Is our playbook out of date?

A photo by Greg Rakozy.

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.

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LabWISE on Trust and why it matters in a Social Innovation Lab Process

 SiG Note: This article was originally published on the RECODE Blog.  It has been cross-posted with permission. 

LabWISE is priming collaborative groups to create big changes to major challenges across the country. Launched in mid October, the LabWISE program is a partnership with the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR), and is designed to train community-based teams in the WISIR social innovation lab process. It provides ongoing coaching to support Canadian organizations in leading a social innovation lab to tackle intractable social and/or environmental challenges.

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Pro Bono in Canada

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Toronto+Acumen blog.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

October 23-29 was Global Pro Bono Week! The week is a global campaign that celebrates the thousands of professionals who volunteer their skills and professional expertise to support non-profits all around the world. The global pro bono movement has long been ignited and attracts new international partners every year.


What exactly is Pro Bono?

As defined by the Taproot Foundation (a global expert in pro bono), pro bono is “using a volunteer’s core professional skills to provide free professional expertise to organizations serving the public good’.

Pro bono is a subset of skilled volunteering that gives non-profits access to business and legal skills and experience as needed, , such as developing and implementing new business strategies or improving organizational infrastructure.

For example, volunteering  one’s management consulting experience to increase donations for a food bank would be a pro bono service. Volunteering at a local food bank’s kitchen to collect or distribute food would be what the Taproot Foundation describes as hands-on volunteerism.

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Source: Taproot Foundation

What is being done around the world?

In 2015, there were 50 events hosted in 19 countries by 27 organizations during Global Pro Bono Week. Examples of events include seminars, information sessions, pro bono ‘speed dating’ and pro bono ‘marathons’ (similar in structure to tech hackathons).

Examples of events from this year’s Global Pro Bono Week include:

France – Intercompany Pro Bono Marathon, hosted by Pro Bono Lab

Pro Bono Lab organised a large Pro Bono Marathon, teaming employees from 10 companies to support 10 non-profit organisations with capacity building services (such as consultancy in finance, strategy, management, marketing, communication, law or web).

India – Online tools to Work smarter – get your answers now!

This session highlighted online tools that help non-profits optimize their time and resources. The session focused on free tools for project management –  tools that help create and capture data/reports and present them in a creative manner.

Canada – Canadian Pro Bono Tweet Up

On Monday, October 24th, there was a virtual discussion of pro bono giving in Canada with corporate and social profit leaders from across the country.

Check out more tweets from this national conversation here!

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Why should you get involved?

It is becoming abundantly clear that pro bono work benefits all involved. For professional service companies, there are endless reports depicting the value that pro bono opportunities have on attracting, retaining and engaging talented workforces (especially millennials), as well as enhancing brand and public relations. The following report details a strong business case for pro bono services, as well as case studies). Moreover:


Pro bono can also be immensely useful for developing  business innovations. Innovation has been described as “the application of knowledge in a novel way”. As pro bono engagements are an opportunity for employees to apply their skills in a different environment, it can be thought of as a catalyst for innovative thinking.

“Our fellows not only provide value for society at large, but also gain global perspectives, new ideas, and skill sets that ultimately inform business innovation.” – Robert L. Mallett. Previously President of the Pfizer Foundation.

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Source: Business Value of Pro Bono Source: Taproot Foundation

What is next?

Many leading Canadian organizations are convening together to spark a pro bono movement that can grow and scale throughout Canada. While there a strong volunteerism culture in Canada, there still exists an immense opportunity to deliver high-quality, high-impact pro bono services to social change organizations.

“Volunteering continues to be fundamental to Canadian society with more than 13 million volunteers contributing more than 2.1 billion volunteer hours annually (equivalent to 1.1 million jobs).” – Statscan

There are a plethora of ways one can develop and engage with the pro bono marketplace in Canada. One can work with their organizational leaders in implementing a company wide pro bono program, work individually on pro bono engagements, or help with advocacy efforts.

Within Toronto, Endeavour is a fantastic resource for those wishing to engage in pro bono projects. We also encourage you to visit Taproot’s website to learn more about pro bono. We are also seeking champions to help grow the pro bono movement and marketplace on a national scale (contributing to a variety of initiatives, including needs assessment, corporate & non-profit engagement, awareness building).

