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.

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.

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.


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Sparking the social R&D community

For the past few years I’ve been part of a growing community of social R&D practitioners. As the community comes together next week at the Spark conference, Jason asked me to reflect on the conversations I had at the August Practice Gathering, looking first for insight into how we might continue to cultivate an ecosystem for social R&D, and second, for things that practitioners may want to keep in mind as they develop their practice.

Social R&D practitioners mostly come from small organizations or small teams within big organizations. However, every single person has plans to make BIG change – in seeming denial that the world may see them as small potatoes. They’re all taking on Goliath.

To give social R&D practitioners a fighting chance, here are some things that organizations trying to support their work can keep in mind:

1. Help them mobilize others and create movements

It’s been my experience that the bigger you are the harder experimentation is because the pressure to perform gets stronger. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the most innovative practitioners find themselves in small, nimble groups.

Perhaps with this framing in mind it’s also not surprising that one of the most common conversations heard among these practitioners was how to make change as the small guy. Part of it is creating new knowledge and testing new models to figure out what works and what doesn’t. There is also such a need among this community to be able to act as an effective catalyst/facilitator: someone who is able to instill new practices, behaviours and habits in others so that the change can spread well beyond their interventions.

In this vein, I think it’s important for social R&D practitioners to see themselves as movement builders as well. We don’t create the change via discovery and invention alone; those we are able to catalyze into action do. To maximize practitioners’ impact, an ecosystem of support therefore requires access to influence over incentives, rewards and shape of the path (in reference to Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch). The question I left the practice gathering asking myself was “How might we apply our R&D practice to improve our ability to mobilize others?”

2. Invest in efforts that bring together actors across silos

The other common conversation I found myself in was how to bust silos and get groups working together. Silo busting expends a significant amount of time and resources, and is emotionally draining. It’s also one of the biggest barriers to scaling innovations that address complex or multi-level challenges.

A valuable shift that sector leaders could make in this regard would be to make initiatives human-centred (e.g. having disability services and homeless shelters entirely separate looks rather foolish if you start from a place of working with individuals who are homeless AND have disabilities) and give up ownership over your silo. We can’t be interested in getting credit for “just doing our job”. We need to make the work outcome focused (e.g. an organization can give access to capital and incentives to small businesses to hire the unemployed but if those businesses are unstable and close, then you are still simply creating short term unstable employment. They might have done their job perfectly, but the outcome wasn’t realized). Also important is the notion of nothing for us without us; it should go without saying that those we are trying to serve be involved in the solution.

These are some of the principles that social R&D practitioners spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy socializing. With stronger organization-wide adoption, practitioners could redouble efforts to generate new knowledge and inventions, and help create conditions within organizations for the production of high quality social innovations.

To Social R&D practitioners: my days (and some nights) are spent thinking about failure: how to predict, detect, avoid, as well as create room for the kinds of failure necessary for experimentation. Given this focus, I want to close with a couple of thoughts on potential failure modes for this group that I heard during the August Practice Gathering.

First, we are a busy group. Huge ambitions mean our time and resources will never be enough. One risk I see for this group is we get so busy we end up implementing all the time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doing/operational mindset because there is always so much to get done.  Given this bias I think it’s important to carve out time to reflect, imagine, make space for connections and look up from the laptop. Otherwise the interesting, non-obvious possibilities and opportunities might pass us all by in our drive to get to the goal. Following some of the reflective practice models that CKX is exploring is a good step, as are regular check-ins with other practitioners.

Second, we need to examine the problems we are trying to solve and make sure we get the problem statement right ( honing it and pivoting as it changes via experimentation).

Ajmal Sataar from Inspire Nunavut spoke about how framing the problem as: “How do we train these people to be entrepreneurs?” is okay, but it’s way better to think: “How can we create the environment for young people to thrive with entrepreneurship as a vehicle?” I thought that was just brilliant. Playing this back more broadly, how do social R&D practitioners not only try to strengthen program and services, but also create the conditions where vulnerable populations feel able to come up with their own social innovations?


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Reflections on the Canadian social innovation landscape. An insider/outsider perspective.

“The knowledge society has to be a society of three sectors: a public sector of government, a private sector of business, and a social sector. And I submit that it is becoming increasingly clear that through the social sector a modern developed society can again create responsible and achieving citizenship, and can again give individuals — especially knowledge workers — a sphere in which they can make a difference in society and re-create community.” Peter Drucker.

At the end of the month, Toronto will host two pivotal events:

These events prompted me to reflect on my own participation in the Canadian social innovation movement and the disruptive conversation I think we need to have within the space.

I joined the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) team, and by extension the Canadian social innovation community in 2011. Participating in this community continues to be a transformative experience. SiG’s work has influenced a small army of highly skilled, motivated, and talented social innovation players and brought together a remarkable group of people to kickstart a social innovation movement. What will become of SiG and its small army is yet to be determined?

SiG has had tremendous reach. My own involvement has resulted in the content from SiG being applied in various settings throughout Ontario and across Trinidad and Tobago. For example, last year I hosted a workshop in Port of Spain on social innovation which brought together professionals from some of the largest companies on the island. I have worked with two philanthropic foundations in Trinidad and Tobago to help them develop new strategies that include a social innovation lens.

I have also hosted intensive social innovation studios for educators and young people called Studio Impact and the B Studio Project. These came about because SiG brought two like-minded people together. When I joined SiG, I shared a desk with Anita Abraham, we quickly realized that we both wanted to develop youth programs around social innovation. Together with some other colleagues, we worked together to get funding from The Trillium Foundation to launch Studio Impact, a Canadian social innovation educational program. The program focused on exposing youth and educators to social innovation content.

Studio Impact from Jay Kraus on Vimeo.

