About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 3 — Deepening involvement with and connections between practitioners, policymakers, funders and the international community

Author’s Note:

This is the last of a three-part blog post series with the  helps of the professional from Best Website Hosting documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of our social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported. The purpose of this series is to candidly share our journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others.

This post, as the last of three, focuses on phase 3 (read phase 2 blog here) — deepening relationships with and demonstrating value for practitioners, policymakers, funders and the international community. This phase was about raising awareness with the grantmaking and funding community, and adding new layers of connectivity for practitioner community. This phase also had an international dimension, including engagements with innovation ecosystems in Silicon Valley, UAE, UK, and with the UNDP network. It included milestones like the ‘How Can We Support R&D in Canada’s Social Sector?’ report that highlighted actionable recommendations for funders, the ‘Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D’, the 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering, social R&D being included in Government of Canada’s social innovation and social finance strategy consultation document, and an experimental fund hosted by McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada to support social R&D.

Note: This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet – learn by doing. If you are a fan of online gaming, there has never been a better time to look at all the online casino gaming options available to you. Canadian players have more options than ever for example the Casino Canada Online, where you can find exciting games, welcome bonus options including free spins and real money, exciting slots, and more. You can also visit https://clubvip777.com/casino/ for many of exciting games.

Social R&D is not an opportunity, but a necessity today in the social change field,” said one practitioner.

We knew the practice was getting real. The term ‘social R&D’ began to gain traction. Not only that, practitioners began to see it as essential to their organizations’ core mission and work. As the wise Al Etmanski would say, social R&D was beginning to “enter the water supply.” In phase two (read blog here) of this ecosystem-catalyzing work, we developed, tested and demonstrated the demand for a peer-to-peer learning, coaching and exchange environment. For phase three, we decided to deepen involvement along four channels of activity: first, practitioner interaction and learning; second, grantmaker awareness and engagement, third, informing federal social innovation policy development, and fourth, learning from international innovation ecosystems.

Phase 3 also welcomed Jason Pearman as a SiG Fellow on interchange from the federal public service in June 2017. Jason had just wrapped up a two-year mandate with Natural Resources Canada to help the department experiment with novel policy tools. Jason’s primary focus was to lead the practitioner interactions and learning channel. My primary focus in this phase was to lead the work around enhancing R&D literacy among grantmakers, learning from international innovation ecosystems, and informing federal public policy.

Channel 1: Practitioner interaction and learning

As part of the work in the practitioner interaction and learning, we hosted the second social R&D Practice Gathering in summer 2017. Like the 2016 practice gathering, the program was purpose-designed for practitioners from diverse domains and geographies to share insights, learn about each other’s experiments, build relationships, coach each other as peers, and cross-pollinate methods and practices. There were a few changes we tested; we doubled the size of the gathering (again demand was well over available spots), we compressed the time together (2.5-days versus 4-days), we invited funders like the United Way/Centraide, the Toronto Foundation, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to send grantee partners, and we introduced more time for demos and unstructured relationship building. We also hosted a special session at the gathering for members of the Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy co-creation steering group so that practitioners could share what would help them do their best work. The results from the Gathering were promising: 97% of attendees met someone new, 83% learned something new, and 71% gained a new perspective from another sector or discipline or region. We had validated the demand. Seeds of a peer network were sown. To this day, practitioners engage with and support one another in their work – whether it’s the frequent calls between Shift Lab and The Winnipeg Boldness Project teams to compare notes, or the InWithForward and Grantbook crew getting together to mock-up principles for a data commons. In addition to the in-person gatherings, we continue to test other means of keeping the community connected: Radicle – a digital digest on examples of compelling R&D, telephone conference calls, a Social R&D Slack channel, etc.

Channel 2: Grantmaker awareness and engagement

A growing number of non-governmental funders and grantmakers were keen to better understand social R&D and consider funding and integrating supports for grantees. In the spring of 2017, SiG hosted a roundtable that convened funders like Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada Council for the Arts, RBC Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, The MATCH International Women’s Fund, Ontario Trillium Foundation and among others to highlight the value of investment in R&D alongside funding program delivery. Long established social service agency funders like United Way Centraide and Community Foundations were also invited. At the roundtable, practitioners from Teach for Canada, Exeko, Grounded Space, and Skills Society shared their perspectives and experiences regarding the state of social R&D funding in Canada and how social innovations are weaker due to weak R&D capacity and lack of embedded R&D infrastructure. The roundtable also helped to organizations around the table to see each other’s points of view, as practitioners and grantmakers had never had an exchange on this topic. Given that Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta, wrote the Foreword for Getting to Moonshot, we invited him to speak about why it is both important and urgent to make social R&D funding mainstream among the Canadian grantmaker community. In November 2017, McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada jointly announced a catalytic opportunity, a experimental new fund for social R&D. The fund now supports R&D projects in 33 organizations including: Powered by Data, Inspire Nunavut, WEST Neighbourhood House, and Canadian Blind Hockey. I believe this experimental funding initiative has the potential to transform the social R&D funding landscape.

Channel 3: Informing Federal social innovation policy development

Kicking off in early 2017, Government of Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy co-creation process has the opportunity to be inclusive of and meaningfully advance social R&D. While Canada’s social sector, consisting of approximately 180,000 organizations, represents 8.1 per cent of the GDP, it remains one of the least supported sectors in terms of access to R&D infrastructure, capacity and capital. Simply put, despite its ongoing demonstrated value to Canadians, the social sector has been locked out of Canada’s R&D system. Over the course of 2017, SiG actively engaged with Employment and Social Development Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in their respective strategy consultation processes, including the consultation session at the 2017 social R&D Practice Gathering. Based on conversations with practitioners, we put together a set of policy recommendations to serve as a helpful base document. We also facilitated conversations between public servants and practitioners to better inform social innovation policy development through meetings, demos, and participation in the federal government’s inaugural Policy Community Conference. Following over a year of working with the practitioner community to inform the strategy process, it was wonderful to see social R&D included in the input document for the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy.

Channel 4: Learning from international innovation ecosystems

The final channel of activity in phase 3 was engaging with and learning from international innovation ecosystems. Ecosystem building gurus like Tim Draimin remind me that an integral part of catalyzing a domestic ecosystem is to listen to, learn from, and build relationships with ones beyond our borders. Canada’s journey to grow R&D capacity in the social sector is complemented by growth of social R&D around the world. Individuals like Geoff Mulgan from Nesta wrote about the importance of social R&D for the next decade and organizations like the Skoll Foundation have written about the importance of investment in social R&D for social enterprise. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE Foundation in California, notable institutions that catalyze innovation, also noted in his blog, “running great experiments and building a culture of experimentation are crucial for driving breakthroughs in your organization.” So, since January 2017, as part of learning from international ecosystems, I spent some time each month in the San Francisco Bay Area, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem to better understand: their culture of experimentation, how organizations structure themselves to pursue R&D, and the role of grantmakers in supporting R&D. The two questions I pursued were: first, as we help create the conditions for a vibrant social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem teach us, and second, how might we begin to bridge the two ecosystems for exchange and mutual learning? In Silicon Valley, I spent time with mission-oriented startups like HandUp and Year Up, innovation outposts like Swissnex and Unicef innovation, community hubs like Impact Hub, accelerators like Fast Forward, funders like Tipping Point Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and institutes like Long Now Foundation, Institute for the Future, and Singularity University. My takeaways in Silicon Valley are captured in a first set of field notes on hive culture and a second set of field notes on what drives experimentation.