If you are interested in this, please feel free to contact Allyson Hewitt (‎Senior Fellow, Social Innovation – ‎MaRS Discovery District), at You can also follow her on twitter @AllysonHewitt and #ProBonoCDN for more updates on Canadian pro bono.

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Getting to Moonshot

A photo by SpaceX.
Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges – ranging from mental health to reconciliation and affordable housing – demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimenting and replication of approaches so people access the best possible services, supports and solutions no matter where they live in Canada. This is where Social R&D comes in.

Over many decades, Canada’s social impact sector has built strong capacities, capabilities and standards in volunteer management, governance, program delivery and fundraising, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that problem-solving 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 or improved products, services and processes, R&D can also help social mission organizations achieve significant advancements in long-term quality of life for Canadians. Currently, a small proportion of social mission organizations embrace and 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 web-based platforms  that support people in periods of life challenges – such as Tyze) or new processes (like human centred design).

R&D in the social impact sector is not yet well-understood, supported or widely practiced. It is not yet adopted as a core organizational practice.

SiG’s ‘Social R&D’ exploration aims to catalyze a change.

We are calling the sum total of know how, approaches, technologies, process and approaches emerging to advance how we achieve long-term inclusive quality of life in Canada, ‘Social R&D.’ We see it as a significant step in developing a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada: diffusing a foundational capacity that the whole social impact sector can draw on, whether an organization pursues systems change or service efficacy.

The upcoming new report, Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sectorpresents over 50 inspiring R&D practices from across Canada, including: Saint Elizabeth’s field visits with frontline staff, GrantBook’s digital simulations, Skills Society’s neighbourhood prototyping, The MATCH International Women’s Fund’s 15% staff time for experimentation, among other things. The report also highlights calls to action from the sector on what is required to go further. Here’s a preview:

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 and demonstrate that investment in Social R&D is a critical success factor in seeing measurable gains in social wellbeing.

SiG invites practitioners, communities of practice, impact networks, grantmakers, philanthropists and governments to engage with us to co-create infrastructure and resources that help to strengthen Social R&D adoption and capability in communities across Canada.

Against a backdrop of increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, and increasing austerity, Social R&D is a foundational key to making significant advancements to how social mission organizations enhance lives.

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Making Indigenous histories and futures visible

The YVR Art Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1993 by the Vancouver Airport Authority to foster the development and enhancement of BC First Nations art and artists. The First Nations of British Columbia have artistic traditions that have been part of their fabric of life for millennia. While these traditions are not unique to BC, the Vancouver Airport is one of the only public authorities that has decided to dedicate space and championship to the celebration of local Indigenous art and craftsmanship. 

jade canoe

Bill Reid -The Jade Canoe at Vancouver International Airport 

Last week, some 4,000km away at Toronto’s YWCA, dedicating and creating intentional space to celebrate Indigenous culture was the heart of a public discussion convened by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam about Truth and Reconciliation in an urban context.

The panelists included Susan Blight, an artist and activist; Sam Kloetstra, Youth Coordinator, Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle; Sarah Midanik, Executive Director, Native Women’s Resource Centre; and Andre Morriseau, Director, Awards and Stakeholder Relations, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB). 

One of the most cited critiques of Toronto’s city planning during the discussion was the lack of intentional place-making for Indigenous peoples. Many suggestions were offered: renaming streets and waters, a multi-functional space/community centre to re/learn culture, a centre for Indigenous Social Innovation, a dedicated district – akin to Chinatown, Little India etc, and an Office of Indigenous Affairs within City Hall.

Sam Kloetstra recently moved to Toronto and Kristyn accidentally introduced him as having just moved to Canada. As Sam pointed out, what’s interesting about the mistake is that, “Not every Indigenous person identifies as being Canadian, but every Indigenous person I’ve met identifies as being Torontonian.” This knowledge is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto. So, how to step up its game?