Simultaneously, I was able to secure funding in Trinidad and Tobago to launch the B Studio Project which was in some ways a Trinidad and Tobago version of Studio Impact. SiG allowed Anita to join me for the first year of the program which set the foundation for what would become a five-year project. In those five years, I hosted five two-week long studios focused on youth between the ages of fourteen and twenty. After five years, approximately one hundred and twenty young people were exposed to the content. Similarly, we held three Train the Trainer workshops. Sixty teachers and educators participated in these workshops focused on integrating social innovation content into their classrooms. Just in my circle, the ripple effect and impact of SIG’s work is evident and I am sure other people in the SiG network have accomplished similar things. At the SiG sunset event, Geraldine Cahill and Kelsey Spitz will be launching a book to outline some of the projects that SiG has been involved in and I am looking forward to seeing how others have been able to use the content generated by SiG. I am actively working to bring B Studio Project to Toronto.

What attracted me to social innovation, was its focus on systems change and transformation.

Not all definitions of social innovation include these framings but it is a perspective that has always resonated with me. As the popularity of social innovation has increased, I have become increasingly concerned with what I call “social innovation washing” — the mislabeling and eventual diluting of the field of social innovation. A popular conceptualization of social innovation that I find increasingly problematic, occurs when social innovation is framed only around doing good. At first glance, it is easy to think that we should be striving to do good, and we should, but in conceptualizing social innovation, we should not only be including social good in how we understand social innovation.

Firstly, the objective of social innovation should be to contribute to addressing a complex problem. Doing good is ambiguous, relative, and subjective. Many of the people I meet who are interested in social innovation have this narrative of doing good. In my own PhD work, I came to appreciate the importance of nuance when thinking about social innovation.

One of the greatest innovations of the modern world is the invention of hospitals and the field of medicine. There is no question that modern medicine has made a great contribution to improving both the quality and longevity of lives around the world. Paradoxically, healthcare has gotten so good at keeping people alive, that we are amid conversations around dying with dignity. There are countless stories where medicine has kept people alive for far too long, suffering undignified deaths. These are incredibly complex, messy and emotional conversations. They demonstrate the dark side of social innovation. Despite all the advancements in healthcare, improved practices have produced not only thorny unintended consequence, but also produced high rates of avoidable harm to patients.

Social innovation cannot and should not only be defined in terms of doing good.

The idea that we are going to do good is noble and we should work to leave things better than we found them, but we cannot guarantee that we will not be producing new problems that will one day need to be addressed. One of the main reasons people think of social innovation within the context of doing good is perhaps best explained by John Wilson, in his book Thinking with Concepts. He argues that concepts can be analyzed as being questions of facts, value, meaning or concepts. For Wilson words do not really have meaning, they only have uses. He argues that analyzing concepts in terms of fact, value or meaning makes little logical sense. His assertion is that questions of fact, value or meaning are dependent on how we define the concept. In cases where the definition is uncertain, conceptual analysis cannot be achieved at the level of fact, value or meaning until we have established what counts as the concept in question. Consequently, we should be examining these emerging terms as questions of concept.

Social innovation as a concept is about transformation and systems change. Many people have things in mind that they would like to count as social innovation – they place meaning and value on particular activities that they deem to be worthy of the definition social innovation. For others, social innovation is a noun. It is fixed. For me, social innovation is a verb, it is dynamic and continuously changing. It is a way of doing. It is a way of approaching systems change and transformation.

In my thesis, I define social innovation as an activity or activities that profoundly change social relations or interactions, deeply challenge or shift existing paradigms, and significantly change resource flows within an existing social system. In the tradition of passing the baton, this reframing of how to define social innovation builds on Frances Westley’s definition, “an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact”. Words change meaning. They have uses, and there are times when it is appropriate to be prescriptive in the use and application of concepts. If our goal is transformation and systems change, then this is one of the rare occasions where I would lobby for being prescriptive in the use of a concept.

My tweak of Frances Westley’s definition is how I see the future role of the those of us who have had the privilege of being able to participate in the space. Our role is to improve on the foundation that has been laid by others. For example, in improvisation, the task is to set others up for success. Your role is to make it easy for the next person to improve what you have put into the space. Our social innovation predecessors have done what they can to set us up for success. It is time for us to yes and them.

By building on the work of people like Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley, I have turned the definition of social innovation into framing questions or focusing questions. My definition focuses on three areas: paradigms, resource flows, and social relationships. With the most weight being placed on social relationships. These three areas orient the actor to focus on transformation and systems change. The objective is to get them to make implicit assumptions explicit. To do so I ask:

  • What changes in paradigm would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

  • What changes in resource flow would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

  • What changes in social relations would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

This approach gives practitioners the opportunity to make their thinking explicit. The process gives groups a tangible place from which they can work.

When I joined SiG, much of the conversation focused on how to create the conditions that foster social innovation. During my thesis, I fell in love with the concept of creating the conditions of possibility. I would like to see an initiative emerge that returns to these core values of SiG. I would like to see a space where we can engage in radical openness, co-production, and knowledge creation. I imagine this as some type of community of practice that meets regularly to develop both the theory and practice related to social innovation. Many people in the space have tried to do this before, but to my knowledge, it has never been well resourced or the explicit focus of a team. In an ideal world, we could have this group educate and coach practitioners within the space.

When I used to run track and field, our coach would often say, “It is not the team with the fastest runners that finds success, it is the team with the best transitions and the right order of runners.” The Canadian social innovation movement is at a moment of inflection. There is an opportunity to pass the baton in a meaningful way. The question is, who is prepared to step up to receive it? Who should run the next leg of the race? Importantly, are there any people we might be leaving on the sidelines?

When I attend events like Spark, these are the kinds of discussion I hope to be part of, and I am excited to join the upcoming conversation. My perception from the outside is that the organizers are trying to spark new ways of thinking and doing within the field of social innovation.

I would like to see social innovation head in the direction of applying a social innovation lens on itself. How are we as a community contributing to the problem? What are we doing that is preventing us from creating conditions of possibility? What could we be doing differently that would strengthen the field?

To change an organization, you must know — and change — yourself.” — Paul Heresy.

