Recoding Our Innovation Systems

Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 as part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. It has been cross-posted with permission from Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).

The world is awash with innovation reports and indices comparing the innovation prowess of different countries, cities, and corporations. The two cornerstone assumptions underpinning these reports are that innovation is:

  • Anchored in technology, and
  • A driver of economic growth essential for societal success.

“Technological innovation,” says the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, “is the key to a competitive and growing economy, unlocking major productivity gains and allowing companies to move towards higher value-added activities.”

By contrast, social innovation remains a modestly growing separate domain, unconnected to most national mainstream innovation systems. By “mainstream,” I mean the combined technological and business innovation domain, often referred to as STEM or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, which is the beneficiary of generous government support across the OECD.

This gap between mainstream and social innovation is a problem if we are to collectively apply our ingenuity to tackling this century’s pressing global challenges. Those include climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and deepening social inequality, all of which are torqued by population growth now upwardly revised by the UN to reach 10.9 billion people by the year 2100.

In addition, social innovators’ own success requires that they reach beyond their important existing networks with other social innovators. UK academic Dominic Chalmers has identified a key insight for social innovators to succeed:

“If social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities. This myopic ‘local’ sourcing of knowledge within narrow domains is well documented in other industries and risks limiting the creative potential of social innovation.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

To be sure, there are important glimmers of change seen with governments. As well, some corporates are beginning to align their efforts with big challenges facing the world. The large US corporation DuPont has shifted its research agenda so that its “inclusive innovation” focuses on “applying science to great challenges.” Intel China is embracing the “power of corporate social innovation” noting that if  “the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives, we have to break down the boundaries between technology and social innovation.”

In Silicon Valley, the debate on its social role is beginning. As Michael S. Malone’s January 2015 article in MIT Technology Review, “The Purpose of Silicon Valley,” put the question: “Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?”

Here are three things the social innovation movement needs to do if it is to expand its societal role and shift how the mainstream operates:

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to participate in and shift their national innovation system to extend their impact. Achieving this involves strengthening the articulation of social innovation’s value, expanding its partnerships with other sectors, being more policy active, and ensuring that social innovation doesn’t exist only in its own silo (notwithstanding the on-going importance of social innovator peer networks).

Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a $240 million platform that is part of the global Grand Challenges network, has attempted to explain what it would mean to combine STEM, business and social innovation. They articulate an “integrated innovation” vision. “Integrated Innovation,” says GCC, “is the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach does not discount the singular benefits of each of these types of innovation, but rather highlights the powerful synergies that can be realized by aligning all three. Integrated Innovation recognizes that scientific/technological innovations have a greater chance of going to scale to achieve global impact and sustainability if they are developed from the outset in conjunction with appropriate social and business innovations.”

- Banksy

– Banksy

2. Advocate for social outcomes as a cornerstone metric for evaluating national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to be able to access more talent, technology and intellectual capital than currently possible on their own. With OECD countries’ social spending envelopes (health, education, employment insurance, pensions, etc) growing exponentially and unsustainably, this should not be difficult.

3. Develop and adopt an ethical framework to guide (social) innovation.
c/o Randy Robertson

c/o Randy Robertson

This is important because we always need to be actively thinking about our “north star,” ensuring that we re-engage the most vulnerable people and ecologies in society. Any useful technological or social innovation can be applied for malevolent purposes. And all innovations – social as well as technological – have unintended consequences or even a shadow side. A Declaration of Action from a July 2015 Canadian cross-sector retreat examining Social R&D called for an innovation system that “leads from a new ethical framework for R&D for public good.”

For example, will the sharing economy improve social good or fast-track growth of the new precariat? A growing number of people struggle to cope with the “slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work,” as many have observed, such as Derek Thompson in his troubling assessment “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic (July/August 2015).

The social innovation movement is well positioned to be the trim-tab, high leverage catalyst for bringing needed resources to bear on the innovation challenges our global community faces.

SiG Note: Email to sign-up for news and updates on the emergent Social R&D movement in Canada. 

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How Startups are Prototyping The Future of Business on Fogo Island

Uncovering the keys to resilience in one of Canada’s oldest communities

A social entrepreneur, an artist, and a fisherman walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not. These days, collaborations are vital to mesh old ways of knowing with new ways of business – one that holds community resilience and prosperity at its core. Social entrepreneurship has become one of the fastest growing sectors worldwide and we’re just beginning to see the potential here in Canada. This new frontier of business lies in our ability to collaborate, support impact-driven enterprises, and combine our country’s diverse assets.