North American Indigenous Games

North American Indigenous Games

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) will come to Toronto in 2017 – the same year the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, which Prince Harry announced last year with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wynne in attendance. In contrast, few people have heard about the North American Indigenous Games, which have been held since 1990. These kinds of events can help raise the profile of Indigenous leadership. Similarly, Andre Morriseau spoke of a missed opportunity to build on the success of the Toronto-based 2015 Pan Am Games by creating a living asset of Indigenous experience, athleticism and culture in Toronto. Amplifying the profile of the NAIG’s is a very achievable way to learn from that missed opportunity.

Still, there are some inspiring rogue and entrepreneurial examples of place-making and place-keeping out there that others can build on. Susan Blight and Hayden King took to the streets a few years back, making stickers with Ojibway translations of Toronto street names that they plastered over the English signs, beginning with Queen Street, or Ogimaa Mikana. What began as a political action became a full scale billboard project.

First Story app

First Story app

There’s also the work of First Story. Since 1995,  First Story Toronto, (formerly The Toronto Native Community History Project), within the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been engaged in researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto with the goal of building awareness of and pride in the long Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. They have created a handy mobile phone app (via itunes and google) and you can take self-guided tours of the city, learning about Indigenous heritage and communities in Toronto.

Naturally, in addition to place-making efforts, citizens themselves need a culture shift. Education systems can play a role in this and many are making strides to introduce new curricula. But on the streets and in our every day, how do we foster better relationships with each other? I think it was Andre that remarked, “If you don’t have a dog, do you talk to anyone in the park?”

While making things visible may be the easier first step, actually allowing oneself to be uncomfortable in not knowing how to demonstrate your willingness, to work on Reconciliation is the harder part. Chad Lubelsky from McConnell’s RECODE project wrote recently:

A key challenge therefore is to not rush into solutions, but to live with the tension that resetting relationships will require everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to change, and to change together. Change happens in concert and takes time; perhaps more time than we’d like…These tensions will create discomfort, and increasing our discomfort might be an indicator that we are making progress. It’s hard work that will only get harder.

There is so much more for us to talk about and action together – in urban environments and in rural communities. There is much that people don’t know. For the participants in last week’s discussion, all seemed to agree that a physical and official commitment by the City of Toronto to reflect Indigenous life is important. Yet all would also agree that we can’t stop there. As a Globe and Mail article published just yesterday outlines: “There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life.”

The City can move forward with many of the suggestions raised during the discussion, but while they work through official channels, we must all continue our own journey along this difficult but hopeful path.

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On wattle trees and maple leaves

In two days from now, I fly out to Vancouver to begin a whirlwind tour with two of the brightest Australian social innovation leaders. I dare say, two of the brightest social innovation leaders, period.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) was created 7 years ago and since that time, has led the practice of social innovation in Australia, developing on-the-ground solutions such as Family-by- Family and Weavers, building capability in the practice, skills and conditions for social innovation, and initiating tough debates about how we might shift outcomes in relation to some of our most challenging social issues.

SiG is both happy and fortunate to welcome its CEO, Carolyn Curtis and Ingrid Burkett, Director of Learning and Systems Innovation to Canada and I am even more fortunate to host their tour through Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

This tour is a learning opportunity for both countries. While wattle trees and maple leaves share few attributes, the two nation’s social and political systems share many. We have vast social and environmental resources and talented people but are stuck on those thorny problems where solutions seem to elude us – inter-generational poverty, systemic violence, poor mental health, unfair distribution of wealth.

TACSI has made some significant in-roads over their first few years, particularly in the area of family preservation and restoration. This is important. As Canadian media has reported, (and here and here) and service agencies know well, far too many children are being removed from their families due to overwhelming challenges and being placed in unsustainable situations that often present more problems than they resolve. Not to mention that loss of resiliency that comes with the break-up of families, no matter what their size or constitution.

tacsi family restoration project

Throughout their time in Canada, TACSI will meet with elected officials, public servants, non-profit leaders, social lab practitioners and professional service designers to hear about Canadian efforts to address similar social problems. In Vancouver, we’ll be meeting with the team developing the Healthy City Strategy, City Studio students and the teams who developed Kudoz and Well-Ahead.