Zaid Hassan, author of the book, The Social Labs Revolution recently tweeted, “The original sin of addressing complex challenges is the belief that you change things without changing yourself.” Ralph Stacey, an eminent complexity theorist, argues that transformative causality occurs when “entities are forming patterns of interactions and at the same time, they are being formed by these patterns of interactions.” If this is what we mean by transformation, then those of us in the social innovation movement need to think about how we are helping to midwife the future of the field.

Palliative care for some parts of social innovation.

A friend, Eimear O’Neil, recently sent me a paper she is writing, titled: “Palliative care for white supremacy.” Some things must die for others to live. What are some of the ways of doing things within the space of social innovation that need palliative care? A mentor of mine, Norm Trainor, says that maturity is learning to live without illusions. Social innovation is hard serious work, full of tension and paradoxes. There is a belief that in creative work, if tensions do not arise then you are too close to your comfort zone. It is time for social innovation to mature and for this to happen it would mean having some disruptive conversations within our community. The first of which is to decide what is social innovation and what it is not.

A major strength of the social innovation is its commitment to cross-sectoral work. We are limited by how people frame what we call social innovation. Most people, when they refer to the word social, they are either thinking of social media or the social sector. Within the social sciences, the word social refers to the associations and relationships between humans, animals, places, and artefacts. We need to reclaim the word social and begin using the word to refer to the kinds of relationships we hope to foster.

If social innovation continues to be thought of within the context of doing good and saving the world, it will remain an othering concept. Social innovation is about helping people participate in the world as full citizens. It is not solely activist work, nor is it for wealthy or privileged people who want to give back. Social innovation needs to be about creating the conditions for full citizenship. This is the second disruptive conversation I think we need to have in the space.

Social innovation can be the framework we use to engage in work that is deeply transformative.

As members of the movement, we need to do the work that takes social innovation out of the social sector so it can be weaved across all sectors. The existing language we use frames the conversation as one that needs to occur within the “social sector.” Social innovation is citizen work that needs to transcend sectors and we need to be deliberate about the language we use. A big carrot we have in our favour comes from a recent PWC report which claims that 59% of CEOS report that top talent wants to work for companies that have social values that match their own. If this is true, it means that companies who want to retain the top talent need to work for purpose.

This changes the game.

Many of us in the space are struggling to find ways to either pass or pick up the baton. For example, my own participation with SiG led me to complete a PhD thesis focused on social innovation. In my situation, continuing as an academic would mean, in part, taking on a poorly paid post-doctoral assignment in the hope that I can one day secure a tenure-track position. Not something I am able or willing to do at the moment. I am currently working with a team who is trying to redefine financial services and find ways to decrease the number of individuals in the middle market that are underinsured. I say this to point out that where the soldiers in the SiG army land, will be determined, in part, by larger economic forces and their own personal contexts. Simultaneously, all of us who have participated in, and continue to participate in, the social innovation space should explore our privilege. Do we need to ask, who can participate in this movement? Who are the people who can do social innovation work, full-time? Who benefits from our current approach or approaches to social innovation as a practice? These questions remain unanswered or in a bucket labelled to be determined.

“I want to change the world” might be a bit of a cliché, but for some of us, it defines the work we wish to do. Bill Gates, Colin Kaepernick, Elon Musk and Steve Bannon can all be considered social innovators. Social innovators need to learn to navigate internal and external conflicts, paradoxes, and inconsistencies in their work. The typical social innovators we think of are people who have a desire to address some of the world’s most challenging problems. For these folks, social innovation is a sector agnostic, process-based approach to making a difference. Without embarking on a process where we address our own assumptions, we risk “social innovation washing”. While in its infancy, the field of social innovation needs to be held accountable to some sort of clear standard. As the application of this term increases across so many different contexts, we need to develop tools or approaches that bring rigour to the field. We need these tools to take us away from aspiring to generate social innovation and towards creating the conditions that foster social innovation. At the heart of it all, we need to keep in mind that social innovation is yet another site of struggle.

Originally posted on his personal website and re-posted with permission.








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6 reasons to Spark

Editor’s note: This blog was originally posted on Medium under the title, “Why I bothered to organize Spark! (and why you, humble quiet organizer who does not love the word social innovation, should be there with me)” It is cross-posted with permission.

I am part of a core team organizing Spark — the Canadian Social Innovation Exchange — for six reasons:

  1. Making change is an essential competency for humans to survive in the long-term, and steward the planet well. Without it, we are subject to unnecessary violence, chaos and catastrophe.
  2. Making change is not a solo enterprise — we’re in this together.
  3. We can get better at it — it’s complex, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at shifting our systems towards more positive patterns.
  4. We need time and space to learn this craft together. It takes time to get good at systems change. Making change in our systems isn’t always the same as other kinds of doing good. And while both matter a lot, we don’t have much emphasis on the making change part in our current education, business, governance, health and other systems.
  5. The network is smarter than any one of us — so many people have gifts of perspective and experience in making change, and we all win when these gifts are shared. Spark! is a way to bring more people, different people, together to ignite a broader movement for social change.
  6. In Canada we have, this year, a unique opportunity to bolster a movement for social innovation (for making change, better). Read more here.

Ever felt like an outsider?

Making change can be tricksy, and it can be hard, and the words we use to talk about doing it can be fuzzy. Ever felt like an outsider when someone uses a word like…

  • Social innovation
  • Agent of change
  • Ecocycle
  • Panarchy
  • Systemic change
  • Foresight
  • [extraordinary] changemaker
  • Leader
  • Innovator
  • Social impact investor
  • Social entrepreneur
  • Network steward
  • Practitioner
  • etc. …

Well, me too. And really, most people. For me, as a humble practitioner [someone with their hands dirty trying to make change everyday], as someone who has put a lot of blood, sweat and yes, a few tears into organizing this mad venture, Spark! is not about those words. Those words are just one part of the project of trying to figure something out together — how we can make positive change, together.