So, what does a more purposeful approach to capitalism look like? Some of the answers may be found in the unlikeliest of areas – the remote coastal community of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, for example. A recent visit uncovered a new economic model that may hold learnings for communities everywhere.

My journey to Fogo began with an invitation from Shorefast Foundation, a Canadian charity building a new model for economic and cultural resilience to experience a bold new way of doing business that blends a 400-year old hosting and craft culture with reimagining business principles as a force for good.

On Fogo Island, the Shorefast Foundation approach to community revitalization has been to focus on three distinct elements: The development of a geotourism industry, with the construction of the Fogo Island Inn; Fogo Island Arts, an organization that facilitates artistic practice that is local in context and global in scope; and a micro-lending program where entrepreneurs can establish and grow their own small businesses.

In my observation, these Shorefast Foundation startups are going beyond classic business notions of keeping shareholders’ interests top-of-mind, optimizing value chains, protecting intellectual property, growth and scale as paramount aspirations, and so on – and shaking up the startup process. Two contextual pieces seem to form the bedrock of this new way.

The first is maintaining a jazz band approach.

The landscape (both physically and entrepreneurially) here is as remote, rural and rugged as it gets in Canada. There are no incubators, no hackathons, no business plan competitions, no startup drinks, no angel networks, no pitch fests, no entrepreneurship clubs, and no labs filled with post-it notes. Constraints of starting and doing business in such an environment are vast – ranging from resource scarcity and inconsistent access to goods, to infrastructure and unpredictable weather. Harsh constraints make one gutsy, force improvisation, and require flexibility, collaboration and a wider view of the ecosystem to which the business contributes. This approach is more akin to a jazz band than the classic way of doing business – top-down and rigid – which is more like an orchestra. As Miles Davis famously stated, it’s ‘the spaces between the notes’ that make all the difference.

The second is audacious questioning.

Shorefast Foundation startups are looking beyond recognizable patterns and ways, taking things back to first principles. They have given themselves the freedom and audacity to deeply consider, reflect on, and ask important questions such as: What is wealth? How much growth is good? Why is the value chain a chain? How might the community be stewards of a business? How can customers also be co-creators? How do you capture the value of resilience?

A jazz band approach and audacious questioning has led Shorefast startups to do a number of things differently. In my 50+ conversations with Fogo Islanders, I believe these principles – which have already started to take root there – will revolutionize the way business is done around the world. In particular, I’ve been obsessed with the following three mindsets and practices since my return.

#1: Look at the Long Picture, not just the Big Picture

Ocean“There is a ton to learn from the history of business in exploitation. They always said look at the big picture, but we say look at the long picture,” says one Fogo Island Inn team member. This got me thinking about conventional quarterly business cycles, sales targets, margins, and the one-dimensional accounting that captures “success.” The point made here is that business isn’t just a profit/loss story, but also an economy story. There isn’t just a gap-in-the-market story, but a long-term community vitalization story.

This reflection led to an equally memorable conversation on Shorefast’s thinking of moving beyond “profit as the sole proxy” to illustrate success. It reminds me of the notion that Dom Potter, a UK-based social entrepreneur articulated, “the profit proxy falls woefully short of capturing 99 percent of the value that an organization offers the world. It is a narrow definition of success that, as a standalone measure of anything but business model efficiency, belongs back in the 19th century.”

Shorefast startups are already demonstrating that we need to move on. Embracing the long picture means looking beyond profit. In order to do this, businesses must be incubated in and with community – and not “in silos” to generate rapid and maximum returns. Taking the long view means the product development does not happen in silo in a lab. Rather, in this case, the entire island is the lab – the businesses live, breathe and interact with the wider ecosystem every day from conception to boot up.

What might capitalism look like if we move beyond the profit proxy as a shorthand way of determining whether a business is successful or not?

#2: Let’s move from Value Chain to Value Mesh

Economic Nuitrition“Wealth for us is when the community benefits,” said an older gentleman from Tilting, a former fisherman who now spends his time painting, repairing and building houses. This made me reflect on value chains and why there was a top and bottom. What if the value chain was more like a mesh? In which everybody contributes, creates, and captures value. A demonstration of Shorefast’s value mesh thinking is the new “Economic Nutrition label” for their products – likely a first in the world. Just as food nutrition labeling created a revolution in the food industry, the Economic Nutrition label is intended to spark the same change for a better understanding of value, giving consumers a clearer definition of a dollar’s impact along the input chain.

What if every business incorporated an Economic Nutrition label to demonstrate their value mesh? How might this type of radical openness improve capitalism, as we know it today?

