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Mike Davis is in the business of doing business differently

Posted by Emily MacKinnon on May 30, 2024 in News
Socially minded consultant and Aurum Award 2024 winner Mike Davis (BEng’01, MEng’08) is focusing on building trust, understanding complex social issues, and working collaboratively to find innovative solutions to complex problems.
Socially minded consultant and Aurum Award 2024 winner Mike Davis (BEng’01, MEng’08) is focusing on building trust, understanding complex social issues, and working collaboratively to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Mike Davis (BEng’01, MEng’08) is the first to admit that he comes from an enormous amount of privilege, and that his intention is to use it to support those with less privilege.

Whether through his work at Davis Pier Consulting, helping an elderly couple pay the parking meters outside his downtown office or volunteering his time with the Kids Help Phone board of directors, Davis lives by the principle that empathy paves the best path forward.

It can be tricky to encapsulate what exactly a consulting firm like the firm he founded, Davis Pier Consulting, does. “So much of the work we do is trying to be a voice, almost a translator, between government and community,” Davis explains.

“Community” in this context can mean any number of groups of people: those trying to access government services like long-term disability or income assistance (where Davis Pier’s offshoot Pier Labs would offer service and program design); those living in neighbourhoods where new developments are being proposed (where Davis Pier might suggest ways to incorporate human-centred design and collaboration); or those who need help with the organization or structure of a business (where change management and business architecture advising might be offered).

Watch the video for 2024 Aurum Award recipient, Mike Davis.


Solutions, not advice

At 10 years old, Davis Pier is still considered a baby in the business world. But it’s grown, matured and evolved exponentially over the last decade. “The first few years of the company, we were a very traditional consulting firm,” he remembers. “And then I had a Jerry Maguire moment where I was like, ‘What are we doing?’ We had this thing — a ‘successful business’ — but how were we going to have a bigger impact?”

Davis has since gained a better appreciation for the role his organization can have helping marginalized communities get their points across with government. He’s worked hard to make Davis Pier a trusted source.

"We've evolved [to have] much more social impact,” he says. “We play an important role in helping residents understand what government is trying to do and understand the complexity of the government’s job, which is often quite nuanced and complicated.”

Advocacy in action

Flashback to 2017. The challenge: address food insecurity in Amherst, N.S.

Davis knew the typical stakeholder consultation process involved offering bitter coffee at a community centre from 6 to 8 p.m. and asking folks to drop in and share their suggestions. Drawing on his STEM background, Davis decided to try something different: failing fast.

The concept of failing fast is frequently applied to startups and involves putting out scrappy prototypes and minimum viable products to collect feedback and information, which is then used to improve the product.

“We worked through several concepts, picked one, designed it with community input, considered what local assets were in place, and then we prototyped it for three months,” he says. In the end, they designed a service all users loved, that also improved their access to healthier food options. The fact that the solution was designed with community input meant it served the needs the community decided on, not needs that were decided for them. And that has been a lodestar for Davis Pier ever since.

Using STEM to inform community work

In a political climate that can get very hot very quickly, Davis is quick to point out Davis Pier’s role is to find solutions that work for all parties, not just to offer advice. “A big part of our standard approach now goes past engagement,” he says. “It goes into community research and participatory design. It goes into involving residents or clients of a system in a more meaningful way.”

That approach ensures better, longer-lasting results and is informed (at least partly) by Davis’s own education. “A lot of what I learned from my engineering degrees at Dal was how to frame a problem, how to think through analysis, what efficiency looks like and how to model solutions,” he says.

After Dal, he earned a degree in behavioural economics from the London School of Economics. “I went back to school because I wanted to understand behavioral science so we can predict what humans will do or won't do in certain situations,” he says. Today his STEM and social science educations combine to give him a perspective few others have.

Mike Davis sits at a desk in an office smiling up from his laptop.

Kids Help Phone

Davis’s interest in behavioural economics and societal impact dovetail in his role at Kids Help Phone (KHP). While the mental health support line has been in operation since 1989, Davis says there’s a DNA of innovation at KHP that is helping it grow faster than ever. Calls and texts to KHP spiked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and they haven’t trended downward since.

Davis is Chair of Youth Experience and Innovation Committee Vice Chair at the organization.

“Everything we are trying to do at Davis Pier is about innovating health and social services, and KHP is an integral part of the fabric of youth mental health service across the country.”

Showing up

Ultimately, the thread connecting all of Davis’s work is authenticity. “I don't show up in any rooms differently,” he says. “And I think that's important. Whether I'm with clients or doing an interview or I’m with my kids, I’m the same Mike Davis.”