United Way uses AR to make poverty ‘unignorable’

From the Tech newsletter: A virtual building dwarfs the CN Tower to show the scale of homelessness in Toronto.


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The United Way Greater Toronto has constructed a virtual tower big enough to shelter the 116,000 GTA families and individuals struggling to put a roof over their heads , as a way of drawing attention to their plight.

The fundraising organization, along with its AOR Taxi, created the “#Unignorable Tower” using augmented reality. Designed in consultation with architecture firm KPMB, the virtual building casts a shadow over the CN Tower, as it is almost three times its height. In addition to visualizing the thousands struggling to put a roof over their heads in Toronto, the app also educates users about the growing issue of poverty and includes a direct link for donations.

Though the app can be used throughout Toronto, activation sites have been placed in locations that offer notable vantage points, urging people to experience the virtual building while the skyline is in view.

Supporting the effort is OOH strategically placed near Notice of Development boards on the many current and future building sites around Toronto. The organization also targeted residents of the GTA through a variety of other media channels, including an exhibit in the city’s banking district featuring a maquette, a scale model of the tower and 3D renderings by design studio Norm Li.


The first phase of the “#Unignorable” campaign launched last year, with the United Way working with the Pantone Color Institute to develop a custom hue that was used to literally highlight the social issues the non-profit works to address (it also won 2019 Campaign of the Year at Wednesday’s Agency of the Year gala). Daniele Zanotti, president and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto, tells strategy that the campaign is based on the idea that you cannot solve a problem if you don’t know it exists.

“Statistics, particularly this big a number, can be difficult for people to wrap their heads around,” Zanotti says, who adds that, with one in seven residents struggling with housing, the region is “the inequality and child poverty capital of Canada.”

While the app does have a donation element, Zanotti says this is not about “fundraising our way out of problems.” Rather, the organization is trying to build the “civic muscle” and public will to address the issue, which is done through something that helps citizen engage with an issue and understand it better.

“AR was a way to help people visualize something that goes unnoticed, and to do it in an innovative way,” he says. “We are always trying to move [messages] in front of people in different ways, but the move to AR is about people engaging with the tower. The issue [of precarious housing] is driving the intervention. People needed to see the tower and hear concrete solutions about the housing situation.”