#3: Democratize Making and Bring Back Craft

RoomCraft was alive and thriving everywhere I looked on Fogo Island – from boat building and textiles to furniture making and tool welding. Since the beginning of European settlement in the late 1600s, Fogo Islanders, by virtue of their centuries of geographic isolation, have become masters of making things by hand, recycling and devising local solutions to all manner of challenges. As one woman in Shoal Bay put it, “craft is the lifeblood of the community. It is what’s been passed on from generation to generation to generation.” Today, scale and corporates have effectively killed craft. So, in reimagining principles of business, Shorefast had to creatively think about how to ensure craft contributed to a new kind of enterprise. They engaged artisans and makers from across the Island and from around the world, effectively democratizing making and putting the emphasis not in scale-based production, but in growing hand-made craft. As an example, members of the Winds and Waves Artisans’ Guild produce much of the textiles of Fogo Island Inn.

Imagine a world where craft could scale and making is local and democratized – in which you could have the world’s local car, furniture, technology, toys and more. This might be the future of craft and organizations like The Fogo Island Shop and Open Desk in the UK are already paving the way.

There is much that Shorefast Foundation’s principles, practices and mindsets can teach incubators, governments, entrepreneurs, corporations, and others working in or supporting enterprise. A renewed form of capitalism is already upon us – one that embraces openness, generates resilience, and is relevant for our interdependent reality.

I hope that these observations and provocations spark the same kind of audacious questioning about business in your boardrooms, lunchrooms, entrepreneurship clubs and pitch fests, as well as ideas on how we might integrate them into our organizations. Together, Canadians can become rockstars in generating community resilience by creating businesses that redefine success and are good for the world.

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Talking ’bout my generation

Decelerating is by definition, slowing down. That’s a prerequisite on Wasan Island; a beautiful cabin retreat in the heart of Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation, a German non-profit organization.

Great thinkers, from Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, Daniel Kahneman, to Ashoka Fellow and author, Al Etmanski, have written about the benefits of slow thinking.

As Al writes, “time to learn from [our] mistakes. It helps you recognize the meaning in seemingly random events and to connect the dots between disparate experiences, insights, relationships and activities.”

With a conceptual ‘hunch’ from Allyson Hewitt, a simple frame provided by Jason Pearman and Vinod Rajasekaran, and the facilitation prowess of Chris Moss, a small group convened on Wasan Island in late June to decelerate and do some slow thinking on inter-generational dialogue and relationships. We called it the Intergenerational Decelerator.

We were a disparate bunch, intentionally a range of ages and divergent experiences, all interested in what would bubble up over the few days we were together. I arrived thinking about a project I’ve been working on with a very cool group of young changemakers; while it’s still very much in its infancy, I wondered how the Decelerator would help me think through how it’s being designed.


In our very first introductory circle together, some big thorny topics were raised which, if slightly reframed, seemed to me to be critical questions, not just for our retreat, but for life in general. Here are the unedited notes I recorded after our session:

Even in our own circles, we struggle with compassion in a fight to prove and show what we know.

Is this an eternal struggle for meaning, a sense of identity, of proving that we exist, that we are here – dammit! I have something to contribute!

This is a central yearning.

This is an innate desire, perhaps?

We are driven by a need to feel as though our life has purpose and that life is worth living.

How can we – no matter what stage of life we are in – no matter how old we are – feel as though we are contributing to something greater than our own survival?

When we’re older we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

When we’re younger we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

What is a valuable contribution?

From this Day 1 – Session 1 reflection, lots of ideas were generated – all circling around this final question: what is a valuable contribution?

This question was filtered through various aspects of life, work and how society could reimagine contribution outside of the confines of traditional workplaces and financial compensation for efforts made. In conversations over the nature of work, some interesting proposals were made highlighting specific aspects and challenges that must addressed.

For example, Leo Plue, who runs the Abilities Centre in Whitby ON, reminded us that there are hundreds of thousands of people with post-graduate degrees who languish in day programming or isolation, because they also happen to have a disability. They are unable to make a valuable contribution. How can we change the structure and nature of work to support their inclusion and contribution?

Another example…

How can we develop a new lexicon that better articulates the contributions and capacities available to us across generations?
Move from:

Age arrow Life stage
Work arrow Contribution
Job arrow Engagement

Free ourselves from the confines of words like:
  • Retirement
  • Boomer
  • Millennial
  • Youth
Redefine or refine:
  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Inclusion
Be conscious of our default questions when we meet new people:

What do you do? arrow What do you like doing? What are you interested in? What are you engaged in?

Meaningful work

We developed ideas around new mentorship programs and processes of exchange between people at different life stages. How do we design environments that are generative? What is the role and value of voluntary contributions?

