About Aleeya Velji

Aleeya is the Alberta Social Innovation (ABSI) Connect Edmonton Fellow. Check out more stories and insights collected by ABSI Connect at @ABSIConnect or www.absiconnect.ca.

What I’m Learning from the SDX

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the ABSI Connect website.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

Aleeya Velji presenting at the Action Lab. Photo by Ben Weinlick

Twelve months ago, I wandered into the world of social innovation as an ABSI Connect Fellow. I landed in a really hot “hot desk” at Skills Society. Ben, who has a role fostering and developing both a culture and the craft of social innovation with Skills, instantly took me under his wing and without hesitation threw me in. I remember walking into the Skills Society Action Lab thinking: this is where I am going to learn awesome new things.

Ben is the guy that walks the talk. He embodies the concept of learning through action and deep collaboration in everything that he does and he seeks to creatively infuse, learn and engage with all concepts around social innovation. This culture – or way of doing – is now deep in the bones of Skills Society, radiating out  in projects and with the people Skills works with. Ben taught me that in order to work in complexity, we must sometimes stretch ourselves and be uncomfortable in the unknown; we have to simply try because the act of trying pushes us towards a new normal, working with, not against, emergence.

Ben Weinlick presenting at the SDX Community of Practice. Photo by Roya Damabi

Ben Weinlick presenting at the SDX Community of Practice. Photo by Roya Damabi

Recognizing that action supports learning, as well as my desire to learn some tools that support the craft of social innovation, I was invited into co-create and participate in the Systemic Design Exchange (SDX), an Edmonton-based Community of Practice* that convenes individuals from across sectors interested in learning about Systemic Design as a methodology for addressing complex, real world issues!

In response to our  learning during phase one of ABSI Connect, we Fellows suggested 6 pathways that could empower a uniquely Albertan way to put social innovation to work for our Province. I see four of the six ABSI Connect pathways colliding in the formation of SDX:

Screen Shot 2016-09-07 at 10.09.47 AM

To learn more about Systemic Design check out CoLab’s Field Guide “Follow the Rabbit”

At SDX we are building off these ABSI Pathways:

  • Working deeper together
  • Making room for risk taking and experimentation
  • Replacing strategic plans with adaptive processes
  • Mastering our Social Innovation ‘Craft’: refers to an ability to understand the various tools and process from social innovation (think: human-centered design, social labs, prototyping, social finance etc.)

It is emerging and unfolding as a community where deep collaboration is:

  • Truly drawing on and valuing diverse skills;
  • Bringing together various perspectives;
  • Allowing and looking to tackle all challenges through the assets that those around the table bring together; and,
  • Creating spaces for inclusive experimentation, adaptation, and a readiness to move together in response to emergent, radically impactful outcomes.
SDX venn diagram, provided by Skills Society

SDX venn diagram

So what is the SDX?  

With a bias towards learning by doing, and a desire to further develop the craft of social innovation in Alberta, the Alberta CoLab – a permanent, standing design team within the Department of Energy – and Action Lab – a space to think differently and make ideas happen – have come together to create SDX.

Together, we explore systems thinking, design thinking, and change lab approaches as pathways to get at the root causes of our city and province’s complex social, economic and ecological challenges.

SDX aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.

The beauty of bringing together the Action Lab, the CoLab and community is the creation of a space for community and government to design and learn together by sharing expertise that honours the diversity in social innovation approaches.

SDX is infused with a strong community and rooted in action-oriented experiences to advance our learning around social innovation.

SDX is a safe space for learning together and opens up the opportunity to share and understand what levers can be tugged on to support systemic change in our communities and institutions. If you have trouble focus when learning, and worry might not be able to keep the experts pace, consider the Adderall alternatives listed at the Mens Journal website to not fall behind.

“In my 17 years involved in quite a few collaborations and communities of practice, SDX is the first where I’d say it’s really a true collaboration where Community and Government really dig into working together.”  – Ben Weinlick

Hopes for SDX
  • Connect and strengthen networks in the community and across sectors;
  • Getting clearer on the what and the why of systems thinking and design to navigate complex problems;
  • Good mix of theory and learning by doing;
  • Solve World Hunger!…maybe not anytime this year at least…
  • Work hard, have fun, connect, collaborate, spark spin-off projects

Practice communities are formed by people who engage in processes of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour.   (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)

So where does meaningful collaboration really get us?