In addition to producing the field notes, we began to build relationships and bridges: I led the formation of a partnership with the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), the world’s leading publication for social innovation to curate a first-of-its-kind supplement entitled ‘Canadian Innovation in an Age of Acceleration’ in the Winter 2018 issue focused on Canadian social innovation along with SiG, Community Foundations of Canada and McConnell Foundation. The supplement featured Canadian social innovations in food security, newcomer settlement, digital philanthropy, social finance, among others. We hosted Renuka Kher, founder of Tipping Point’s R&D lab, based in San Francisco at the 2017 social R&D Practice Gathering where she spoke about her journey of founding the lab and how it supports their grantees to grow in-house experimentation capacity. We also plugged into the UNDP innovation network through UNDP’s Innovation Days conference, where I spoke about Canada’s work to embed R&D and I had terrific exchanges with experimenters from around the world. The learnings are captured in a blog post. Overall, the language of R&D resonated internationally and while there is much to be learned from the global community, they are looking to Canada’s leadership to catalyze an enabling ecosystem for social R&D – one that connects globally.

Canadian delegation at Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s inaugural Innovation Conference

So, here we are after two years. With a growing practitioner community, increasing voice in the policy space, grantmakers trying out ways to fund R&D, and international community looking to Canada, we cannot stop now. Our work in 2018 will focus on exploring solutions to address remaining gaps in infrastructure for social R&D: mainly the availability and retention of specialized talent, the story telling/storycrafting needed to mainstream this emergent practice, the data systems and protocols to share insights across organizations and geographies, and formalizing support for the social R&D practitioner community beyond the SiG Fellowship (there is a unique opportunity through the co-creation of the Government of Canada’s social innovation and social finance strategy to support R&D in the sector for the long-term).

Over two years of field-catalyzing has shown us that the case for this is simple: in order to address complex social challenges in our communities and our country, social sector organizations need to generate strong and sustainable social innovations. Strong social innovations require strong capacity, investment and infrastructure for social R&D.


1. Create the conditions that solicit policy recommendations

Social R&D is an emerging field and community with a short history, and does not have a mature or sophisticated advocacy vehicle. Therefore, social R&D would not be on the radar for any policy input or consultations. Don’t dwell on that. Find ways to actively create the conditions for conversation with policymakers to solicit recommendations.

2. Let practitioners tell their stories of struggle

Set the stage and get out of the way. That’s as simple as I could articulate it. Ecosystem catalysts can talk about the possibilities of “connecting the dots” or “building the field” but we actively need to create room for practitioners to share their struggles with grantmakers and policymakers themselves.

3. Attach R&D to a global agenda

International interest helps to accelerate domestic adoption. Although we focused on seeding initial conditions for a social R&D ecosystem in Canada, we learned the value of connecting R&D to global agendas – a key global narrative was the potential for R&D to make significant advancements to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This dimension has attracted interest from leaders and practitioners abroad as well as the international community within Canada.

4. Like collaboration, peer-learning moves at the speed of trust

Social R&D is emergent in Canada. There are curricula under development to help individuals and organizations explore the mindsets and supportive tools, but learning to apply R&D in complex environments and within organizations may best be achieved via learn-by-doing and peer coaching. Feedback from practitioners suggests that the peer coaching is especially valuable, and that it’s been highly reliant on the relationships and trust. The in-person and digital convenings that have been held over the last two years have been key inputs for getting the community gelling.

Signs and Signals to Notice

1. What does the hype cycle look like?

Gartner produces a “hype cycle” for technology every year. It tells you what technologies are emerging, which ones might be fads and which ones are one their way to mass adoption. Similarly, you could also plot methods and tools used in the social sector on a “hype cycle.” Yesterday, randomized control trials was hot, today its human centred design and tomorrow, it might be behavioural science. In the absence of a third-party mapping out what’s hype and what isn’t, cultivating the discipline to be inclusive of methods and tools is key to fostering a community for the long-term.

2. How are incumbent organizations looking to contribute?

It can be tempting to focus attention and energy with edgy organizations and miss signals of interest and involvement that more mature organizations send. Incumbents add huge value to ecosystems; they can be anchor organizations, can mobilize people, and exercise influence to tip a system. Stay attuned to their interests and engage them along the way.

3. What is the minimum viable product?

When testing something new (e.g. a fund), translate the long-term vision for the fund into the first thing you can develop and test. Listen to the potential funder’s strategic interests while also bringing them along the vision. Maintaining the balance between what the funder expects and crafting something that is unique and can meaningfully add value to practitioners is imperative.


1. Why didn’t you pursue any policy work at the provincial level?

This is one we received often as many of the practitioners pursue R&D that can inform public policy development at the provincial level, as examples, with social services or public health interventions. There were a couple of factors that drove this; the announcement of the development of the federal innovation policy, led by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the social innovation and social finance strategy, led by Employment and Social Development Canada. These opportunities and practitioners’ interest in a pan-Canadian community led us to focus more federally.

2. Who gets to be part of the community?

To date, the social R&D community is open-ended and self-selected. While the focus of the SiG fellowship was strengthening conditions for R&D in the not-for-profit sector, there is an understanding that catalyzing a multi-sector practitioner community can be of value as today’s social issue interventions cut across sectors. The community today is made up of practitioners in academic, not-for-profit, public and private sectors as well as grantmakers and sector leaders who are invested in or actively applying the art and science of research and experimental methods on the frontline. To receive news and invitations to events and gatherings, sign up here. (In addition to the above, we provide some light animation to alumni of the Social R&D Practice Gatherings.)

3. Why was Silicon Valley ecosystem important at this stage?

For a couple of reasons: first, it is the world’s largest R&D ecosystem focused on next generation products and services. Companies and governments from around the world have an innovation outpost there. Learning about the makeup of the innovation ecosystem might offer us clues for catalyzing ecosystems that have longevity. Two, given the increasingly integration of technology in all sectors, including the social sector, it could be useful to learn about how social mission organizations can embed data and technology into R&D.

4. How can this work be sustained beyond the fellowship?

In our ecosystem building efforts through 2016 and 2017 we’ve worked with R&D practitioners and others to explore and test infrastructure that could help advance this discipline, boost its legitimacy, and increase adoption in a more systematic way. We’re starting to see what works, and more importantly, there is now a community consolidated around this work. Moving forward, Jason will help the community plug into the feasibility study for the next social innovation ecosystem support organization as well as the Government of Canada Social Innovation / Social Finance Strategy development process in order to advocate for the supports that will enable social R&D to be practiced in an impactful and sustainable way.

There are also early explorations on applying the lessons from the Fellowship to catalyze micro-social R&D ecosystems in specific domain areas like youth homelessness, mental health, urban sustainability and community resilience, and other issue areas where partner organizations are looking to strengthen their pipeline of social innovations.


Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 2 — Conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning

As my SiG fellowship wraps at the end of December 2017, this is the second of a three-part blog post series documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of a social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported by Social Innovation Generation (SiG). The purpose of this series is to candidly share that journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others. If you are looking for the Top Real Estate Agents in Canada, in https://getagent.ca/ you can find all what you need

This post, as two of three, focuses on Phase 2 — conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning. This phase was about empowering a collective ecosystem-catalyzing process, identifying positive deviants in the social sector and understanding their R&D practices and needs, creating an enabling environment for practitioner peer-to-peer exchange, coaching and learning, and beginning to inform federal innovation policy development.