My communities on the ground making change include: very, very brave lawyers and social workers across the Middle East, organizing to give voice and means to people wanting to improve their local communities even in the face of major international politics buffeting them (the International Community Action Network continues this heavy work); heroic agency executives, unpaid community organizers, and super volunteers who together steward the nonprofit sector as a way to change policy (shout outs to Ontario Nonprofit Network and Volunteer Alberta, among many others); and a few mad bureaucrats rejecting a very safe life to be part of creating a new form of government (here’s looking at you, #gcdigital community and #civicpunks everywhere). Each one of us involved in making change has our own practical, grounded communities that use their own languages for the work they do. So let’s acknowledge the goodness in that diversity, and embrace the fuzziness of the words for a moment. The movement is bigger than any one of our terms.

The humble call

I know I do not have all the answers to rooting peace in the Middle East, putting public benefit back at the core of our corporate mandates, or creating government that is responsive to the people whose lives it shapes. For me, Spark! is a humble gathering. It is funded (which is super helpful!) but even with the support of some brave institutions, really in the end it is a single call, from one voice to the next:

“Helloooooo, are you out there? Are you also trying to make the world a better place, systematically? Do you have any ideas for me as I try to do that too? Can I help you out as you walk your path? Can we get further together? Can we discover some better paths together?”



So Spark! is a call from individual people out there who are working hard to change their communities for the better, to other people who are working hard to change THEIR communities. How can we make the world better, together? That is a question each one can try to answer alone, but ultimately it is something that we need to learn about together. Something we get better at together. And Spark! is needed for that, because of this:

System stewardship is needed, but it is not the same as system CHANGE. And we need to understand and invest in system change!

Some people are what I call Awesome Stewards. They steward our systems — they renew our passports, they run our local faith groups and soccer clubs, they mentor kids, they do art and run community cafes and sing opera and garden healthy food and inspect our restaurants and grocery stores for health standards, and all kinds of other wonderful things. And that work should not stop. It is awesome. We really need it, or all the good we have created would not continue. Kids would not have amazing teachers encouraging them to read in school, and learn things about themselves. Adults would not have second chances to rebuild their lives. Sick people would not get care. This work, maintaining systems and humanizing them, is probably about 90% (loosely!) of the work we all do as socially-minded humans. Let us honour it, and let us keep doing it.

That said, sometimes, stewardship work becomes a part of changing the world, but not always. Stewardship is not inherently about changing the world. It is about maintaining it. Stewardship work could happen for a whole lifetime without a culture or community looking substantially different. Sometimes this stewardship is exactly what is needed, but sometimes, it is insufficient or even damaging to the health of a culture, community or environment.

Fortunately, there is a crazy, small slice of the population that is all about changing the world, despite all the odds. These are people who see parts of the system that should not be stewarded — kids who are getting left behind because of a silly rule that could be different, or rain forests that are destroyed because of a mindset that was once helpful, but no longer is. They are people who perhaps fought to be free to live in a peaceful way, and want that way to be an option for others — who they marry, which bathrooms they use, where they can work, what they can learn, the chance not to be enslaved, and so on. Whatever their reason and goal, all of these people — these ‘change makers’ — step out of their stewardship work to see if they can not only save one kid, or one tree, or keep the system from collapsing, but go further. They ask, can I make the system better for the next kids, and the whole forest, and the people whose lives maybe don’t fit well in the current system? This work also really, really matters: the work of making change. And proportionally, right now, in this time on our planet, we need more of it in the world.

The work of making change is a kind of work that we haven’t honoured, and named, and supported in our current mainstream systems [writing from Canada and a fraught global internet culture, 2017]. There are not a lot of places to go where the mission of Changing the World is accepted as a norm, or even as a positive deviance. (Think: most major corporations, public schools, governments, social clubs, and even many nonprofits and social groups who focus on amazing stewardship work but don’t necessarily support change). Sometimes, community organizing, advocacy and other ‘change making’ activity is marginalized or suppressed, labelled dissent, advocacy, revolution, counterculture, unpatriotic activity, rebellion, and much more. Here and now, in recent decades, it is being rediscovered and named as “social innovation” and other such terms. Spark! is to bring together those who are starting to invest their time and resources in ways that humans can collectively get better at making change.

Making change is an essential survival skill.

This is work is not a luxury or a leisure activity, it is an imperative. If humans do not collectively get better at making change, we run a great risk: the risk of suffering all the changes that will come upon us anyway, and the additional risk of being totally unprepared to respond well. We will in stupefaction continue to suffer the changes that blindsides us: the black swans, the violent disruptions of chaotic revolution, the catastrophic collapse fragile systems pushed beyond their breaking points when stewardship, gone awry, has become a means of avoiding and suppressing healthy difference and necessary change.

Spark! is part of a bigger fire, a broader movement

Spark! is the first time that people who care about making change have come together from all across Canada, in a big open exchange, to see how we can get better at doing that together.

It is not perfect — it is a prototype, an experiment, a chance to build on what has passed and improve it, a chance to have honest, difficult, joyful conversations about what is REALLY working and what might NOT be working for people who are trying to make change. I already have dreams of the next exchange and what I hope it can be, even knowing that this first step caught just some of the rays of light we envisioned. I know that more honesty will be required, that it will take more time than the humble organizers have this year to reach the edges of our networks and beyond, that some questionable assumptions are likely baked in despite our best efforts to be clear eyed, that we shot for the moon, the sun, and perhaps hit at first the stars. That is to an extent, intentional: that is what happens when you invite people in at the first moment to make something together. And it gladdens my heart, I embrace the imperfection, because it means that the project is bigger than a year, or a month, can make it. This is a lifetime effort (a forever effort), not just one event.