Our conversation was not happening in isolation and there are many ways to look at the big question of: what is a valuable contribution? In “The World Without Work,” in the current issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes: 

“Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages. In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”


Photo by Raquel Fletcher from Focus on Saskatchewan

The article is not much of a stretch – imagining a world that many residents in post-manufacturing small towns and young university graduates are already familiar with.

What we haven’t imagined collectively is how to design the second part for millions of people: environments where meaningful contributions can be made, for compensation (monetary or otherwise) that facilitate one’s own good physical and mental health, and by extension, whole communities.

With only 2.5 days, it was unrealistic to reach grand conclusions, but the group reflected on the confines of our current language, our cultural barriers to change and our desire to be more conscious of the assumptions we carry and words we use in our every day.

If you took some time to think about how you introduce yourself to people and what you want to know about them, what language do you use and what assumptions do you bring to the meeting?

I think we all felt these things were obvious, but some deliberate decelerated time together revealed how difficult it can be to put into practice.

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Systems Mapping

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015 on the RECODE Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from RECODE

Over the past year, we have had the pleasure of working with Intel on systems mapping, which involves crowdsourcing information gathered through their meticulously designed surveys and then sharing the data visually in partnership with Vibrant Data. Through this initiative, we have been fortunate to work with Intel’s Tony Salvador—engineer, social scientist, and most of all, a wonderful humanist. Below, Tony takes us into his world of mapping systems with RECODE.

It’s so totally cool that Canadians would consider it right and reasonable to come together to consider a question of national interest such as how to catalyze a new culture of innovation throughout the country.

At issue for us, as researchers at Intel working on systems mapping tools, is how to have the conversation in the best possible way, so that all voices are heard and that perspectives are aired to discover the wheat amidst the chaff. We find it very useful to think about Canada not just as a country or a thing like a donut, but rather as a system of interacting people, thoughts, actions, policies, and sentiments. In fact, we find it very useful to think about Canada as a complex, socio-technical system from which emerges order based on individual actions (and inactions). But as a complex system, individual actions are often not predictive of the emergent properties of the system.

We think a conversation considering the (re-)creation of a culture of innovation in Canada is not a reductive conversation; it’s not a conversation about the parts and it’s not a challenge resolved by an engineering approach. Rather, it’s a synthesized conversation about the whole. It’s a conversation that builds on itself, that combines and recombines ideas and thoughts to create new possibilities. Of course, the combinations of ideas and thoughts Canadians can – and do – have about innovation would be astronomical if there wasn’t a way to isolate the key points.

Our work with RECODE uses system mapping tools to help systematically and synthetically build a conversation and identify a set of waypoints to contribute to an innovation culture in Canada. And most importantly, as social scientists, we believe our tools help to establish a culture of innovation that is uniquely Canadian and that accounts for and builds on what it means to be Canadian.

We’ve already introduced the survey, which was very long and comprehensive for participants. The survey results are a cumulative list of important nodes or factors that together are the identified factors necessary to nourish an innovation culture. However, a list of ingredients does not tell you how to bake the cake. For this, we need to know the relative amounts of each, what things influence what other things, how much of some things are necessary, and how little of other things. To do this, we’ve worked with Eric Berlow from mappr to construct a mapping tool that allows participants to identify the relationships of any one node/factor to all other nodes/factors and to determine the strength (strong/weak) and the direction of the relationship (positive/negative).

The result, we hope, will be a systematically (Canadian) crowd-sourced complex network structure that synthesizes the list of all factors to provide a recipe, if you will, of waypoints to catalyze a socio-cultural system of innovation throughout Canada – one that takes into account aspects from the social to the economic. The map, like a treasure map, is a start. There will be many discussions on implementation. But we hope the map will provide a way to focus conversations on the most catalytic issues. For us, as researchers, it’s a privilege to work with RECODE and all partners on this quest(ion).

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Mexico’s CatapultaFest Mixes Heady Innovation-Culture Cocktail

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 9, 2015 on Social Innovation Exchange (SIX): Read. It has been cross-posted with permission from SIX

“I found my tribe!”

That’s how Pamela Alexander described her experience last year at Catapulta Festival 2014. She was invited as a media observer and soaked up her first exposure to social innovation, social purpose business and impact investing. This led her to re-examine her career. She ended up quitting her Mexico City media job and worked to align her values with her vocation. She began by moving to Tijuana, a depressed northern Mexican city, and starting a sustainable food-based initiative to help Mexican deportees from the USA build sustainable livelihoods.

