10 Books I Read While Building Shift Development

Shift Development is a company that loves ideas, especially new and unconventional ones.

Our team is regularly passing interesting books around the office, and it's great because reading about new ideas helps break us out of our routines, our automated thinking, and well-worn habits.

Interesting ideas stir things up, shift our thinking, and help us check our assumptions. And some books hold ideas that can leave a lasting impact. So, with that in mind, I wanted to share a list of my favourite all time books that have stuck with me for months and years. These are the books that have absolutely influenced the direction and values of Shift Development and have a permanent place in our company's modest library. Enjoy!

1. Cradle to Cradle

Our landfills are becoming increasingly crowded with products designed with a cradle-to-grave approach—with materials that have little use or opportunities for recycling at the end of a product’s life cycle. The authors want to revolutionize such design with a cradle-to-cradle approach that easily recovers and reuses products. The physical book is a living example, with pages made from plastic (yogurt containers), vegetable based ink that is recovered using hot water (not chemical solvents) and adhesives that are also recyclable. This is one of the few books that I can say "transformed" how I think about the materials we consume and use in our projects. 

2. The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I read Jane Jacob’s seminal work while living in the Fairbanks Warehouse in downtown Saskatoon. While the entire book is chock full of wisdom, there are two major ideas that I still quote regularly in conversations about city building. The first is that new ideas require old buildings (cheap rent). The second? That local shops not only provide security, but also are the bedrock of community. While living in the Fairbanks Warehouse, we discovered a vibrant community that grew out from Caffe Sola. Despite being surrounded by gravel parking lots and automotive repair shops, we had a much stronger sense of community through the cafe than I'd ever experienced growing up in Saskatoon.

3. A Pattern Language

This is the book I keep beside my bed and refer back to more than any other book on architecture and design. It's broken up into 253 chapters, each dealing with one specific aspect of healthy design going from the macro scale of neighborhood size down to the details of window trim, and everything that lies in between. I find that it always plays an important role at the start of designing any project we undertake. 

4. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, And The Quest For A Fantastic Future

This past summer, I became totally captivated by this study of Elon Musk's exceptional vision for the future of the human race. Having pioneered online payments through PayPal, electric vehicles through Tesla, and reusable rockets via SpaceX, he has led the disruption of three longstanding industries, putting him in a class of his own. It's truly an inspiring story and has sold me on the idea that electric vehicles are a necessity for us. 

Read the blog Wait but Why if you want a more entertaining version of the Elon Musk story. It is one of the longest blogs you'll read, but it's loaded with with wit and humour.

5. The Carbon Bubble

The clock is ticking on our carbon budget, and Rubin is the guy to explain how radically this will change the economics of every industry we currently depend on. Looking into Canada’s economic future, he predicts how climate change will leave much of our country’s carbon unburnable—making some of our other assets like water and land more valuable. It’s an important read for those wanting to be on the leading edge of a global transformation.

6. Happy City

At the heart of Charles Montgomery’s book is a question that we at Shift Development spend a lot of time pondering: How can the design of our cities foster higher degrees of human happiness? It turns out that—contrary to the current trajectory of our city’s urban planners—more bridges is not the correct answer. I loved the book so much we bought 20 copies for my office and have a standing offer to loan them out to anyone who is interested in reading it. (Actually, we initially bought one copy for every city councillor…) Drop us a line if you want to take us up on the offer.

7. Green Urbanism - Learning From European Cities

I read this in 2000 while I was pursuing an Engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan, and it cemented my beliefs about how we should be building our cities in North America.  By learning from 25 of the most innovative European cities, the author summarizes how effective land use planning, tax policies, environmental strategies and active transportation can and should alter our development path. This book is the reason why I'm deeply engaged in discussions with city administration, councillors and the Business Improvement Districts about the future of the city. Our policies and bylaws matter, and right now there is a tremendous need to strip away layers of rules and bureaucracy that actually prevent smart growth in our city. Hmmmm…did someone say it’s an election year in Sasktoon?

8. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future

As I read the TRC report, I began to understand the depth and breadth of the damage that has been done to the social fabric of Canada's First Nations and Aboriginal population in Canada. We live and work in neighbourhoods with a high First Nations population—and consider that one of the neighbourhood’s strongest assets. It means we’re lucky enough to have opportunities to learn about Indigenous culture and form relationships and friendships that enrich our lives. While the answers don’t come easy, the TRC offers us a starting point for continuing to listen and learn from the Indigenous community and find ways to honour the treaties and foster reconciliation. It’s one of the reasons we founded Riversdale Love and are partnering with people and organizations who share a vision for change.

9. The Grow Home

Avi Friedman introduced a new level of housing affordability in Montreal by co-designing a narrow-front row house that gave buyers room to expand and build out the home over time. The book is concise but revolutionary in its time. When we designed The Two Twenty, we thought about how businesses grow and evolve into different needs over time, and tried creating spaces to accommodate those shifts. We incorporated some of the key principles into the design of our Mosaic condo project in 2013, as well.

10. The Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

My wife and I devoured this document when we discovered it—around the time we left Victoria and returned to Saskatoon in 2005. It’s full of thoughts and ideas, but the most often repeated one in our home is manifesto item #34: make mistakes faster. It helped me realize the importance of experimentation—and that trying to impress people or fearing failure can get in the way of working towards a compelling vision. The manifesto has deeply influenced the design of The Two Twenty and the collaborative spirit that runs through our office.