In Victoria we’ll meet with public servants who are instrumental in the delivery of new service approaches. Similar meetings with public service innovation teams will take place in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto. In Edmonton we’ll also meet with the people involved in SDX – as they describe themselves – “a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.”

In Winnipeg, Carolyn and Ingrid will meet with the United Way Winnipeg and stakeholders involved in their poverty reduction strategy. The brilliant folks at the Winnipeg Boldness Project will also host us and a learning community to discuss Indigenous Innovation and whole systems change.

Arriving in Ottawa next, we shall split up and meet with government innovation teams, meet the awesome reverse mentors at Hub Ottawa and finish the day with the National Association of Friendship Centres, The Circle on Indigenous Philanthropy, Community Foundations of Canada and Media Style.

Next on the tour will be Montreal where we will hear the exciting plans of Amplify Montreal – a collaboration between Montreal organizations and citizens focused on making Montreal more innovative, inclusive and resilient. The TACSI folks also get a chance to meet some outstanding social entrepreneurs and philanthropic leaders at the McConnell Foundation, before heading to Toronto.

At their last stop, Carolyn and Ingrid will be part of a terrific panel discussion at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), featuring Canadian innovators from the MaRS Solutions Lab as well as CSI itself. Together, we will talk about how change happens and how we can create a culture and the political, business and social will to focus innovation on positive social and environmental outcomes.

It’s a full 10 days, no?!

I’ll be recording insights throughout the journey via video with Carolyn and Ingrid. What are they learning? What are they hearing? What were some of the big a-ha’s from the various people they met? Let me know if you have any questions!

It’s going to be a hugely significant journey for both Australia and Canada and we will share all we can with you along the way. Watch this space! And our Twitter and Facebook pages for updates throughout the tour.

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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:

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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.

“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.
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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 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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The Art of Disruption | A Reflection

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

Last month, Tamarack’s Liz Weaver and Paul Born hosted a webinar on Community Change: The Art of Disruption as part of a Community Change Webinar Series. In this conversation Liz and Paul discussed some emerging ideas and strategies that are disrupting how some communities today are responding to the complex issues that they face. There were quite a few ideas that emerged from this conversation, but three in particular stood out to me:

The Power of Connection

Liz began the conversation with the acknowledgment that in today’s society people seem to be so connected, yet so disconnected at the same time. We see this in everyday life – we are constantly connected and dialed in to one another’s lives via Text, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the list goes on and on. But at times it feels that despite this constant online connection, many people are experiencing less and less real-life, meaningful face-to-face interaction.

There is great social innovations that have made connection their mission. Roots of Empathy’s mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. Read our profile here:

There are great social innovations that have made connection their mission. Roots of Empathy’s mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. Read our profile here.

The same could be said of the many organizations that are working tirelessly to create real, meaningful change in our communities and across the globe. Thanks to technology we see change-makers across the globe praising one another’s work, sharing their successes and supporting one another – we also see the criticism, the analysis of each other’s failures and at times, outright competition. Within the realm of community change, individuals and organizations alike are so much more aware of what other organizations are doing and what is happening in other communities, but we are not as involved or connected as we could be. Change-makers are often so disconnected in their work and when they do connect it is often very surface-level.

During the webinar, Liz reminded us that there are so many wonderful organizations doing incredible work but many are not achieving the big-scale change that they so desire. When you look at groups that are creating real traction in their communities you notice that there is something different going on and I think the answer circles back to this idea of connection.

To create real change, both in our individual lives and within our communities we need to connect – real-life, meaningful face-to-face interaction. We need to completely disrupt the ways that we have existed and worked within the realm of community change thus far and do something different.

The Power of the People

A second aha moment that came from this recent webinar was in regards to the power of the people. As Paul explored ideas of community change and disruption he was simply overflowing with the possibilities of people. Paul reflected on the ways in which Canadian citizens have completely stepped up when it comes to positive community change, citing the example of many Canadian citizens’ support of Syrian refugees. He also mentioned incredible examples of leadership happening in the realm of poverty reduction in cities like Toronto and Edmonton. We are beginning to see a huge shift in social responsibility – where people and their cities are no longer waiting for big governments to step in and take action, but rather the people and the cities themselves are becoming the leaders in large-scale social change.

