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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A disruptive Conversation with Al Etmanski

“Impact – Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation”

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation and hosts a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Al Etmanski. Al is a serial social entrepreneur, and author of the book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation. In this podcast, Al shares many insights on his years of working to change the system of care for people with disabilities. Al proposed and led the campaign to establish the world’s only disability savings plan – the RDSP. He is an Ashoka Fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He has been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. In this podcast episode, he provides wonderful insights from his years of experience on how we disrupt sectors or systems.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.



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A disruptive conversation with Cheryl Rose

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation but when I met him he was working with our SiG@Waterloo colleagues at WISIR. Much of our time together was spent evaluating the SiG Knowledge Hub. Since then, Keita has gone on to complete a PhD in Workplace Learning and Social Change and to kickstart a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Cheryl Rose. Cheryl is a Senior Fellow with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has spent many years working to support social change agents through education and training that helps them to have more impact.

In this episode, Cheryl shares a wealth of knowledge in how we can think about changing systems and sectors. Having been a mentor and coach to many disruptors, she reminds us to hold a systems lens or a complexity lens when thinking about generating change. For her, generating change is about accepting the honest complexity of our world. What are the implications of confronting honest complexity? With this question, she reminds us that change takes a long time and takes significant investments of resources. In the conversation, she stresses that resources are not just related to money, but are also connected to the social capital we invest in the problems we seek to solve.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.












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What happened to the map?

Have you filled out our survey? As we evaluate our current work and explore possible next steps, it is important for us to hear from you. The survey will give us a better sense of the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. We’re especially interested in where you access learning about social innovation.

Since 2007, SiG has seen the social innovation ecosystem blossom and last year we posted an earlier version of this map to visually depict that growth. Its purpose was  to demonstrate the strength of the sector for a meeting we were attending. It was a prototype if you like, developed under a tight deadline when it first became public. It was far from perfect and excluded some key players in the sector. Several iterations have since been developed in an effort to respond to our community.

We were excited by how popular the map was, and we decided to make it a project of its own. We are happy to release the infographic (below) that illustrates the sheer size of the sector in Canada, and the national/global reach of organizations well as, an open database to capture in more detail the incredible work of the sector.  

In red: filters will allow you to narrow organizations based on their area of operation and their impact (regional, national, or global). In green: if you want to look for a specific organization by name we recommend you use the text search feature with Ctrl+F or ⌘+F.

What is our criteria?

Social innovation is still fairly new to most, and many have never heard the term, much less identify their work as socially innovative. Given this, perhaps the most exciting aspect of mapping the ecosystem could be to capture who did see their work or the work of others as socially innovative AND provide an opportunity for people across the country to see what others are doing at a bird’s eye view.

In the last 10 years, the most satisfying work we’ve done has been in partnership with other organizations. It is our hope that people will find synergies in their work, learn about the work of great organizations, understand the incredible capacity of social innovation in Canada, and even connect with each other as they discover others who are encountering similar challenges in their work.

How can you contribute?

It’s inspiring to hear about the incredible work being done in Canada. There are incredible initiatives popping up in every corner of the country – from Code for Canada, to the LED Lab in Vancouver, to Inspire Nunavut, to the 4Rs Youth Movement. We recognize that social innovation is alive and well in every province despite our current database showing otherwise, and we hope you will take part in this project to reflect social innovation activity in Canada. Here are some ways to start:

  • Check the database

Make sure it includes your organization and that the work of your organization has been accurately captured. If it is not, change it! The database is open for anyone to edit.

  • Help us by capturing the work people are doing all over Canada

The database includes initiatives at all stages and sizes. Gaps we are especially eager to close are in the Northern provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island.

  • Take the time to learn more about the incredible work of others

You’ll be surprised to learn the incredible diversity of the work being done by others in Canada, and just how unique some of it is. For instance, Kudoz is an incredible learning platform in Burnaby, British Colombia for adults with cognitive disabilities that was a finalist for the 2016 Global Service Design Award.

  • Share the work of others

We don’t spend nearly enough time sharing the work being done in Canada. It is about time we stop being humble, and recognize what others around the world have – that Canada is a leader in social innovation. In the last year the ecosystem was recognized by the Economist in their Social Innovation Index 2016.

Who holds the keys to this project?

I was the one who originally created the visual and have been charged with keeping track (or losing track) of suggestions, but I am leaving SiG at the end of June to take the next step in my career. SiG will keep a copy of the database in the event something happens to the original, but we are giving this tool back to the community to take a shape and life of its own.

We are experimenting if you will, walking the talk of Social R&D.

Will you update the map?

The map is still a visual tool we will use at SiG for presentation and the most recent version will be available here, but will not be updated frequently. Let us know what you think of the infographic below.

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It Is Time We Honour The Communities

Have you filled out our survey? As we evaluate our current work and explore possible next steps, it is important for us to hear from you. The survey will give us a better sense of the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. We’re especially interested in where you access learning about social innovation.

From the Acadia Center

We honour the entrepreneur. The awards, magazine spreads, interviews and panels that recognize success and lessons learned, focus on the entrepreneur. The founder  is the star; the person who has taken risks to create a new business. In the world of social entrepreneurship however, risk doesn’t look the same.

The community and clients of social entrepreneurs take on a unique risk. To improve their lives, they put their trust, efforts and time into the social entrepreneur’s venture. Too often I’ve heard the sentiment that if an idea brought to a community doesn’t work, there is no harm, no foul. However, there is harm. There is an opportunity cost for the community. Had the community put their efforts into a different venture that could better achieve the outcomes, the community would be better off. Where are the awards and celebrations that honour the communities who place their trust and time in the social entrepreneurs?

What struck me at last year’s Skoll World Forum were the social entrepreneurs who spoke about their community with reverence. It was clear that social entrepreneurs understood that they were only able to do their work because their community is willing to be partners in charting new territory. It was the communities that offered the local nuances that brought success to the social entrepreneur’s work.

As a social entrepreneur, I have experienced this first hand. Our work at building I-Think has only been possible because of the ingenuity of and feedback from our community of educators and leaders. It has been our educators that have innovated on our work and demonstrated its application across grades, subjects and perceived student abilities. I hope we are building an education movement that is remarkable. If that recognition comes, it should in celebration of the educator leaders in the I-Think community. Currently, there is no way to make this happen. It is time that we honour the communities who make social entrepreneurship successful.

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