And I think, even knowing this is a single step, I can feel the heart of this work is alive, beating strongly. A set of brave partners is making space, through Spark!, to honestly consider some of the things that we call supports for making change, might actually be making it harder. There is room to consider that other things that are currently unnamed and under-supported, might matter much more than we think. Some lessons from one domain area — health, environment, arts, sports, social justice — might be just what another movement or organization needs to take their work to the next level. Some types of making change — through media, evaluation, facilitation, design, community organizing, faith — might get better when they collide. Things might just look different after Spark!

For me, I take a deep breath and look ahead to next year. I hope that each person who comes to Spark! in 2017 is, well, Sparked! (pun-groan, but also serious). I hope each of us makes some connections, receives some fire and light and energy, some ideas, and some steps we can weave into their work for the coming year. That each one who makes Spark! with us sees their work in a bigger frame, a bigger movement others are also working within. I hope that working together as peers gives us some new insights about what is needed to continue this practice — of getting better at making change, together. We can only do it if those who are positive and hopeful, and also black hats, the skeptics, those toiling in the dark and in the toughest times, come together to help each other out, not just in spite of their questions and uncertainties and humilities and trials, but exactly because those are the hunches out of which we will indeed get better. If we throw ourselves into a confident, humble learning time and apply those lessons in the world and step to reflect again and keep going, we will indeed get better together.

You, crazy beautiful one, you are humbly invited

So to all the incredible, beautiful people who want the world to be better for everyone, and want to understand how to define and test what “better” means, what it can look like, and how we can get there together — this Spark!’s for you. Please join us to make this a productive, concrete, action-oriented, insightful couple of days, a spark for something more, the start of more ways and means to move the bar on making positive, systemic change.

Thanks for reading. I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and a new era of making intentional, positive change in Canada and beyond.


Also, thanks to Cathy Taylor especially for the long passionate chats about Spark! that led to this blog, and to my fellow Spark! planning team members, the Wasaners, the Suncor Gatherers, and everyone who has taken the time to hear me rant about making the world a better place in the last year in particular. And everyone who has pushed me to get better at making change. I credit all of you the best of this little piece. All errors, omissions and misrepresentations are my own.







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Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D

For the social sector to have lasting impact in a fast-changing world it must have capacity, resources and permission to conduct research and development, or R&D. This was the hypothesis explored at a gathering in 2015, which ultimately lead to the Social R&D Declaration of Action.

Now, in 2017, looking across Canada and across the globe, it’s clear that R&D to help social mission organizations generate rapid and continuous advancements in services and solutions to enhance lives is an idea whose time has come.

According to the OECD, Canada spends close to $300 billion on social outcomes and well being per year. However solutions are not being found at the pace required to address rising social and environmental challenges.

  • The suicide rate among Canadian girls has increased by 38% over the past decade

  • Food insecurity prevalence rose to 46% in Canada’s north – the highest rate since 2004

  • Hospital admissions for opioid poisonings have jumped 53% in the last decade, with 40% of that increase occurring in the last three years

  • Half (50%) of monitored wildlife species are in decline in Canada, from 1970 to 2014

Canada has an emerging social R&D practice: organizations like E180 in Montreal are using data science to strengthen peer-to-peer learning, Kudoz are applying ethnography in the disability sector in Vancouver, The Winnipeg Boldness Project are using social lab methods to create a new framework for childhood development in Winnipeg, and many more. These organizations are finding ways to deliver services while investing in research, design, development and delivery of new practices and services.

A central focus of this SiG Fellowship is to support the individuals leading this work.

Practice Gathering

The social R&D practitioner community have said that to strengthen their craft, they need to increase their awareness of compelling experiments and insights from across issue domains; they need time to connect with other practitioners; and they need ongoing exposure to new methods, tools and techniques.

To help address this need, SiG hosted the second Social R&D Practice Gathering this past August.

The three-day program, the only one of its kind in Canada, was designed to cross-pollinate research and design methods, showcase experiments with new technologies, share insights and know-how, build and strengthen relationships, and surface the ecosystem conditions required for social R&D practitioners to do their best work.

The report, Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D, with foreword by Dr. Alex Ryan, captures highlights and actionable recommendations from the Practice Gathering proceedings for practitioners, governments, funders and others who play enabling and supporting roles to grow this emerging field. The report is a complement to the Getting to Moonshot and Spring 2017 Roundtable reports.

  • For social R&D practitioners: elevating one’s craft involves building new skills (from community-based research to analytics technologies), as well as taking on new roles (from knowledge translator to movement builder).

  • For the public sector: creating awareness and capacity within departments to respond to the R&D needs of enterprising and high-performing social mission organizations would give the social innovation ecosystem a significant boost in terms of increased ability, quality and frequency of generating innovations. Practitioners discussed a few early opportunities, such as departments making anonymized outcomes data available and experimenting with regulatory sandboxes.

  • For the Government of Canada Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy: practitioners felt that this was a great opportunity to open up Canada’s infrastructure for commercial R&D (funding, research support, promotion, etc.) to the social sector. For example, supporting R&D clusters in urban sustainability, immigrant settlement or youth homelessness; and establishing funding programs to support and incent R&D. Another significant gap that the strategy could help address is investigating the measures needed to ensure a pipeline of skilled talent to sustain the growth of this field.

  • For funders: practitioners are eager to work with you to reimagine the granting process, and to build and maintain an ecosystem that improves the capacity, connectivity and infrastructure for R&D.

Finally, the report closes with an outline of next steps being pursued to support the growth of Canada’s social R&D practitioner community: the creation of a three-year field incubator with a mission to make Canada’s social R&D more connected, accelerated, visible, and world-class.

SiG, along with partners Community Foundations of Canada and The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, support the social R&D fellowship that explores the initial conditions and infrastructure necessary to help strengthen the social sector’s R&D capability, connectivity and infrastructure.