The Government of Canada nearly tripled the number of spaces for privately sponsored refugees to 17,800 in 2016, compared to 6,300 spaces allocated in the previous year. Photo by Mark Blinch /Reuters

The Government of Canada nearly tripled the number of spaces for privately sponsored refugees to 17,800 in 2016, compared to 6,300 spaces allocated in the previous year. Photo by Mark Blinch /Reuters

We are in a wonderful time where it seems people are no longer waiting on the world to change – they are creating that change. They have decided to throw out the rule book and write their own. This is disruption at it’s finest.

Citizens want to be involved, so let’s involve them. Citizens want to be engaged, so let’s engage them. Paul reminds us that within the realm of community change it is our responsibility and our privilege to truly and deeply engage the people within our communities who are outside our organizations. There is definitely something to be said about the power of the people and their ability to disrupt and impact real change.

 The Power of the BIG 5

During the webinar, Liz and Paul also touch on Tamarack’s five BIG ideas for making significant change:

  1. Collective Impact
  2. Community Engagement
  3. Collaborative Leadership
  4. Community Development and Innovation
  5. Evaluating Community Impact

Our Idea Areas are key principles and techniques that help community leaders to realize the change they want to see. It doesn’t matter what issue you are facing – whether you are tackling poverty reduction, dealing with food access issues, wanting to improve health or trying to deepen the sense of community in your city – the thinking around these five areas and the application of the guiding techniques will help you to achieve impact. The question we must ask ourselves is this: How do we use these five BIG ideas to create positive disruption within the realm of community change? And what does the future of these five key idea areas look like?

1. Collective Impact

Liz talks about the future of Collective Impact – Collective Impact 3.0 if you will – and the emphasis on evolving from a shared-agenda, to a community-wide agenda. In order to create real, disruptive change the goals of a Collective Impact initiative must be owned by the entire community, not just the folks doing the ground work. *Liz and Mark Cabaj will be hosting a webinar on Collective Impact 3.0 - Register now! They will also be writing a paper on Collective Impact 3.0 so keep your eyes open for this!

2. Community Engagement

In our cities and communities, a new generation of community engagement is emerging. People want to be engaged in decisions, they want to work together and they want better outcomes for themselves and their neighbours. Paul talks about how he used to look at community engagement in three stages: inform, consult, and involve. But over the years has discovered that we can no longer separate these three pieces, we must inform, consult and involve in one stride. Engaging citizens in every stage is a critical component of any work that will impact community in any way.

3. Collaborative Leadership

In the conversation about Collaborative Leadership a listener asked the following question How can we better engage business in Collective Impact initiatives?” To which Liz responded that there are business leaders “with heart.” The more important question, Liz suggests, is how do we engage those business leaders who have heart and how do we connect them with community change? Liz suggests that the best tactic to address this issue is to:

  1. Do your homework
  2. Find the right fit and engage in real conversations (remember that thing I said about connection? It works – we promise;))
  3. Don’t stress about the “no” – focus on the positive outcomes

The future of collaborative leadership is a future with positive, cross-sectoral relationships that disrupt the current boundaries set in place.

4. Community Innovation

In their conversation, Liz and Paul stress that positive disruption can come at a systems level but also at the level of community programming. Often times innovation is happening right on the ground, centred within a community. This is the type of innovation that is key to real community change and this is the type of innovation that should be shared. This is the kind of work that we want to highlight at Tamarack – both at the Community Change Institute this fall but also in our everyday work.

5. Evaluation

Liz says “evaluation is key but what can we do about learning and sense-making amidst evaluation?” – It’s time to take evaluation to the next level. We need to begin to think about what we can truly learn from the evaluation process and results and really make sense of what is discovered. … For me, the Art of Disruption is about engaged people and organizations rising up, breaking through boundaries and working together in new ways. The Art of Disruption requires flexibility and encourages the evolution and adaptation of perspective and practice. I recently attended a one-day event with Paul Born in London, Ontario and at one point he jokingly began to sing a song that I feel sums up the Art of Disruption beautifully…

“The more we get together, together, together – the more we get together the happier we will be!”