Note: This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet — learn by doing.

During my work with former Governor General David Johnston to develop the Rideau Hall Foundation, Mr. Johnston frequently referenced “barn raising” in meetings as an example of the great potential enabled by galvanizing collective energy and to demonstrate that one of Canada’s strengths is collaborating to build things together. Given the collective energy and aspiration following the first convening on R&D in the social sector in 2015 (read more in the first blog of this series), I felt that catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem must similarly be a collective effort. I took a page from the former Governor General’s book and attempted to foster a “barn raising” effort.

As I thought more about this approach, I met and spoke with more sector leaders, practitioners, policy makers, funders, and other passionate people across the country to share the Declaration of Action, add more signatories and invite them to participate in the collective build.

As the community interested in working together grew, there were two distinct sets of interests and strengths for the collective build. First, there were people interested in development, who became the development group, comprised largely of practitioners who wanted to work shoulder to shoulder on the ecosystem itself and lead the development of its diverse components. Second, there were people interested and ready for stewardship, who became the stewardship group, comprised largely of sector leaders and funders who would champion and advise the work of the development group. The idea was that these two groups could support one another and work in tandem through the collective ecosystem build process. We planned a two-day meeting, one for developers and the other for stewards in October 2015 to get this going.

A set of input documents put together by MaRS Solutions Lab framed the meeting, as well as Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt’s book on ecosystems, The Rainforest. At the meeting, both groups mapped critical bottlenecks to pursuing R&D in the social sector, including weak data infrastructure, lack of a talent pipeline, and a need for right-sized capital. They identified stakeholders for each barrier, created initial prototypes for a social R&D ecosystem, and put together specifications for each prototype. The meeting wrapped with “napkin agreements” on commitments to move forward.

We quickly learned that the “collective build” approach — with developers (practitioners) prototyping different parts of the ecosystem and stewards (funders and sector leaders) supporting them — was an idea that was good in theory, but not in practice. A common reflection across participants was that there is a combination of factors that make a barn raising approach challenging, including the nascent nature of social R&D as a field, propensity for a single point of leadership, people’s bandwidth, among other things.

So, my first attempt at barn raising an ecosystem didn’t quite pan out. Now what?

I went away on paternity leave. After returning to my SiG Fellowship in April 2016, I remembered what a wise experimenter at Harvard University once said: spend 80% of your time testing the hypothesis and spend 20% testing its inverse. It was time to put that to work. Instead of funders and sector leaders as the stewards of ecosystem building, I began engaging practitioners as the stewards, supporting, championing and advising the process — with success. After all, these practitioners were a small, but growing number of “positive deviants” across Canada — organizations that are bravely pursuing R&D and breaking down systemic barriers to R&D while at it. These organizations were delivering core services even as they researched, designed, developed, and delivered new practices and services to better realize their visions. Not only that, they were doing it despite the structural problems in the system that made it seem impossible to do so. They were growing innovation capacity, producing new knowledge, and creating new kinds of value.

This led to a course correction for the development of social R&D ecosystem: What if we focused on better understanding the R&D practices of these organizations and what they need to pursue R&D well?

This kicked-off a positive deviance inquiry with 14 incredible organizations from across Canada. Together, we began to envision what it might be like if “the best of what is” occurred more frequently and in a systematic way. Working with SiG National Associate, Karen Gomez, we captured close to 50 inspiring R&D practices and published them as the report, ‘Getting to Moonshot.’ It was the first comprehensive capture of social R&D practices in Canada. With a foreword written by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta, it became a widely referred to publication.

The positive deviance inquiry did something else — it gave us a better understanding of needs of these organizations to continue advancing social R&D practices within their everyday work. At the top of the list of needs: peer learning opportunities.

Having identified a lack of peer-to-peer learning and coaching among R&D practitioners as the need — and therefore a critical opportunity to catalyze R&D — we quickly got to work. In late August 2016, with support from the McConnell Foundation, we convened a ‘Practice Gathering’ dedicated to connecting practitioners and enhancing R&D capacity across the social sector. From ethnography and data science to technology and frontline services, the Practice Gathering convened 23 practitioners from across Canada for three days of talks, demo sessions, peer coaching groups and co-creation opportunities, all centred around helping practitioners pursue research, experimentation, and embed what they’re learning within their organizations well. We received over 50 expressions of interest for 23 spots, hosted Sean Lowrie, Director of Start Network in the UK, and convened practitioners from organizations like ColaLife, Winnipeg Boldness Project, WEST Neighbourhood House, Open North and GrantBook.

73 percent of participants met someone new, 80 percent learned something new, 75 percent gained a new perspective from another sector or discipline or region, and 80 percent strengthened their ideas or came up with new ideas for their R&D work.

With the Practice Gathering and Getting to Moonshot publication, practitioners felt part of a wider and growing movement. They felt they had peer support across the country. And the term ‘social R&D’ began to gain traction.

Insights from Phase 2

1. There are limits to leveraging the Declaration of Action

Could we have mobilized significantly more people, resources and signatories for the Declaration? Possibly. We also realized there was only so much a Declaration could do and we needed to find more compelling reasons based on research that spoke to the innovation realities on the ground. It’s an important insight as you generate calls to action in Phase 2 and 3.

2. Collective aspiration is not to be mistaken for collective investment or action

Collective aspiration does not necessarily translate into collective action. It might not be the optimal timing, there might not be right-sized incentives, you might not have people with the required bandwidth. There can be a number of factors. The collective build gathering gave us good insight into this reality.

3. Test the hypothesis and its inverse concurrently

One of our insights in phase 2 was that developing and testing a hypothesis (funders are stewards, practitioners are support) and its inverse (practitioners are stewards, funders are support) in parallel could have accelerated the process. Keep in mind, however, doing this requires an additional set of resources and commitments.

4. Identify “super users” within the group of positive deviants

We initially identified approximately 30 organizations as part of the positive deviance inquiry with 14 organizations making the final cut for further study. Within the 14, we identified a handful of “super users” of R&D — individuals who not only practice R&D but are also re-imagining what R&D processes and functions are and advancing the field. Super users can also demonstrate the positive impact of good R&D process and champion the cause of R&D infrastructure for the social sector. Giving super users the opportunities to tell their stories and help shape and make a case with you is mutually beneficial in the long-term.

5. Find a catalytic opportunity quickly, but don’t lose sight of the overall problem complexity

It’s easy to focus all of your energy on creating something that leverages a catalytic opportunity you’ve identified and lose sight of the complexity of the bigger challenge itself. In this case, the catalytic opportunity was facilitating connection and peer-learning between practitioners, but complex systemic barriers to R&D still reigned. These included mainstream organizational, grantmaking and regulatory cultures that don’t value — or actively object to — R&D in the social sector. It was important to reflect on if and how the catalytic opportunity may also support the system transformation that’s integral to more effective outcomes. As well, to reflect on how to balance both approaches: strengthening the practice of existing R&D practitioners and challenging systemic barriers to mainstream social R&D as a robust field and practice within the social sector.

Signs and Signals to Notice

1. What systemic barriers are hidden, invisible?

People frequently cite resourcing as a barrier to R&D in their organization, but there are barriers that are less evident or easily articulated, that need a bit of digging around, such as not having the task freedom to pursue R&D or facing the social stigma of experimenting when it is considered by your peers as “not doing your job.” Try to unearth the root causes limiting R&D practice.