I am beginning to think about SDX as a systems change catalyst; as a platform that is able to facilitate, build partnerships and create coalitions to engage a wider audience in embedding systems thinking, systemic design, and change lab approaches in their work. SDX is sparking a process and pedagogical shift in how people across sectors consider  social, economic and environmental problems and design pathways to solutions (via inclusive innovation) and outcomes.

SDX respects our communities as dynamic, interconnected, living systems and therefore focuses on building an action-oriented space that facilitates the conversation between government (the space maker) and the community (the knowledge hub). I think government is creating a space for change and community has the opportunity to create innovative solutions that fit in the space that is being created.

When these two spaces collide at the grassroots level, concerns get amplified or heard. Collisions of diverse perspectives bring new energy to bear on the problems we are trying to solve. Collectively, our understanding of a system or a problem deepens to embrace complexity, shaping our work as both a community of practice and in our daily jobs. For those who have a platform to contribute to policy redesign or new programming, exposure to previously unheard ideas or lived experience leaves an indelible impact on their understanding, while learning by doing opens up a world of processes and approaches to co-creatively turn that understanding into meaningful action.

This makes SDX more than a space for new projects, prototypes or programs. There is also the possibility for culture shift, as we share, seed, and cultivate our learning, perspectives, and tools with colleagues, fostering cultures of social innovation both inter- and intra-institutionally. Perhaps this is the next challenge/hope/mission for SDX.

Where have all the tomatoes gone?
Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 11.39.44 AM

The ABSI report was published earlier in the summer. To read the full report click here, or to read the summary report click here.

The meaning and purpose of our community of practice could be likened to a tomato plant. Community collaboration doesn’t try to tug on the seedling to get it to grow faster. It seems the only way forward is focusing on the whole: the water, sun, nutrients, companion plants, air, soil, and everything else that interacts to create a ripe fruit. By hosting the space and inviting cross-sector groups to learn and grow together, we are cultivating something special.

I recently read a medium article where the author wrote; “at the heart of systemic change is the assumption that it cannot be achieved alone.” Our ABSI Connect Phase 1 report similarly reflected that in Alberta, a unifying call to action is: “Whatever we do we must do it together!”

#SDXCoP is an example of true collaboration in action. Together, we are creating a safe space to co-create knowledge, begin infusing systems thinking and human-centered design into our work, and take action on specific challenges.  If we think about our work through a systems lens, we can wonder what might get cultivated at the watering hole.

What are some patterns of interaction that Communities of Practice engage in?
  • They problem solve;
  • Seek experiences and start projects;
  • Get to know the strengths of each member;
  • Allow ideas to collide and build on each other;
  • Discuss developments;
  • They transcend sectoral and professional barriers to bring their whole self to the table, and
  • Map and keep track of knowledge artifacts.

Chrysalis – A Social Innovation Incubator

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on January 28, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

“Creating meaningful solutions starts with gaining a deep understanding of the individual’s need…”
Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

On November 19th, I had the opportunity to visit Chrysalis. To gain a grasp on Chrysalis, its history is important. In 1968, Chrysalis emerged as a Centennial project guided by the University of Alberta. It was created by community members and parents who envisioned adults with disabilities having equal opportunities to be involved in community. Historically, Chrysalis trained adults with developmental disabilities to produce manufactured goods using automated machinery. It was the first of its kind in the world.

Over time, Chrysalis has evolved and now also provides personalized services to help adults with disabilities receive training, develop life and vocational skills, find employment, discover volunteer opportunities and realize a better quality of life.


When designing programs for clients, there are always many questions to ask and answer to understand whether or not programming supports a person’s needs. Above all, Chrysalis asks: How do organizations connect more deeply with the individual’s life to understand how programming can support them?