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Social Innovation and Social Finance at Scale = Structural Innovation

On September 28, 2017 a group of 45 senators, government officials, academics, Indigenous representatives, civil society and financial sector leaders met in the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room to consider how Canada could establish a ‘social finance wholesaler’ to invest in funds designed to support social change. The meeting was hosted by Senator Ratna Omidvar and McConnell Foundation CEO Stephen Huddart. Stephen’s opening remarks are the basis for the first part of this blog. The group also heard from Catherine Scott, co-chair of the federal co-creation steering committee on social innovation and social finance, and UBC Professor James Tansey, who presented his research on social finance wholesalers in other countries, and the potential to adapt this model to Canada. These are summarized in the second and third sections.

Senator Ratna Omidvar and McConnell President Stephen Huddart

Structural innovation and the public good

Economist Mariana Mazzucato, head of the new Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, observes in a recent article that economic growth not only has a rate, but also a direction.

Further, she points out that due to the scale of global challenges, the innovation we most need is structural. To effect a peaceful transition to a low carbon economy or to bring about economic reconciliation with Indigenous people, structural, systemic and cultural shifts are essential. This in turn raises the idea of a new social compact – one that aligns the public sector, civil society and the private sector around matters of overarching public importance.

In light of all this, the recent creation of a federal steering committee on social innovation and social finance presents Canada with an opportunity for collaboration and cross sector alignment at a scale commensurate with the challenges before us.

A national strategy takes shape

In its initial deliberations this summer, the committee prioritized six areas for action:

  1. Capacity and skills;
  2. Funding and capital (for example, creating a social finance wholesaler or ‘fund of funds’ to support local, national and issues-based investments in systemic change and/or establishing a complementary social innovation granting fund);
  3. Market access; 
  4. Policy and regulatory environment; 
  5. Knowledge transfer, data and impact measurement; and
  6. Mobilization and awareness.
In addition to these areas, a final idea is introducing framework legislation that commits government to closer collaboration with civil society organizations; including around experimentation (‘social R&D’), and evidence-based decision making linked to scaling up proven innovations.

Work on each of these priorities is now underway, and a consultation website went live on September 29. It will remain open until December 31st, 2017. (Editor’s note: this text was adjusted October 10, 2017 to include all six areas under discussion by the committee)


Dr. James Tansey, Sauder S3i, UBC

Financing social innovation

In his presentation, James Tansey sought to summarize the findings from a global review of impact funds and also to look at the potential to establish an institution that is suited to the unique structures of government in Canada.

Impact investing has become a fashionable term in recent years and has been applied in some cases to investments that look fairly conventional. Looking globally, the majority of funds that truly invest with purpose and impact, in the majority of cases, government has played an important role in providing startup funds and in many cases continues to provide operating funds. The recently published book ‘The Impact Investor’ carefully evaluates 12 of the most successful funds and finds that government played a central role in establishing 8 of them. The best of them are allowed to operate independently and have been able to secure up to fifteen times leverage from other funding sources,

While there is a tendency to see impact investing as a mechanism for increasing the amount of capital available to address social and environmental issues, it is important to recognize that impact investing brings at least three other benefits. Firstly, impact investing can improve the effectiveness of the use of funds by creating more targeted approaches and greater accountability, which means the same money can create more outcomes. For instance, investment in preventing disease can be much more effective than paying for treatment. Secondly, by offering a reasonable rate of return, impact investing can attract new pools of capital. Thirdly, impact investing can stimulate innovation that reframes the problems or finds new solutions; for instance, pay for performance contracts and impact bonds provide rewards for outcomes but leave the path to those outcomes open to innovation.

Based on the most recent GIIN survey, the global market for impact investing sits at $114bn of assets under management and $22bn of investing in 2016. Estimates of the comparable Canadian market suggest there is around $370m of investment and $3.2bn of assets. Within Canada, Quebec has the most developed social investing ecosystem, which was established through legislation.

Looking at other potential pools of capital, Canadian Foundations have around $45.5bn in assets and are natural partners for impact investing. Depending on the definition used, current investment by foundations is between $500m and $1.2bn, which falls well short of the recommendations of the Task Force on Social Finance of 10%. That said, the sector is growing as more investment funds are set up in Canada; a recent survey evaluated 59 impact investing funds from across the country.

Conventional investors are also increasingly looking to invest with purpose. Of the $1.5tn of assets in public markets in Canada, 38% is subject to a negative screen under responsible investing rules and millennials are 65% more likely to invest in socially responsible funds than their parents. If impact investing can provide opportunities for these investors, the potential capital pools outweigh any other sources.

Wholesale funds have been established in a number of other countries including the UK, Portugal, Japan and Australia. Wholesale funds don’t make direct investments into ventures, instead, they invest through intermediaries: established impact funds that have an existing pipeline of investments. A great deal has been learned from the experience of these countries. The largest operating fund to date, Big Society Capital, was capitalized from dormant bank accounts in the UK. While they started with a model that borrowed heavily from technology investing, they evolved very quickly to the conditions of the social sector. They recognized that impact investing requires funds to build capacity in the social sector and that the funds themselves need the ability to combine grants with investment capital in a ‘blended’ approach. While they have invested at a slower pace than they originally projected, Big Society Capital has secured 2.3 times leverage from other investors and is starting to see steady returns.

An approach that will work for Canada must recognize that this is a highly federated country, in contrast to other countries where power lies much closer to community. Aboriginal impact investing is a growing sector, but requires a different approach to governance and investment to recognize the different circumstances in these communities. And ultimately, success will come in Canada and elsewhere by normalizing and integrating social innovation and impact investing into government operations and into the wider capital markets.

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Ownership Matters in the Sharing Economy

Editor’s note: This blog post first appeared on Medium published on August 3rd and re-posted with permission.

On September 9th & 10th, a conference at Toronto’s Reference Library will explore sustainable business models for digital entrepreneurs. The Disrupting the Disruptors conference will present successful alternatives to the venture capital path experienced by many founders. Oftentimes, great ideas need a business model that helps build community rather than monetize the users. Many founders found themselves forced to abandon their original purpose and vision and ‘pivot’ in ways that have proven unsustainable.