2. What is too good to be true?

We didn’t need to find out in a roundabout way that a collective build “barn raising” approach might not be the most effective in this context. We could’ve saved precious time and energy and tested the inverse hypothesis in parallel. Maybe we were romanticizing the Canadian way of community collaboration or maybe we followed the wrong signals. With the energy and momentum on high, notice the weak signals, the blips on the screen, and seek advice from your elders.

3. Are there strategic policy windows?

Keeping an eye on the political and policy landscape helped us to inform elected officials and public sector leaders on the positive value of R&D in the social sector. In partnership with the Public Policy Forum, SiG National hosted roundtables with representatives from multiple ministries and sectors on inclusive growth to inform the consultations hosted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. As part of a broader international tour that SiG National facilitated, we were able to host leaders from abroad like Carolyn Curtis, CEO of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) in Ottawa to share TACSI’s learnings in being an R&D engine.

4. Am I meshing stories to get to a cohesive narrative?

Strategic story crafting at times can be about taking multiple and different stories and weaving a singular cohesive and touching narrative. But there doesn’t need to be a single narrative. Multiple narratives, although disparate, sometimes make for a stronger case. You may benefit from looking at R&D through a diversity of needs and contexts, emphasizing the breadth of the need, opportunity and potential impact.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did you identify the positive deviants?

The gatherings introduced us to organizations that are bravely pursuing R&D against all odds and offered us a sense of the systemic barriers facing social mission organizations as well. Through SiG National’s extensive network, funder networks, and personal relationships, we identified close to 35 organizations. We then narrowed it down to 14 organizations, accounting for diversity in geography, methodology, issue domains, and organizational maturity. We also selected for organizations that pursue R&D as a structurally and/or culturally embedded practice or function or method (as opposed to having conducted a one-off innovation project).

2. Why did you pick 14 organizations?

Given the size of the nonprofit sector, we could have had a larger positive deviance group but after consulting with research methods experts at a few universities, they noted that the sample size was sufficient to draw inspiring habits and practices.

3. Why did you invite Geoff Mulgan to write a Foreword for Getting to Moonshot?

Having a Foreword for key reports is always a good idea to have an external perspective. Geoff Mulgan is a global thought leader on innovation. As the Chief Executive of Nesta, he has been able to spot trends and craft innovations, and at SiG National, we valued his insight to weigh in on the potential of R&D for the social sector.

4. R&D is not defined in the social sector. How did you manage multiple definitions?

Phase 2 revealed a spectrum of language, from the robustness and rigour of academic research to colloquial terms that do not carry equal weight across professional contexts — from ‘hack’ and ‘causal analysis’ to ‘stress test’ and ‘logic model.’ Then there are terms such as ‘bootstrapping’ that mean one thing in the technology R&D world and another in the social sciences research methods world. Or terms that are used interchangeably such as ‘capacity’ and ‘capability.’ The language used and presented in each of the organizational R&D profiles in Getting to Moonshot is unique to the organization. It was a deliberate choice to not provide a glossary. Instead of translating the essence and attempting to standardize, we chose to preserve language, as it allows for diversity and opportunity for everybody to gain unique contextual insights and potentially new language.

Thank you to Stephen Huddart and the McConnell Foundation team, Tim Draimin and the SiG National team, MaRS Solutions Lab, Community Foundations of Canada, Public Policy Forum, and practitioners and sector leaders from across the country for supporting phase 2 of the journey of catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem for Canada.

Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 1 — Following curiosity and testing the water

Author’s Note

This is the first of a three-part blog post series documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of a social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported by SiG. The purpose of this series is to candidly share that journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others.

This post, as one of three, focuses on phase 1 — following curiosity and testing the water, which, in my case, was pre-my social R&D fellowship with SiG National and pre-SiG formally hosting social R&D as a national focus area. This phase was about exploring, question-finding, learning about the state of R&D in the social sector, sensing need, and mobilizing commitment to action. You can find more info at Tadam black stock.

This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet – learn by doing.


“Where do I find literature on R&D in nonprofits?” I asked in 2015.

This question is the culprit. Not just the question, but Tim Draimin’s reply, “That’s a good question. I don’t believe there is any.” After much back and forth on the stark contrast between the legitimized and celebrated R&D investments of  the technology sector and life sciences industry, versus the meek and risk-adverse investment environment for R&D in the social sector, Tim and I decided to follow up with a blog post.

The idea behind the blog post was to get our questions out into the world. It was about getting a feel for the current status of Canada’s social R&D ecosystem. We published ‘Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine’ in May 2015. This garnered a fair bit of interest from academia, public servants, sector executives, frontline professionals, among others. Tim and I decided to take the opportunity to have these folks take a critical look at our assumptions and questions, in particular: “Is there value in hosting a multi-sector gathering to take stock of our collective questions, the state of R&D in the social sector, and if/where we could go from here?”

With enthusiastic affirmative responses, we set to work to host a first-ever multi-sector convening on potential for and the role of R&D in the social sector. The McConnell Foundation, who were holding similar questions, contributed one of their convening slots and support for a retreat on Wasan Island, a gathering and convening place in Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation and used in partnership with the BMW Foundation, the Bosch Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) and The McConnell Foundation. With additional support from the Canadian Red Cross, CFC, SiG, and The P.E. Trudeau Foundation the convening came to life for August 2015.

Approximately 25 individuals from diverse organizations, issues-areas, expertise, backgrounds and regions participated in this gathering. We collectively explored questions about the application and barriers to R&D practice, infrastructure language in the social sector, like:

  • How do we explain risk and failure as positive?
  • What is the discoverability of assets in the ecosystem?
  • What incentives are needed for organizations to pursue R&D?
  • What are the systemic barriers to R&D at the organizational and individual levels?
  • What is the emotional energy it takes for professionals in this sector to do R&D regularly?

We learned that existing social R&D entities, like Fifth Space, find a broader peer community valuable, that frontline professionals can rarely access academic research as they are behind paywalls, and that the social sector focuses heavily on services without investing in the underlying infrastructure and capacity to problem solve continuously, impactfully and in complexity. This began to paint a picture of the state of R&D in the social sector for us — by no means comprehensive, but a start.

Multi-sector convening on R&D in the social sector at Wasan Island

With the gathering, the sense of collective aspiration was apparent and palatable. We discovered allies, collaborators, thought partners and critical friends. As we imagined where we go from here, there were a number of possibilities. In fact, there were too many possibilities. Above all, we wanted to find a way to capture a collective spirit for strengthening and growing R&D in the social sector. The Hippocratic Oath was brought up a number of times during the gathering. Using this as inspiration, we came up with a Declaration of Action. While our focus had been R&D in the social sector, the Declaration outlined the need to seed and lead a vibrant ecosystem of public good R&D across corporate, academic, public and community sectors to generate innovations and lasting positive impact. This was better than a set of action items. Why? The Declaration helped us mobilize allies from across the country – which started to create a movement and gain legitimacy.

What was next?

Finding a way to harness that collective energy to jointly foster an enabling ecosystem by using a Payless Power system.

Insights from Phase 1

(1) What’s next is always steered by who’s in the room

Acknowledge that and do not pre-determine the output. Find ways to sense the energy that is there — is it collective? is it regional? Is it individual? Craft a call-to-action appropriately. The Declaration of Action, as a call-to-action, was a function of the folks in the room. In this case, organizations like CKX, GrantBook, InWithForward, McConnell Foundation, Canadian Red Cross, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Open North, Imagine Canada, and Grand Challenges Canada.