Staff at Chrysalis recognized that the traditional system of setting up highly structured, top-down programming was inherently chaotic. There were deep barriers around scheduling and pressures on staff to have every detail defined to the exact second. When one thing in the system broke down within the original model, everything fell apart. On top of this rigid and vulnerable approach to services, staff were not even sure if clients enjoyed the programming being offered. Chrysalis staff began to explore other models for supporting individuals in the community.

They landed on ‘Leaders as Designers’


Leaders as designers inherently have to see things differently. Meeting with the leaders at Chrysalis, I learned about programs being co-creatively developed through a human-centred design approach and collective impact model. In discovering how this way of working became a reality, I began to notice that the leadership at Chrysalis understands themselves as those with the ability to think critically and use design to create processes for change.

I think this is happening because the leadership fosters a space for innovation through what John Kotter calls a dual or a secondary operating system. One side of the leadership spectrum is management working with reporting, budgets, and strategic planning in the space of caution, along traditional business lines. Simultaneously, the other side is building relationships and planning by design with the permission to be creative. This is supported through an environment that offers training for staff to think, learn and work in ways that add value by reimagining how programming can be designed. In fact, Kotter suggests the duality should not be in competition, but a confluence of the formal and the informal, if successful transformation is to be achieved.

The duality of this operating system enables Chrysalis to lead as an incubator for social innovation that is creating new ways to develop, design and implement services for the individuals they serve.


Human-centered design is a tool for social innovators, and organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free for more information go to https://novoed.com/design-kit-q1-2016

Organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free.

Human-centred design (HCD) is a creative approach to problem solving that starts with the person and ends with an innovative solution to meet that person’s specific needs. It supports service delivery by better understanding what the individual and his/her/their family or community want. HCD does not claim to solve the root cause of a problem rather it is a process that gives designers and clients the opportunity to try together!

In learning about and understanding HCD, the Fostering Innovation Group emerged at Chrysalis and is what I call the creative nebulous for innovative programming that starts with the person!

Becoming a baker: a client of Chrysalis wanted to work in a bakery. Having a disability created barriers to access whereby the individual was unable to secure employment in a bakery. Staff turned to HCD. Through the process of listening, observing and being open to the unexpected, a new idea was tested and designed for the individual to have the opportunity to bake. This individual was able to bake her own goods and sell them at community fairs across Edmonton.

Using a creative yet structured problem solving process (HCD) develops trusting relationships and builds a strong sense of resiliency among staff and individuals. This culture is supported by strong leaders who preserve the culture of trust, allowing participants in the design process to try things out and fail at first, because they know it takes time, inquiry and iteration to provide meaningful opportunities for people to engage in designing their own solutions.


Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinct. John Kania & Mark Kramer describe collective impact as:

“…the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants” (SSIR, Winter 2011)

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Chrysalis is in the process of using the Collective Impact model to provide improved services to the individuals they serve. In doing the day to day work at Chrysalis, and by interacting with employers and other service agencies, the Chrysalis staff had realized that everyone was operating in silos, while expecting global or broader outcomes. This acknowledged that the expected overall impact was not being met. Unemployment for persons with disabilities has remained at around 80% for many years. So the idea of collective impact was proposed. Chrysalis has managed to garner buy-in with service agencies, employers, and funders for a generative look at the real systemic issues that people face. The outcomes are unknown, yet the vision is strong. As the process continues to unfold, I will keep you updated on how it unravels.


Creating new ways for developing new things is not easy, especially within historically strong and influential organizations. Yet, as the nucleus of innovation works in parallel with the traditional operating system at Chrysalis, the positive results speak for themselves and make the case for continuing to support HCD approaches and processes internally.

Embedded HCD as a change process within Chrysalis has led to the discovery of hidden talents among staff, a shift away from resistance to change towards an embrace of HCD among individuals’ parents, and a renewed sense of positivity, knowing individuals are participating in outcomes they want to see for themselves and being included in a process that supports their own vision of a good life.

As social innovation continues to grow in the province of Alberta, how do we begin to create a culture among organizations where it is “cool” to do things differently and place people and innovation at the heart of the how we design social change? Perhaps in the spirit of Chrysalis, this is our project for 2017 and Canada’s sesquicentennial.

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