FullSizeRender (8)I attended Catapulta 2015 as a board member and representative of SIX, which had been invited as part of Catapulta’s goal of being a local social innovation movement-builder connecting into global networks.

As co-founder Mark Beam described the Festival at its opening, “Catapulta’s goal is to be a platform to cultivate, inspire, and integrate social innovation with community.” Harry Halloran, founder of Catapulta funding partner Halloran Philanthropies, told me that Catapulta is different from other social entrepreneurship and social innovation events, like Skoll World Forum and SOCAP, by being embedded with community.

Although Catapulta had several international participants (from as far away as Uganda — for example, Sanga Moses shared the remarkable story of Eco-Fuel Africa), welcome impressions were gender balance (noticeable in a male-dominated culture) and the number of Oaxacans present, especially young people, students and individuals from projects like Sikanda’s community work with Pepenadores (waste pickers).

FullSizeRender (3)Oaxaca is a spectacular venue for social innovators. With a population of 500,000, the city has a rich indigenous culture and history coupled with a dramatic colonial setting. Some of the most exciting social innovations shared were the ones that drew from the local indigenous culture.

An inspiring example is Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio that intuitively blends technological, business, environmental, cultural and social innovation.

A social purpose business, Xaquixe is tackling numerous issues simultaneously:

  1. The closure in the last decade of 75% of Mexico’s artisanal glassworks, undermined by the escalating cost of energy (LP gas has gone up 300% in 5 years);
  2. The fact that less than 10% of waste glass is recycled;
  3. Protection of threatened indigenous cultural traditions;
  4. Diverting used cooking oil (now discarded often in environmentally damaging ways) into energy applications; and,
  5. The gap in sustainable livelihoods for a rapidly growing and young population.

FullSizeRender (7)Tackling the cost of energy, Xaquixe has innovated the recycling of used cooking oil as a substitute energy source, building a network of Oaxacan restaurants as suppliers. The oil is supplemented with solar, using parabolic mirrors (a natural for a glassmaker). Xaquixe’s design and research lead Salvador Pulido Arroyo says they hope to be entirely self-sufficient in energy in three years.

Xaquixe has created an allied nonprofit that will be providing technical training to local glassmaker artisans in how to self-reliantly adopt cooking oil energy technology and also adopt design adaptations to improve the efficiency of their ovens. Originally Xaquixe set up shop in Oaxaca because the local mescal liquor industry had no locally-sourced glass bottle fabrication.

Another start-up social innovation in Oaxaca is working with artisanal producers to build their own brands, allowing them to retain a much greater share of the final retail price of their products.

The physical setting of Catapulta alternated between the San Pablo Cultural Centre, a magnificently rehabilitated colonial building operated by a foundation and La Calera, a reclaimed and re-purposed brick factory that is now a “centre for social innovation, culture and art.”

La Calera creates an intersection for felicitous new discoveries. One example is the experience of a hip-hop artist, who described to me how he came to La Calera to teach hip-hop, discovered social innovation and turned his talents to creating a very successful arts program working with both at-risk youth and incarcerated youth at the local prison. He is now confronting the challenge of scaling his proven program to other prisons across Mexico.

One of the most avant garde initiatives presented at Catapulta was FactoryX, an incubator seeking to reinvent how business operates to ensure it is aligned with society’s best interests:

“FactoryX is a radical new experiment that aims to change the way organizations relate to society. By launching companies in a completely new way, we (a group of experienced entrepreneurs and builders) seek to solve systemic problems in the ecosystem via direct experimentation, learning, and sharing.”

The genius behind it is a social entrepreneur who is a successful alumnus of Yahoo and Google, Tom Chi.

FullSizeRender (1)

CatapultaFest connects and supports the growing local ecosystem of social innovators, like those involved with Oaxaca’s Impact Hub and SVX Mexico. It sees itself connecting the local with the global in ways that accelerate social innovation and embed the movement within the needs and cultural aspirations of Mexico.

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Microtainer: lab resources (July 2015)

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015 on the MaRS Solutions Lab Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.
Launched August 2013, the Microtainer series was created and curated by Satsuko VanAntwerp of Social Innovation Generation. The MaRS Solutions Lab is excited to take on this legacy to spread information that will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. To access the whole archive of Microtainers, please visit the Microtainers series page.
Interesting resources that came across our desks in the month of June 2015 (in no particular order):

News: Thursday, July 9th, is the global labs gathering in London with LabWorks! Follow #LabWorks for this exciting conference and the latest learnings from 50 labs globally. 