(2) Find an elder or two

Have individuals who can help create balance, focus, and hold space for actors from different sectors and with seemingly opposite views of the world. Individuals with tremendous ecosystem-building wisdom, like Tim Draimin, executive director of SiG National, David Phipps, director of research services and knowledge exchange at York University, and Indy Johar, co-founder of Project 00 & Dark Matter Labs, among many others, helped to kick off this exploration, acted as allies, and held my feet to the fire.

(3) Make friends

The early sharing journey with sector leaders helped us to formulate better questions, understand challenges in a more nuanced way, and start to build a narrative that empowers everyone. Questions are good, but validated questions are better and often require trust before honest evaluation can take place Before the first convening, we had phone calls and meetings with several people often in their own contexts and settings, to share our hunches and initial research and to develop trusting relationships.

(4) Resist the temptation to immediately bound an exploration as a new project or organization

Resist the temptation to articulate the vision and exploration through a single container. My response to the question of what model social R&D would follow was, “nothing is off the table.” We got many questions on the business and organizational model soon after the blog went live. It’s a bit like deciding your child’s career path and earning based on what they do or don’t do as a toddler.

(5) Get a good sense of need versus demand

We don’t demand an ecosystem, we discover it – and often slowly. We don’t know what we don’t know. People who rode horses didn’t demand the market for a car. That’s where demand for an ecosystem is the wrong question. Don’t fall into the trap of asking people if they need an ecosystem. Help them discover it, engage with it and find value in it.

Signs and Signals to Notice

(1) Whose velocity matters

In physics, velocity incorporates direction of travel and speed of travel. Notice the differences in velocity between your group, yourself, and the broader sector as you introduce R&D. Whether it’s your blog, your convening or your output, some people will make a lot of positive noise, some will make critical noise and others won’t make any noise. Who does what are important signals to notice as you chart ways forward following an exploration phase for fostering an R&D ecosystem. Noting where direction and speed might not be aligned between you and your group can give you a sense of when and where to slow down or change course in fostering an ecosystem.

(2) Paradox of choice

It can be easy to get crippled by paradox of choice. In this early phase, less is actually more. The positive energy and momentum can lead to multiple pathways and priorities for what to do and where to go next. Stay focused and work closely with your elders to identify what’s urgent and important in phase 1.

(3) Who jumps off the deep end

Everybody brings something to the table. In the early phase, keep an eye on if people empower you to take a leadership role in moving things forward and why. This blessing helps you to build legitimacy and credibility to carry the torch alongside others.

(4) Where people don’t want to go from here

There are (metaphorical) places people are ready to go and there are those that they aren’t ready for. For us, some conversations got uncomfortable – intellectual property in this sector was one. Note where people don’t want to go at the outset and slowly bring them along.

Frequently Asked Questions

(1) Can you have a different starting point?

Yes, certainly. A different starting point could have been domain-specific context, such as a particular goal or ambition in early childhood education or newcomer settlement or battling hunger — which we did not have. So, your initial launch point (in our case, the blog post and an ecosystem perspective) might dive right into research and observations around interventions in a specific domain and role of R&D in that domain.

(2) How did you find the capital for this work?

I got this one a lot. By being a scrappy entrepreneur, I suppose. What I discovered is that ‘ecosystem catalyzing’ is not something that is an explicit stream for a single funding organization, but a handful of organizations could be convinced. In this case, along with a number of people, Tim Draimin and Stephen Huddart were critical investors in and champions of the exploration early on. I would suggest to engage potential partner organizations in an advisory capacity first to test fit.

(3) How did you decide who to engage in phase 1?

This is a tough call. You can get seduced by ecosystem mapping but it’s so dynamic and fast-changing that you’ll never get it all mapped or have bandwidth to engage everybody at the same level in this phase. You’ll also realize that not everybody will engage with you and with R&D at the same intensity and frequency. My take: that’s ok. Build a small but strong constituency and grow it.

(4) How did you hold off on not defining a structure?

Let me put it this way, if you define a structure or container for this work in phase 1, then you limit questions or perspectives or actors to that container. Keeping it ambiguous and without a formal structure through phase 1 enables you to develop and test a range of possibilities before boxing yourself in and missing a potentially valuable option.

(5) What are the success metrics for phase 1?

They are quite simple: Are people drawing others in to join this exploration? Do people feel engaged, empowered and share in the aspiration? How likely are they to champion this exploration with potential funders? Do you have 1-3 focused ways forward that people are excited by?

Thank you to Stephen Huddart and the McConnell Foundation team, Tim Draimin and the SiG National team, Canadian Red Cross, Community Foundations of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, and practitioners and sector leaders from across the country for supporting phase 1 of the journey of catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem for Canada.


What Drives Experimentation?

Field Notes from Silicon Valley #2

I am spending some time this year in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to better understand their culture of R&D, how organizations are set up to pursue R&D and deliver programming in tandem, and the role of funders and grantmakers in supporting the practice of R&D in the social impact sector. An overarching question I have in mind is: as we seed the initial conditions for a vibrant Social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem have to share?

In light of all this and as we approach the 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering, I have some questions, observations and curiosities.

Recently, I’ve been obsessing over what drives experimentation at its start; I’ve spoken to about 40 organizations in the Bay Area in the last few months – from public sector innovation organizations like City Innovate and healthcare innovation organizations like Center for Care Innovations to grantmakers like Tipping Point and frontline agencies like Year Up asking and observing how they start experimenting. One of my key observations is that there is no recommended or right or single point of entry – the way experimentation starts is diverse. Gijs van Wulfen, a recognized innovation authority notes that it is often called the ‘fuzzy front end’ due to its lack of process, structure and guidebook.

In the Canadian social impact sector, we believe that it’s a sin if our starting point isn’t a social or frontline problem. It’s wrong and potentially even irresponsible, we are told, if our starting point is discovery or an idea or new technology. In his book Innovation Maze, van Wulfen offers a useful frame for us here, graphic inserted below. He argues that innovation starts with an idea, a technology, a problem or a business issue. They are all useful starting points – and I’ve learned that really, in the Bay Area, you can begin anywhere.

Source: The Innovation Maze

Gijs van Wulfen’s frame of four common starting points above offers us folks in the social impact sector an opportunity to adjust our assumptions and thinking about what can trigger tinkering, research, prototyping, and ultimately, new value creation.

Based on his frame, let me now overlay some Canadian examples.

  1. You might start innovation with an idea, like Jay Garlough and Katrina Siks of Hidden Harvest. While taking a walk together one day and noticing all the fruit and nut trees on public property in Ottawa that go unharvested, they saw an opportunity to experiment with a new way of addressing food security among vulnerable populations. They founded, what is now an award-winning social enterprise, Hidden Harvest Ottawa.
  2. You might start innovation triggered by technology, like Scotiabank’s Digital Factory. They explore emerging technologies beyond Scotiabank’s core business, and design experiments and identify new use cases, for example, basic financial services built on artificial intelligence.
  3. You might start innovation to solve a problem, like Sarah Schulman and her team in Vancouver. They observed that adults with cognitive disabilities didn’t lack exposure to social life but lacked exposure to continuous learning. In many ways, you could say that we had been solving for the wrong problem. Following extensive ethnographic research, Sarah and her team started developing Kudoz, an online learning exchange where local community members share their passions and skills through one-on-one learning experiences with adults with cognitive disabilities.
  4. You might start innovation because your organization needs to innovate, like the healthcare provider Saint Elizabeth in Toronto. In response to changing demographics, new business models and a strained healthcare system, the social enterprise put R&D at the core of their business. Today, Saint Elizabeth is one of the most innovative healthcare and homecare providers in the world.