Entrepreneurs working in the digital economy have long embraced the values of collaboration, open source, co-operation and partnership. These values are now being applied to the ownership model of some platform businesses.

The so-called “sharing economy” has spawned some giant investor-driven platforms that are exacerbating critical social and economic problems: the dissolution of labour standards, app-driven precarious employment, the undermining of elected governments, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few venture-capital owned platforms.

This conference will feature co-operatively owned Internet startups that are looking for a more sustainable path to follow in the platform economy. Platforms can be co-operatively owned and democratically controlled by workers, producers, consumers, communities, or any group of stakeholders for that matter, even a group of companies in a B2B arrangement. Co-ops deliver products and services online while sharing the benefits and profits with the community rather than investors. So, what can this conference teach us about new forms of ownership? A couple of key things, we think.

  • Co-ops can disrupt and eventually stop the “uberisation” of work and living standards in the gig economy.
  • Co-ops can disrupt the start-up monoculture — one that forces founders to seek extraordinary returns from on-line communities by monetizing user data or user experience for the benefit of investors only.

Platform co-operatives are emerging in countries around the world and in a variety of business sectors. Here in Canada, 1000 photographer members own Stocksy United, an online stock image service based in Victoria, BC. They pay a fair price to photographer members and reported revenues of $7.6 million in 2015 and grew in 2016. There is a waiting list of thousands to become a member. Fairmundo is a German Startup that has created a market for ethical goods that is replicating itself in major cities like Berlin and London to scale up to compete with Amazon… is Toronto next?

Other platforms started out as traditional sharing economy businesses and transitioned to digital platform co-operatives. Modo Co-op is celebrating 20 years as the dominant player in the lower mainland of British Columbia car sharing. Their booking platform is owned by its users and is now being used by 12 other car share co-ops to compete against much bigger competitors. For them, being anchored in, and democratically controlled by communities they serve is a competitive advantage.

A proven model that works in the digital economy is priceless. Today’s challenge is tapping this huge potential to create significant economic and social change before too much of that potential is lost. Big brand platform monopolies such as Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit have understandably run into both regulatory and labour relations problems. People are starting to question them, albeit that they no longer claim to be ‘sharing’ platforms. These services can and will be delivered in more community-centred and sustainable ways through member and stakeholder-owned platforms, creating a transformative shift toward a more community and people-centred economy. Nothing they do is proprietary, communities can simply duplicate them with better ownership models, and they are popping up everywhere!

This conference is the next in a series that began in November 2015, in New York City. Since then, a variety of events have continued building on the momentum that began in the Big Apple.

In Toronto, we will bring together both critics of the sharing economy and speakers from existing projects that can help us explore Canadian opportunities for innovation and democratic wealth creation using member-owned digital platforms. Your participation can help build a broad-based coalition that can accelerate this entrepreneurial innovation.

This learning event is targeted at tech sector entrepreneurs, tech incubators, labour organizers, co-operative developers, business studies academics and municipal, provincial, and federal policy makers.

To register, visit the Eventbrite page!




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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.






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Dear Universities, Show us what you’ve got!

Note: This blog was originally published on RECODE and was reposted with permission of the author.

Photo from York University

We live in a volatile, uncertain and complex world. With threats of climate change, rising income inequality, social unrest, resource scarcity and ecological degradation predicted to affect society’s progress, leaders and the institutions they run must play new roles to realize a sustainable future.

Breakthrough innovation is essential, requiring paradigm shifts and pivots in how we operate and function as a society.

Advanced education institutions – universities, colleges and polytechnic institutes – are ideally positioned to accelerate and scale the transition to a just and sustainable world. They already significantly contribute through their traditional teaching and research functions. Now we need them to intensify their efforts to tackle global challenges by going beyond teaching and research. Institutions must embed their social mandates into everything they do including within their administrative roles, capital projects, physical assets, and relationships.

Fortunately, community engagement is a burgeoning area of practice within advanced education. Myriad departments, centres and projects are involved in this nascent field of practice, with individual professors and institutes working with community partners on critical issues.


Despite a plethora of activities and pockets of great practice, a strong and strategic institutional commitment is often lacking. There is an absence of a narrative or framework that recognizes their importance, and that motivates, accelerates and scales social innovation – and celebrates its social impact.


Mobilizing institutions to contribute more holistically and consistently to social innovation and the communities they support starts by taking a community lens to an institution’s assets. These assets, or instruments, can be multi-purposed to achieve greater community impacts than their conventional counterparts. Investment for financial impact? Great. Investment for social and financial impact? Better. Procurement that achieves price, quality and convenience goals? Necessary. Social procurement? Better. And on, and on.

This is already happening.

SFU and McConnell Foundation commissioned me to write this report on “Maximizing the Capacities of Advanced Education Institutions to Build Social Infrastructure for Canadian Communities” to understand the state of play in which institutions harness non-traditional assets (including but beyond teaching and research) to contribute to social well-being. As shown in this diagram, institutions are starting to embed their social objectives into their financial, physical and relational roles alongside their traditional research and education objectives.

This paper identifies no less than thirty such opportunities available to institutions. There are likely more. Check out this one-pager for the preliminary list.

To use the examples above, note these investment, procurement and hiring initiatives within BC institutions:

  • Social Investment: Simon Fraser University set goals to reduce the carbon footprint of its investment portfolios by 30 percent by 2030 – in line with Canada’s national climate commitment. UBC’s investments include $265 million in social housing and another $117 million in greenhouse gas emission reduction projects.
  • Social Hiring: University of Victoria has an Employment Equity Plan with a goal to improve the participation of members of designated groups such as Indigenous Peoples, Visible Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in all jobs and at all levels where they are under-represented.
  • Social Procurement: The grounds and gardens at Vancouver Community College are maintained by Mission Possible, a maintenance company that employs inner-city residents and assists those with employment barriers to reach their full potential.