1. WISIR’s Social Innovation Lab Guide is out!

This long-awaited lab guide presents a step-by-step process in designing and implementing your social innovation lab, with tips and advice on how to iterate and adjust design based on the context. We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with WISIR’s team, including Frances Westley and Sam Laban, and to share our learnings within the Prologue with Joeri’s “Testing a Lab Model”.

Social Innovation Lab Guide

2. Kennisland’s Publication: “Lab Practice: creating spaces for social change

How to organise and run a social lab? Lab Practice aims to share experiences from doing a social lab with elderly people in Amsteldorp by sharing methodologies and stories from both changemakers and social lab facilitators.

3. Participate in RSD4 Symposium on Systemic Design in Banff, September 1-3

The RSD series has advanced an agenda for a strong integration between systems thinking and design to take on the most important challenges facing our planet today. The theme of this year’s symposium is At the Frontiers of Systemic Design.

Confirmed 5 extraordinary keynote speakers over the three day event:

  • Mugendi M’Rithaa, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa
  • Don Norman, University of California, San Diego, US
  • Lia Patrício, University of Porto, Portugal
  • Ann Pendleton-Jullian, The Ohio State University and Georgetown University, US
  • Ursula Tischner, Agency for Sustainable Design, Cologne, Germany
4. Service Design Berlin’s “Prototyping Public Servicesslidedeck:

A great slidedeck on the difference between prototyping and piloting and  3 approaches to prototyping in the public sector.

Service Design Berlin prototype

5. Thoughtwork’s blog on Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling adapted for UX:

As relevant for UX as for public + social innovation labs. Inspirational and interesting.

Microtainer UX

 6. Fast Co.Design’s “How Google Finally Got Design

A quick history to how design proliferated the DNA of Google. “Google has come so far, despite years of self-defeating battles over what constitutes good design. ‘When we brought up design at Google, people used to scoff,’ says John Wiley, a designer who, in nine years at Google, has seen the company transform. ‘It made it hard for us to hire great design talent because it didn’t seem like we had the full measure of respect for design.’ Here’s how an organization that once crowed about testing 42 shades of blue and called that design created a user-savvy organization that even Apple could learn from.”

7. Video: “Why Design Matters

A quick 3:42 minute video on why design matters, taking a historical approach on design through exploring politics and religion. Interesting!

Microtainer Why Design Matters

8. Business Insider’s “Art schools have minted more mega-unicorn startups than MIT

“The most surprising finding in this list is that MIT has produced fewer mega-unicorns than two tiny art schools — the Rhode Island School of Design and The Art Center School of Design. […] Two of Xiaomi’s founders were design majors. RISD, an art school that isn’t even included in the U.S. News & World Reports rankings, educated two of Airbnb’s founders.”

9. News: “Google creates Sidewalk Labs to redesign city living with technology

…”Google CEO Larry Page says Google will focus on improving city living for everyone by developing new technologies to deal with urban issues like cost of living, transportation, and energy usage. The new company, based in New York, will be headed by headed by Dan Doctoroff, formerly New York Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Bloomberg CEO.”

10. Recap of last week’s Civic Design Camp via Storify

We hosted Canada’s first Civic Design Camp on June 26, with an audience of 120+ designers, programmers, and civil servants to design responses to 5 real-life challenges submitted by the Canadian government and research organizations alike.

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44% of Toronto’s workforce is now precariously employed. Do we need an official response?


On June 25th, SiG is hosting a webinar with Sean Geobey of the University of Waterloo, Wingham Rowan, Director of the UK’s Beyond Jobs project, Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, Professor in the School of Labour Studies & Department of Economics, McMaster University and Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation, United Way Toronto. Wayne and Michelynn jointly authored “The Precarity Penalty.

In this interview, Sean and Wingham introduce the webinar subject matter.

Sean Geobey: The Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) report from United Way Toronto and McMaster University outlines precarious employment in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and the consequences for the 44% of the GTHA’s workforce working under precarious conditions. There are quite a few similarities between the Canadian labour market and that of the UK, though in some specific areas the regulatory environment and terminology is a bit different. For example, in Canada the conversation hasn’t included concepts like the “zero-hour contract.” However, there are still some very compelling parallels, and I wonder from your perspective in the UK, where is this labour market shift coming from?

Wingham Rowan: Decline of organized labour is part of it of course. But so is demand for responsiveness from customers, investors and service users. Employers are under increasing pressure to flex. And they now have sophisticated software that manages staff count with brutal efficiency.

SG: Here we see a lot of definitional uncertainty between temporary, involuntary part-time, casual, informal and precarious work. Some of this is tied to the difficulties researchers, activists and policymakers have in developing common language, but it seems much of it also comes from increasingly blurry boundaries between the concepts. To me this is particularly troubling as much of this is unregulated grey market activity. Is that something you’re seeing too?