Using R&D practices to create new value in the social sector has yet to be mainstreamed in Canada, but it’s clear that there is potential.

2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering

We are a handful of days away from SiG’s 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering. Let’s keep ‘multiple entry points’ in mind as 45 R&D practitioners from diverse disciplines, regions and issue domains spend two and half days together to:

  1. strengthen peer relationships;
  2. share research and experiments;
  3. cross-pollinate methods and techniques;
  4. learn about successes and failures in organizational setup and management of R&D, and;
  5. identify areas where practitioners can act as a whole to remove barriers to R&D in Canada’s social sector.

If previous gatherings are an indication, participating practitioners and this ecosystem will not be the same after the Gathering. We anticipate a more connected, fired up and sophisticated movement.

There are a handful of changes to the 2017 Gathering compared to the inaugural edition in 2016: from the introduction of Heads of R&D at a few BCorp companies and a contribution to Canada’s Social Innovation Strategy to doubling the cohort size and participation from community foundations and United Way Centraides. As well, Renuka Kher, Founder of T Lab in San Francisco, Tipping Point’s R&D engine, will be joining us as our international speaker. We cannot wait.

Cultivating a Canadian Social R&D ecosystem

As part of a two-year exploration, SiG is seeding the conditions for legitimizing and advancing R&D as a core organizational practice, for making available a more intentional suite of supports and resources, and for a networked ecosystem driven by practitioners. The Canadian social sector needs more experimentation, and multiple entry points; a robust Social R&D ecosystem is a key piece to get there.

The thing is, there is no formula for catalyzing an ecosystem – no playbook and no step by step process. I’ve learned that ecosystem catalyzing, done well, is messy, multi-dimensional, without a single uniform narrative, and is both bottom-up and top-down. Luckily, there is a growing movement of practitioners with an increasingly sophisticated skillset, and funders and policy leaders willing to come to the table. There are a few signals since we began on this journey a year and a half ago, that are promising:

In the public sector and public policy: Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy co-creation process has the opportunity to be inclusive of and meaningfully advance R&D. There is active engagement in the strategy consultation process, including a session at the Practice Gathering. Social R&D has also helped to shape the policy innovation agenda across the federal government through experimentation units like ADAPT and the recent Policy Community Conference.

In the international scene: Canada’s journey to grow R&D capacity in the social sector is complemented by growth of Social R&D around the world. Individuals like Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta in the UK and organizations like the Skoll Foundation have noted the importance of investment in Social R&D.

In funders circles: Funders and grantmakers in Canada are beginning to consider integrating experimentation supports and find ways to fund R&D. In the spring, SiG hosted a roundtable that convened funders like SSHRC, Canada Council for the Arts, RBC Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation and others to demonstrate the value of investment in R&D alongside program delivery. Long established social service agency funders like United Way Centraide and Community Foundations are engaged and participating in the Practice Gathering.

These early signals illustrate progress but the next little while is fragile and critical to advancing the growth of a viable Social R&D ecosystem – either we expand or we see momentum contract. Based on what I’ve been learning through my explorations in Silicon Valley, and given that we remain at the fuzzy front end, we need to continue catalyzing the conditions for R&D to gain traction. As examples, systematic R&D supports through Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy, non-government funders intentionally integrating R&D into granting process, and a formalized network of practitioners pursuing and promoting R&D are vital.

Here. We. Go.






Social R&D in Silicon Valley: Field Notes #1

This is the first in a series of Field Notes this year on methods, business models, conditions, as well as profiles of organizations pursuing or supporting R&D in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. The observations, ideas and provocations here are meant to help us revisit our own assumptions and ask if our approaches are fit for the future, all with the aim of strengthening Canada’s Social R&D ecosystem.

Peter Diamandis, Co-founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE Foundation, two highly regarded impact-oriented organizations in Silicon Valley, reflected on the value of experimentation in a recent blog.

Singularity University is a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Diamandis noted:

“Running great experiments and building a culture of experimentation are crucial for driving breakthroughs in your organization.”

He also highlighted:

“You must ask the kind of questions to which you don’t currently know the answer, but if you did, you’d change the way you operate. If you already know the answer, or if you are testing an insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, you’ll just be wasting time and money. To get good questions/experiments, you must create a culture that incentivizes asking good questions and designing good experiments.”

Since January 2017, I am spending some time each month in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to better understand: their culture of experimentation, how organizations structure themselves to deliver offerings in tandem with developing new and improved offerings, and the role of funders and grantmakers in supporting the practice of R&D in the impact sector.

The two questions I’m currently pursuing:

As we help create the conditions for a vibrant Social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem teach us?
How might we begin to bridge the two ecosystems for exchange and mutual learning?  

Last year Community Foundation of Canada organized a Canadian Delegation to Sillicon Valley with the help from SiG fellow Vinod Rajasekaran.

In my time so far, I have met with, had site tours, and shadowed:

– mission-oriented startups like HandUp, Year Up and DataKind;

- innovation outposts like Swissnex, Center for the Edge, and Unicef innovation;

- community hubs like Impact Hub and Kapor Center for Social Impact;

- accelerators like Fast Forward;

- funders like Tipping Point Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Omidyar Network and Draper Richard Kaplan Foundation;

– mature organizations like Kiva, Center for Care Innovations, and Feeding America, and;

– institutes like Long Now Foundation, Institute for the Future, and Singularity University.

Initial observations:

There is no ecosystem curator. They operate as a hive culture.

When I probed on the absence of a single curator to nurture an ecosystem for Social R&D, individuals mentioned that having a curator organization “can create a culture of dependence.” This might be the good-old “analog switchboard operator” versus “digital platforms” analogy. Digital platforms are more widely accessible, they can be used to self-organize for both online and offline engagements, and can help harvest collective intelligence more effectively and efficiently. However, ‘curator dependence’ is worth unpacking and following further. What are the dependencies experienced in an ecosystem by having a single curator organization? In what contexts have single curators served us well?

Grantmaking strategies must integrate funding for delivery and development. 

Individuals and organizations recognized the multi-dimensional nature of investment required to kick-start, embed and sustain R&D activities, capacity and function. It means investing in people, infrastructure, adoption, and skills, in addition to research and experiments. Nonprofits accelerator Fast Forward is an example of an organization that supports development of organizational R&D culture, skills and experiments. It is the first nonprofit accelerator that I have come across where research and experimentation capacity-building was baked into the acceleration program; enabling resourcing and mentorship around applying R&D methods such as A/B testing. Tipping Point Foundation is an example of a grantmaker that invests between $200,000 and $700,000 in unrestricted funding to build their grantees’ organizational R&D capacity over multiple years. This includes support of the development process, skills and competencies, data and research infrastructure, and initial experiments. At Tipping Point, funding both delivery and development is core to their grantmaking strategy. Grantmakers such as the Omidyar Network, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and Nasiri Foundation also deliver unrestricted funding as part of their grants and impact investments to empower R&D in their investees’ and grantees’ organizations. How might Canada’s grantmakers and impact investors take an integrated funding approach that combines delivery and R&D (embedded capacity, skills, infrastructure and experiments)?

High velocity can create blind spots.