 Continue Learning: listen to the full webinar in the Tamarack Resource Library

Custom design your own unique learning experience at this year’s Community Change Institute - do you know someone you think might be interested? Share this flyer with them or post it online!

Happy Learning!

As part of the Community Change Webinar Series later this month, on August 25th, Tamarack’s Liz Weaver speaks with  Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Ingrid Burkett, Associate Director of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Register to receive the recording of their webinar, Innovation starts with People. This webinar is in anticipation for Carolyn Curtis and Ingrid Burkett’s #IASI16 Tour. There will be events hosted in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. For details and to stay up to date with our work sign up for our newsletter - SiGnals

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Empathy – a key element for systems change

Several weeks ago, I joined SiG@MaRS as a summer intern. It’s been an enthralling ride, being ingrained in a radical environment that serves as a catalyst for both whole systems change and monumental social innovation.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Deepening Community for Collective Impact, presented by Paul Born- President of the Tamarack Institute and a senior Ashoka fellow.

At first, I wasn’t quite clear on how attempts at deepening community fit into the efficacious and potent world of systems change. It is abundantly clear that creating resilient, inclusive communities is a necessity in our global conversations…as fear is running rampart in our society, dictating our political and economic landscapes. However, I was still uncertain how these two topics fit together.

To me, community has a loose definition, that strikes a different image for everyone. Some define their community as a weekly hockey game with co-workers, while for others it is group of Ugandan farmers partnered together in microfinance loans, and some may derive their sense of community from gang associations. Paul does not believe that a common definition is effective for community, as the experience of engaging with communities is highly contextual, individualized and richly diverse. That said, there is a word that epitomizes any community…which is belonging.

“Community has the power to change everything. No amount of innovation, individual brilliance, or money can transform our broken society as effectively and sustainably as building community.”

- John Kania, Managing Director, FSG; founder of the Collective Impact Movement.

As the day progressed, we shared our stories and aspirations for what a strong community can be, and what it can bring. An appreciation was emerging as we were understanding the radical systematic shifts that could arise from not only creating, but deepening community.


Source: Pixabay

Creating community is about building inclusivity. It’s about hearing the voiceless, and ensuring that they are understood. The conversation can’t be monopolized by the strongest or most visible; everyone needs a chance to be heard. A community becomes truly resilient and innovative when it recognizes, understands and embraces the diversity and vulnerability of its population.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

- Jane Addams, Author; Nobel Peace Prize winner (1931)

Some may simplify deepening community to the golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In grand discussions of systems change and policy innovations, some may believe deepening community doesn’t belong in the same dialogue. If such is the case, perhaps we need to recognize a key outcome of deepening community is empathy. Can’t empathy be thought of as the fuel for the zealous efforts that change makers relentlessly exert when cultivating substantial policy changes and massive cross sector partnerships? Empathy gives us that deep understanding of the world beyond our peripherals, and enables and motivates us to build something better, together.

“The role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

- Arianna Huffington, Co-founder, the Huffington Post

Of course, empathy is not new to the toolkit of social change. Radical, transformative social change calls for collaborative action – which inherently requires empathy. Empathy as a tool has its own restrictions; it should not be our moral guide, but rather used to guide us towards respect and understanding. It enables us to engage one another with multiple truths, and move through our biases to combat complex issues together.

ashokaThe importance of empathy has been identified long ago and cultivating it has been a major endeavour – lead by the likes of Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon, and Ashoka.

Empathy fostered through deepening community can lead us to that inflection point, where faceless statistics become our neighbours, community members…and ultimately the very people who motivate and inspire us. Empathy is a choice we make to extend ourselves, and to understand the world at large.

“We need the skill of applied empathy – the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response – to succeed in teams, to solve problems to lead effectively, to drive change.”

- Ashoka

Learning to strengthen and create resilient communities is an integral part of our systems thinking discussion – especially with the prevalence of fear in our current world. Deepening communities enables us all to be advocates of change, and to understand our vulnerable populations. It shows us that we all have a role to play in community; sometimes as leaders, sometimes as followers, and always as someone who belongs.

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