WR: Increasingly that’s so. If you are only going to employ someone for a few hours here and there it’s very tempting to offer them cash-in-hand. Likewise, if you are a worker who doesn’t know if you will be called in by your employer today, you are going to seek whatever earning opportunities you can, if they decide you’re not required. Working informally is bad news in the long run. It takes individuals out of the system, in fear of detection, creating a ramp into further illicit activity.

Magnolia Laurie

SGGoing back to the PEPSO report, we see that precarious workers at all income levels have a harder time with the enforcement of legal workplace protections (both regulatory and through organized labour) and accessing services that enable them to improve their working conditions like childcare, training and transportation. I struggle with how much of the challenge is inherent in precarious labour markets and how much is because those markets don’t seem particularly transparent.

WR: Absolutely. If you are seeking odd hours of work here and there, to fit around your primary employment for instance, the quality of market you can access is crucial. Someone with conventional employment only enters the labour market every few years when it’s time to find a new job. An irregular worker can be in and out of the market, hoping to get hired, several times a day.

Current markets for odd hours of work in the community are inadequate: time consuming to use, there’s a high risk of transaction failure, high overheads. And they are too disparate to offer any meaningful data: a worker has no idea of where their opportunities are given their locality/skills/times of availability. There’s little hope of progression to new skills and higher paid, more secure work.

That problem needs to be solved for a lot of people. We hear a lot about the newly precarious worker. But there’s a core of around 20% of the population who NEED odd hours of work that fit around them. They could be carers, parents with complex childcare needs, those with unpredictable medical conditions, anyone starting a home business or students on low income. A job is not an option for many. They need a flow of personalized economic opportunities.

SGLabour markets have always functioned within regulatory and public investment frameworks and alongside social sector organizations. Our public education, health care, childcare and transportation infrastructure have been critical to the functioning of the 20th century labour market in Canada, as has been the role of organized labour in advocating worker protection and investment both through collective bargaining and their advocacy at-large. What I find compelling is the possibility that technologically-enhanced transparency in these precarious labour markets could enable reformation of those 20th century systems to better meet the needs of this workforce. Are you seeing any of those broader policy or organizing shifts?

WR: The British government has been far sighted around these issues. Since 2005, we’ve been building technology for what we call a CEDAH: Central Database of Available Hours. It’s very different from existing markets: city-wide, all possible types of work. Crucially it puts the individual in charge. They sell the hours they want, on their own terms, to as many employers as they wish.

The currency in these systems is reliability: does a person do what they say they will do? If they consistently fulfil the bookings that are within their parameters, they become increasingly valuable for local employers. So it pays to upskill them.

Collective bargaining for precarious workers is a tentative concept. Our work focuses on how you entice all the activity currently in shadow transactions into legitimate economies. Key to that is allowing each person to set their own parameters. So, I might be willing to do bookings on the other side of the city at short notice, but only for a very high rate. But I could be better value for a booking next week in the next street. I might also be more expensive for employers I don’t like. If I am reliable and responsive, they may just have to pay it. It’s crucial I have the data that informs my decisions of course. It may be that one-size-fits all payrates are too crude these days. There are better opportunities in giving workers the means to progress into new, higher paying, skills and types of work that fit their personal ambitions.

SGThe dark side to all this is the concern that online-enabled casualized labour will grind-down labour protections and wages even further than we have seen already. It is not hard to find stories of Uber and Lyft drivers or TaskRabbiters barely being able to scrape by in loosely regulated or completely unregulated markets. The fear that online labour markets are undermining labour standards has become increasingly common and I’d argue for good reason. While I am hopeful that the Ontario government’s review of labour and employment standards will help bring some of this work into focus, a major reworking of the regulatory environment hasn’t happened yet.

Similarly, while there have been some isolated steps to develop various “freelancer union” models, and while some sectors with a long history of intermittent work, such as construction and media, have well-established collective bargaining approaches, the organizing of precarious workers has been patchy at best. Ultimately my key concern is this – can online markets for labour enable a productive response to employment precarity, or must they necessarily push it to its negative extreme?

WR: It’s a fallacy to assume efficient markets mean a race to the floor in standards or pricing. A good market can unlock demand, support all sorts of interventions and allow workers all sorts of options denied now. It is poor quality markets, like TaskRabbit, that can mask so much unfairness. Obviously a market in the legitimate economy must enforce minimum wage and all sorts of other regulations. So key to raising income could be pushing up minimum wage as cities like Seattle have done.