The ‘move fast and break things’ culture in Silicon Valley can create blind spots around inclusion and public benefit. While significant research investment goes into, as an example, the design and development of new emojis, the same proportion of investment will likely not go into research around who the emojis include or exclude, and their long-term individual and collective behavioural, policy or psychological impacts. They are, however, beginning to mitigate this risk. A recent attempt is the announcement of a $27 million open R&D fund for artificial intelligence (AI) in the public interest. The Fund is supported by the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation, among others. It’s apparent that organizations in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley often struggle to balance multi-generational effects and outlook in their work, with a world that is fast-paced, focused on the present, and rewards short-termism. Organizations such as the Institute for the Future play a critical role by hosting foresight labs in food, health, cities, and other areas. The Long Now Foundation, an organization that cultivates long-term thinking through lectures and seminars, also has an active role in this ecosystem as a counterweight to the high-velocity culture. Might the same hold true in Canada? Who is Canada’s counterweight and futures host?

Mesh technical and non-technical ecosystems.

The technology and social change ecosystems in Silicon Valley can seem disconnected and, in many ways divided, with protests around Google buses and protests for better pay for Uber drivers. However, the two ecosystems are more consciously building bridges and becoming more connected. Organizations such as: Kapor Center for Social Impact, HandUp, DataKind, Feed America, Code for America, Hacktivision and NetHope act as important bridge builders between the social services, social impact and the technology worlds. In addition, the World Economic Forum is opening their new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco focused on the public policy impacts of emerging technologies such as Blockchain, autonomous craft, and artificial intelligence.  Bridge building organizations create opportunities that deepen trust and mutual value through exchange, learning, and co-creating. Could the technical and non-technical ecosystems be more integrated in Canada in order to achieve inclusive growth?

Discovery and problem-orientation.

R&D in the social impact sector can often be centred around defining and solving a “problem” at the outset of designing an intervention or options for interventions. This approach is most prevalent in Canada, often under a ‘labs’ manifestation. While an intentional focus on the problem may get to the heart of a right-sized intervention, organizations such as Kiva, Khan Academy, Singularity University, Wikipedia and the Center for Care Innovations seem more ‘discovery-oriented’ in their R&D. The underlying assumption for this approach is that “possibilities are often hidden and oblique, so curious tinkering might lead to new discoveries that are not so obvious.” How might curious tinkering be empowered in Canada’s social impact sector?

How can we make it easier to discover Social R&D?

We are already a month into 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday year. How exciting! This year, we are committed to building on the momentum to help strengthen the legitimacy, community, capital and capabilities of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector.

Introducing the Social R&D Digest*

*We welcome ideas on a more catchy name!

The Digest is an easy way to discover and promote experiments, insights and practitioners. Sent to your email inbox every two months, the Digest is a curated collection of crowdsourced Social R&D stories along three streams:

1 – experiments & pivots
2 – methods & practices
3 – structures & business models

We believe that by highlighting what works, insights, and pivots by people pursuing R&D in social mission organizations across Canada – that the social impact sector will work even better, and make bolder leaps and advancements to enhancing lives, jump over here and learn more.

The inaugural edition will be sent out February 28th.

That brings me to… call for stories!

What experiments are you working on? What new practices have you implemented? What methods have you discovered? What business models are you trying out? What key lessons have you learned?

Let’s feature them as part of the inaugural Digest.

Send a 75-100 word story, with a photo and any web links to vinod@sigeneration.ca by 5pm Eastern February 15, 2017.

Sign up here to receive the inaugural Digest.

Why experiment, anyway?

A Year of Exploration

From Wikimedia Commons

December has been a month of reflection for many years – not because it’s close to year-end but because I moved to Canada as a preteen in December. I remember the start of my journey in this beautiful country. My earliest memories of Canada are snow, the holidays, and some of the more unique things we have put in place to care for one another as a society. Things like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), and a high-functioning public education system were foreign to me. My mother took English as a Second Language from an immigrant services organization that was supported by the local community foundation. The idea of a community foundation was foreign to me.

St. Elizabeth

Today, community and social assets, such as the ones I learned about when I first arrived, are all around us – many invisible. You could say they are in the air we breathe. Yet, once upon a time, they were novel. They were innovations. Some folks somewhere, decided to craft hypotheses, do research, run experiments, test assumptions, take risks, and scale what worked. No asset is designed to operate at its optimal forever, and in a fast-changing world, we often forget how fragile our community and social assets can be. How might they be ready for and evolve in a way that attends to tomorrow’s needs? How might the spark of experimentation that led to the creation of these assets be rekindled, sustained and embedded within these organizations? What conditions are necessary to make continuous innovation worthwhile?

Questions such as these led us to kick-start an exploration to strengthen community and capability, and seed more capital for social impact organizations practicing research and development, or as we are calling it for now, “Social R&D.” The exploration is incubated by SiG, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Community Foundations of Canada, Open North, MaRS, Skills Society, Engineers Without Borders Canada, WEST Neighbourhood House, York University, and many others.

The Social R&D exploration caught the wind this year, taking a multi-sector approach. There were policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, designers, and many others contributing to the journey.

We focused on four primary areas of enhancement to social and grant-making organizations:

Demystifying R&D and demonstrating R&D in action

Through Appreciative Inquiry principles, we researched and shared 50 inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector to demystify the practice, surface resonating language, and identify ways for grant-makers and social mission organizations to better activate, empower and build R&D capacity, capability, community and capital. We packaged the practices in a first-of-its kind report in Canada – called ‘Getting to Moonshot’ with a Foreword by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta.


Catalyzing a community

We hosted gatherings, had one-on-one meetings and phone calls, and engaged over 100 people practicing R&D within their organizations. Through this exploration, more Social R&D practitioners found each other. Peer relationships began to deepen and grow, across geographies, sectors and disciplines. This community has its roots in a Social R&D Declaration of Action that was co-created and jointly signed in late-2015.

Advancing practice

We designed and hosted two unique gatherings this year to cross-pollinate, advance, and increase the adoption of R&D practices. In August, we convened approximately 20 practitioners from across Canada to connect with one another and with funders to learn, share insights, exchange methods, and find ways to strengthen their organizational R&D craft. In October, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we led an inaugural study tour to Silicon Valley to learn about R&D practices, emerging technologies, and innovations in the world’s leading lean R&D ecosystem. We also contributed to the development of a new labs and experimentation learning module hosted by Innoweave. The module kicks-off in January.


Influencing policy

Social R&D can lead to better policy development. We also believe that Canada can drive inclusive growth by strengthening R&D in the not-for-profit and charitable sector. However, this sector remains one of the least supported in terms of access to federal R&D infrastructure, advisory support, capacity and capital. We helped to convene a cross-sector policy gathering with Public Policy Forum in June; participated in policy meetings and consultations, including the pan-Canadian innovation policy consultation, and; submitted a policy brief to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development focused on enhancing federal R&D support for Canada’s social sector.

We have just begun this journey. Not everything worked as planned, there were failures along the way – there always will be (more on the failures in January). We are thrilled to advance each of the above four areas in 2017 and have you join this exploration as a partner, champion or practitioner.

The funny thing with mainstreaming experimentation is that we will not know what approaches will work best in advance. Only through experimentation, fast learning, and showing how it’s improving lives will they materialize.

Is our playbook out of date?

A photo by Greg Rakozy. unsplash.com/photos/oMpAz-DN-9I

Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges — ranging from mental health, Indigenous communities’ access to quality education, and a lack of affordable housing — demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimental and replicating approaches so people can access the best possible services, supports and solutions, no matter where they live in Canada. This is where R&D comes in.