Academic institutions are also developing solutions-generating social infrastructure such as social innovation labs like Radius and thought leadership platforms like Clean Energy Canada. These innovation hubs are mobilizing talent, resources and relationships to ideate, test and scale essential societal solutions.

Notably, the private sector has much to offer the post-secondary sector on its social innovation journey. This guide for companies on social hiring, social procurement, living wages and social innovation can be easily tailored to advanced ed. Equally, companies seeking to embed their social purpose throughout their operations will be fast on the heels of educational institutions, learning and scaling their successes within their for-profit business models.

The public and private sectors have much to learn from each other. All post-secondary institutions are inherent drivers of social progress: the time is now ripe for a community pivot. The complexities of this era call for advanced education institutions to reconceive conventional assets and instruments to serve an even higher purpose.

We have no time to lose. Universities: show us what you’ve got!

For more insights on maximizing the capacity of advanced education to build social infrastructure, read this paper.


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Labs in Place: Weaving Networks to Achieve Systemic Change

Designed by Karen Gomez, background image from LEDlab.

In 2015, Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU partnered to initiate a social innovation lab to design, test, and scale solutions for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city.

In the consultation phase, the team analyzed current literature on social innovation labs to develop a presentation of how a lab process might work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We then took this presentation to DTES community organizers and change leaders, where we quickly learned that adaptation, flexibility and continual iteration needed to become our mantra. A centralized, process-driven approach was not welcome in this particular community, and had the dangerous potential to entrench problematic dynamics already at play.  

This early lesson started the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) on a path of iterating a social innovation lab model with the added characteristic of place. Our hypothesis is: when embedded in a community context, labs need to be respectful of preexisting relationships, networks, and change initiatives – and must adapt their role from process designers to network weavers, working in service of systemic change.     

Principles of Place-based Labs

Zaid Hassan (2015) describes social labs as multi-stakeholder change processes that are social, systemic, and experimental.1  The Social Innovation Lab Guide (2015) defines a Social Innovation Lab as a three-step process involving (1) Initiation, (2) Research and Preparation, and (3) the Workshops.2 While LEDlab embodies many lab-characteristics – such as problem identification, co-creation of solutions, rapid prototyping and continual learning – we felt compelled to re-imagine a lab model without highly structured workshop settings, where the inflow and outflow of participants could be more fluid.  

Below we share the principles of what we are now calling LEDlab’s place-based lab approach. These are our lessons learned from reconciling a more expert-driven social innovation lab process with our experience of working on the ground in the DTES community to create systemic change.

Please note: The principles below were gleaned from working in the DTES, which is a very rich and resilient community with a long history of activism and a difficult relationship with the research community. There are many people, places, and systems that may be open to more structured innovation processes, or which may present a different set of conditions, opportunities and constraints. The principles outlined below speak only to our current experience.

Daniel, past intern at the LEDlab, worked with the Downtown Eastside Market. The Market supports hundreds of vendors by providing a safe space to conduct business and allows them to earn extra income to supplement their income assistance. Image from LEDlab.

We embed ourselves in existing community networks and processes

Many labs seek to pull people out of their work in order to challenge assumptions and co-design new solutions. Our experience in the DTES suggests that in a neighbourhood and community context you can’t/shouldn’t pull people out of their work because it is EXACTLY their work and the ability to prototype within it that holds the substance and opportunity for solution-building. Convening of any kind is inherently exclusive – there are always people that are ‘in’ the group or the process and others who are not. In a community setting, the creation of any ‘exclusive group’, even when the group is convened for the good of the whole, can quickly become political and may cause real harm to relationships that exist between neighbours, friends, and colleagues.  

In a place-based lab model, we have learned instead to leave the community where they are and to embed ourselves into existing community networks and processes to identify high-impact ideas. We fundamentally think of innovation happening in and with the community, not about innovation happening in our lab.  

We build trust in service of systems change

We consistently ask ourselves: How can we add value? The answer is often surprising. Something as simple as sending a personal invitation to a meeting, calling a colleague to celebrate a win, or transitioning a network’s membership list to a listserv can offer tremendous value to a network. We often don’t place enough emphasis on the small acts of service that can build the trust within a network. The quality of relationships between people matter, and are so foundational to affecting systemic change.

We work at multiple scales, convening the ‘whole system’ in a responsive and emergent way

Interested in the incredible work of the LEDlab? They are hiring! Deadline to apply to their internship program is June 13, the internship is open to grad students only. Image from LEDlab

As ideas surface and gain momentum from various community members and stakeholder groups, the lab is able to responsively convene from across the system around a specific project idea or strategic initiative.  In this way, co-design is first grounded in community insights and felt needs. Second, we ask: who isn’t at the table, and bring together people with resources and mutual interest to develop out and test community-driven innovation.  

In the LEDlab model, there isn’t just one group of lab participants, but rather the lab is embedded in a multi-hub network, working on multiple solutions, where we play a bridging role across multiple networks, sectors, and scales. 

The Tapestry of Systems Change

Taken together, these principles inform a  lab model that sees itself as a platform for systemic change, willing and ready to respond to the emerging needs of the system in which it is embedded.

Recognizing that the DTES community is fertile ground for innovation, LEDlab’s work is two-fold:

  1. To keep our eye on, and give voice to, emerging ideas with the potential to contribute to the overall objective of creating an inclusive and vibrant local economy; and.
  2. To responsively convene new human groupings with the dynamic potential to create and implement innovative solutions. 

LEDlab is continuously creating and supporting social infrastructures to achieve new results. For this reason, our lab staff might more accurately be described as “systems entrepreneurs” – weaving their way across and through complex systems and networks, stitching together a vision and strategy for collective action. The approach is showing promising results in Vancouver’s inner city.

We welcome feedback from other practitioners, community members and academics. We look forward to adding to these principles and documenting the methodology in more detail as it evolves.

The author would like to thank Brenda Kuecks for her thought partnership and contributions to this blog.

Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. California, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Westley, F., Laban, S. (2015). Social Innovation Lab Guide. Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Retrieved from:

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