The Banff Ideas Bank

                                                                                            Where do you deposit your ideas? 

In Banff, we see a lot of people coming out with great enthusiasm and passion for bike races, or festival events, but not so when it comes to sharing ideas in public forums.” - Colin Funk


The central purpose of the Banff Ideas Bank is to help citizens become more comfortable and familiar with participating in the public process. Modelled after the Global Ideas Bank  in London, this initiative came to life to encourage citizens to engage with the community and municipality of Banff.

The idea for developing the Bank originally grew out of  the Leadership Learning Lab at the Banff Centre in and evolved as an opportunity for the Banff community to rethink how dialogue around municipal decision making could better involve community.  

The ‘Bank’ hosts a monthly “conversation café” based on a variety of local issues and topics determined by participants,motivating individuals to practice direct public engagement  and allowing the municipality to connect with the public through a softer ‘coffee house’ approach.

Part suggestion box, part ideas network, and part democratic think-tank, giving the ‘ordinary’ person a chance to have their creativity recognized, rewarded, and even put into practice.” - Banff Ideas Bank Website

The Banff Ideas Bank has been running since 2010 and in five years it has influenced the local culture of citizen engagement with municipal government through a dialogical process.

The Banff Ideas Bank is not overly concerned with outputs, but rather focuses on fostering dialogue. It is a space to generate ideas where priority suggestions are filtered toward decision makers. On an annual basis, 50 of the community’s top ideas are published in the Banff local newspaper to showcase what engaged citizens are thinking about.

The Process

Every conversation café is based around an engaging and provocative question. For example:“If Banff was a human who would it be?”  To help “peel back” the question, participants are asked to think about the issue broadly from multiple perspectives. The process looks something like this:

1.  Observe the question through a personal lens

2. Broaden the question to a community lens

3. Expand the question to a national lens

4. Scale the question to a global perspective

5. Bring the question back to a personal lens with an action-oriented focus

Starting from the personal and then expanding outward gives participants the opportunity to understand the scope, scale, and complexity of the issues they’re considering.

Encapsulated within a serious, yet playful culture, the conversation cafés are both formal and informal environments. Participants come with a desire to chat about the issues at hand. Through deep inquiry, they leave thinking about issues from a critical perspective, as well as build new and deeper relationships with individuals in community.  


Learning along the way…

When introducing something new into a bustling and dynamic community like Banff, AB (located in the first national park of  Canada!), it is inevitable that the organizers would  face a few challenges. Some lessons the Banff Ideas Bank learned along the way include:


  1. Curbing Competition:  Banff is a fun place to be. It has a lively night life, a beautiful physical environment, and a young population. As there are so many things to do, it was a challenge at times to get people out to the  conversation cafes. Word of mouth became a powerful tool.

  2. Public Perception of the Conversations Cafe: People often think of public meetings as places where people talk with little movement towards  action. Building the notion that the cafe was a way to build off of, and grow from, what the community has to say became valuable in shifting the public idea of what could happen within or through the public meeting process.

  3. Gaining Trust:  When discussing community issues, the Banff Ideas Bank uses a process of thinking deeply and critically about an issue. Initially, the municipal government was hesitant about the process, not trusting the unconventional process of the cafe. Through an open door policy, municipal stakeholders had the opportunity to learn and eventually lend support for ideas to move forward.

  4. Neutrality of Common Space - Questions posed in the cafe are often rooted in meaty issues that affect diverse groups of people; for example: the Bank once posed a question around the “Idle No More” movement. Choosing a space where people feel safe, and comfortable in expressing their views is invaluable; it supports positive and action oriented conversation, even around thorny subjects. In the instance of the Idle No More discussion, the Bank  hosted the conversation in a Parks Canada building, changing locations was tried in efforts to bring in new voices, Space has interests and this can have an effect on conversation. Outdoor gatherings are also often considered safe and neutral.

  5. Developing an Online Presence: Integrating the ideas generated in the “conversation café”within an online platform helps to establish and maintain community understanding of, support for, and traction for the ideas.


Lasting Impacts…

The Banff Ideas Bank began  as a critical connector and convener, bringing community together to reimagine how to contribute to municipal decision making processes. Over the course of five years, thousands of ideas have been generated, a pool of active critical thinkers has developed, and lasting friendships have formed.

This has created a new community development model enabling citizens to more effectively engage in how their municipality makes decisions. For example, this new layer of active, engaged ‘civil community’ influenced the recent implementation of bike lanes, innovative crosswalks, pedestrian friendly spaces and street calming measures in the town of Banff.

Transforming the culture of citizen engagement with municipal government around decision making has lasting impacts on a community.

The Banff Ideas Bank is in the process of scaling. There is a new chapter developing on Cortes, British Columbia, a smaller community with different issues to tackle. The power of dialogue to shift culture around citizen engagement is a powerful force. We will keep you updated on what is happening on Cortes.