Canada’s not-for-profit, charitable, B Corp, and social enterprise organizations have built strong capabilities in volunteer management, donor stewardship, and program delivery, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that social change in the 21st century requires an additional strong capacity and capability in research and development, or R&D.  

Just as R&D in the business world drives new and improved products and services, R&D can also help social mission organizations generate significant and rapid advancements in services and solutions that change lives. However, currently only a small proportion of social mission organizations repeatedly incorporate a wide range of new knowledge (like insights into how the brain works and how positive behaviours can be encouraged) or new technologies (like machine learning) or new processes (like human centred design).  

R&D is not yet well understood, funded or widely practiced by the social impact sector and thus is not yet adopted as a core organizational practice. It is a new field with a small body of codified knowledge and practice.

The “Social R&D” exploration aims to catalyze a change. The exploration is incubated by SiG, seeded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Open North, Community Foundations of Canada, MaRS, Engineers Without Borders Canada, among many others.

The new report, Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector authored by SiG Fellow Vinod Rajasekaran, with a Foreword by Nesta’s Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan, highlights 50 compelling R&D practices from 14 organizations across Canada, including: Saint Elizabeth’s field visits with frontline staff, GrantBook’s digital simulations, Skills Society’s neighbourhood prototyping and The MATCH International Women’s Fund’s 15% staff time for experimentation. The report illustrates that pursuing R&D helps organizations minimize costs in program growth, track improvements and learning more effectively, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for and with the people they serve. The intention in the future is to move beyond the report and host an online collection of practices with open access.

There are wonderful elements of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector and this report is an attempt to make a small portion of them visible to demonstrate that investment in R&D is a critical success factor in seeing measurable gains in social wellbeing. Against a backdrop of increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, together we can transform how social mission organizations enhance lives for the 21st century.

SiG invites grantmakers, philanthropists, governments, and practitioners to join the movement to boost Social R&D capacity, capability, infrastructure and capital in communities across Canada.

Tackling mental health equity head on

This article first appeared on the MaRS blog

As a clinical psychologist trying to support sex trade-involved homeless youth, Dr. Sean Kidd found that encouraging them to participate in artistic initiatives brought far more success than the ‘best practices’ he was trained in.

While traditional evidence-based methods were still used, getting the kids to develop and act in skits together led to a far greater level of engagement than the organization he worked for had ever achieved in 25 years, as they developed the relationships and trust that helped them discuss their problems with others.
[Read more…]

Unleashing an Inclusive Innovation Agenda: SiG speaks with Nathon Gunn, Innovation Advisor to Federal Minister Navdeep Bains

Canada’s innovation ecosystem – from Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to Export Development Canada (EDC) and accelerators to Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SR&ED) – has primarily been in service to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and in that vein, focused on STEM-oriented (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) companies. This is however, expanding and shifting. As Canada faces increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, many parts of the innovation ecosystem are also opening up to support innovators and innovations that advance environmental, social and economic wellbeing. In other words, the innovation ecosystem is becoming more inclusive. More inclusive of powerful innovation models currently at the margins of the supports – social, digital, financial – as well as more inclusive around what we are innovating for – for social inclusion, for shared prosperity, and for sustainability.

Minister Navdeep Singh Bains with Nathon Gunn in San Francisco. Photo provided by Nathon Gunn.

Minister Navdeep Singh Bains with Nathon Gunn in San Francisco. Photo provided by Nathon Gunn.

This aspiration is championed by our own Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), Navdeep Bains – most recently, by calling Canada’s innovation policy plan an “inclusive innovation agenda.”

SiG Fellow, Vinod Rajasekaran, took the opportunity to dive into this vision with Nathon Gunn, Innovation Advisor working with Minister Bains to develop an inclusive innovation policy framework for Canada’s future.

First off, what was compelling about this opportunity for you, Nathon?

I have long been convinced that a balanced and integrated approach to progress is fundamental to human happiness. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development have both demonstrated their commitment to expanding our definition of progress. They understand that innovation includes both social as well as economic advancement. Their term for this concept is inclusive innovation. Their leadership inspired me to come to Ottawa. As a serial entrepreneur with an interest in public policy, I bring real-world, on-the-ground experience in the work that I’m doing to help craft a national innovation strategy for Canada. I also bring a slightly different network of folks to the table.

Why is taking an inclusive approach to innovation important to ISED and Canada’s future?

An inclusive approach is essential because every sector of society — from the business community to universities and colleges, the not-for-profit sector, social entrepreneurs and Indigenous leaders — plays a role in driving innovation, growth and well-being. Government cannot do it alone if Canadians expect meaningful results. That’s especially true at a time when the world is facing major challenges that transcend national borders, such as climate change and prosperity gaps. For example, in the context of building an environmentally sustainable economy, we need to talk about how innovation and conservation go hand in hand rather than being diametrically opposed to each other.

We also need to address prosperity gaps in a world that is changing rapidly. We need to ensure that the benefits of technological advances and globalization are shared by as many people as possible rather than being disproportionately concentrated among the top earners. A thriving middle class isn’t just good for the economy; it’s also good for ensuring that we continue to live in a peaceful country with as few social divisions as possible.

This one

Modern society’s understanding of innovation has evolved considerably over the last century, yet we still grapple with fully enabling and embracing innovation in pursuit of both social and economic advancements. What do you believe has held back inclusive innovation in the past? Do you think this might begin to open up new metrics in addition to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as an example Social Progress Index or the Canadian Index of Wellbeing?

I like to quote Peter Nicholson, a policy advisor to former Prime Minister Paul Martin and a special advisor to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. He says it often boils down to “rational apathy.” What he means is if you don’t have to do something, you often don’t. Rational apathy can account for why change often comes too slowly. However, as we learn to use data to develop more multifaceted insights, we also begin to see the importance of expanding our definition of progress and how to measure it. Issues such as climate change have accelerated the urgency for us to think about economic and social progress in a more expansive way. I think we see more than ever that a whole-of-society approach to tackling big, important issues, such as climate change, needs to be incorporated in our notions of progress. So I believe there is room for other measures of well-being, beyond GDP.

The federal government is shaping its goals around complex challenges, such as climate change, Aboriginal reconciliation, infrastructure, sustainable health care, etc. In many ways, the innovation ecosystem already embraces some of these goals. Clean technology, for example, grew out of the need to move towards a low-carbon economy. What do you think are the next steps that Canada’s innovation ecosystem can take to expand game-changing solutions to such complex challenges?

I am proud to be a part of a government that is working on such important issues and I can tell you that the Minister and his policy team are hard at work on this. Certainly, mission-driven investments where we put money into innovation but with a focus on big problems (think going to the moon or keeping global climate change to our targets) and things like grand challenges (think X-Prize for space) are examples of things we have seen work under the right circumstances here and abroad.

There is emerging evidence that not-for-profits, charities and social enterprises that have an embedded R&D function and practice R&D are seeing more impact gains. Do you believe an inclusive innovation system means also supporting R&D in social mission organizations?

Personally, I do think that is useful. However, it may be largely about helping clear the hurdles to these kinds of R&D initiatives for non-profits. Our government is conducting a summer of public engagement with all Canadians so now is the time for your colleagues to let us know what the barriers and pain points are for this kind of work. We need your prescriptions for how we unlock and facilitate your own activity. Please go to Canada.ca/innovation and make sure you tell us what would benefit Canada the most.


So far 896 ideas have been generated by Canadians. What are your Social Innovation ideas? Image from the Government of Canada.

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