informed communications guidance, and plenty of patience.
  • Present complex concepts in a way people can absorb
    We had to present complex intersecting concepts such as how materials flow through the food system and where the waste hotspots occur, and the imperative idea that real change had to come not only from consumers adjusting our behaviours, but through system-level change that requires policy and political will. Strong use of visuals and focusing on specific examples rather than broad concepts proved helpful, as did equipping the right messenger with the right message.
  • Balance the big picture with individual stories
    Harnessing the sheer magnitude and scale of the work was also a challenge. Several dozen research activities, demonstration projects, business incubation efforts and household engagement programs were in play at any one time. This meant striking a balance between painting the big picture and keeping our emphasis on telling the small, individual stories that people could connect with. Storytelling was a wonderful arrow in our communications quiver, and connecting with those people to share their experiences was among the most gratifying work we did on this project.
  • Maintain momentum
    While research demonstrated that sweeping change at the industry level is the only way forward into a truly circular economy, public support and action are essential to create a movement that drives these actions. How to maintain momentum over four years (and during a pandemic?) Drip campaigns promoting micro-actions at the household level—how to grow a food garden at home, easy tips to reduce food waste over the holidays—helped connect the community to the project in tangible ways.
  • Equip your influencers
    We also realized the importance of equipping our community’s business and political leaders with precise, public-friendly messaging and materials that focused as much on the ‘what’ as the impact – how the work was making a tangible difference. The impact graphic tiles included with this article were updated frequently as the work continued, and proved to be a foundational communication asset.

The great news is that these and other lessons will guide our future work with other community pioneers who are leading change and improving the world we live it. What fun it is to be on the ride with them.

Learn more at and read Seeding Circularity in Communities, the final report written in magazine format and including the voices of many of the great organizations that made this project such a whopping success.

Contact M
Contact M