Like it or not, it may be that precarious work is here to stay. It may be second best to a job, but we need to make it the best second best. Governments spend billions a year to make their jobs markets as inclusive and efficient as possible. They do next to nothing for those seeking irregular work. Perhaps it’s time for a full-spectrum employment policy that fosters the best possible markets for ALL forms of employment. There is a model of irregular work that is empowering, accessible, rewarding and potentially more secure than a job (because the individual has much wider relationships, experience and skills). It’s hard to glimpse given the appalling state of current precarious work. But I will be doing my best to explain what we’ve learned in the UK in the webinar.

Editor’s Question: What do you think after reading this post? Is the reality of precarious work here to stay or do we need to challenge this growing employment trend?

Join us online on June 25th for a more fulsome discussion and an opportunity to ask Sean and Wingham questions. Register!
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Seeing the patterns in our work for systems change

There was a strong sense that our Canadian Inspiring Action Series event on May 12 would be special.

We had yet to host Al Etmanski in Toronto, but he has been a close colleague for years. Alongside Vickie Cammack, Al began an exploration into Canada’s social innovation ecosystem before SiG was launched in 2007. This scoping work, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, built on years of experience in the disability sector, where trial and error, bridge building and empathy-based approaches informed their development of PLAN and also eventually, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).

They brought this experience into the SiG partnership and we all benefitted from it. Now everyone gets a chance to read much of Al’s wisdom in the form of IMPACT: 6 Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation.


At the Toronto “un-launch” of IMPACT, Al and local changemakers dug into each of the 6 patterns in detail to highlight practical and inspirational ideas for application in our own work. Hosting the evening with us, Allyson Hewitt, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at MaRS, provided some reflections on what she heard from Al and the guest panelists.

Two struck a chord in particular: Al Etmanski observed that the patterns often emerged out of a crisis, as when he and Vickie Cammack realized they were not making enough long term impact in their work with PLAN. They had to do things differently. During their secondment research in social innovation, one of their first observations was that movements are the ONLY way forward. It’s never good enough to just have great content.


Another important and difficult pattern to recognize was that friends come and go, but enemies can accumulate. To work for positive change, we must set the table for friends, adversaries and strangers. This dialogue is an end that enables trust.

“MaRS founder, Dr. John Evans, always said: ‘it is amazing, amazing,
what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit’” — Allyson Hewitt 

Moderating the panel discussion between the inspirational changemakers was Susan Pigott, who is currently consulting with MaRS and has deep leadership experience in the non-profit sector.

Joining Susan and Al, with wonderful insights of their own, were:

Watch the presentation to unearth all the nuggets!

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Allyson also captured so much of the magic in the following poem. Although it’s hugely helpful, it’s still in your best interests to read the book. Enjoy!


By Allyson Hewitt – with rhyming inspiration provided by Dr. Seuss


When one reaches a certain stage in life

One seeks a way to avoid, living in strife 

So Al has taken time to reflect

And share his thoughts, and interject

The lessons he’s learned, the patterns he’s seen

He’s been collecting them now since he was a teen

So what are these patterns he did imbue

Sit tight as I share them all with you

1. Think and act like a movement

That is the way to systems improvement

Pay attention to what’s going on in your field

Expand receptivity, increase your yield


2. Create a container for your content

That seems like a plan on which he is bent 

Make it easy for people to do the right thing

Inspire people to action, get them into the swing

3. Set the table for allies, adversaries and strangers

A welcoming environment helps us manage the dangers 

Dialogue and convening is more than a means to an end

Cultivate new relationships, is how your time you should spend

4. Mobilize your economic power

Change makers there is no need to cower 

Turn your social capital to create economic success

Both of your networks and others, all moving to yes

5. Advocate with empathy

Embrace those thought of as the enemy 

Seek to find an approach that is solutions-based

Work with government on the issues with which they are faced

And remember this, I tell you now

6. Who is as important as how

 Social innovation is about character, not technique

Bold humility is the trait that we do seek

So read Impact and share your views

Are those the patterns you indeed would choose? 

Or do you have others you would like to share

Then write them down, if you’ve time to spare


If not, no worries Al calls us to act

But first read the words of wisdom you’ll find in Impact


Editor’s Note: We’d love to make our presentations more impactful for you. Tell us how by filling out our short survey.

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Order of Canada honours Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack

For immediate release
May 8, 2015
Order of Canada honours social innovators Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack for dedication to fostering communities of care and belonging across Canada


Announced by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, today British Columbians, Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack will be appointed to the Order of Canada at a ceremony in Ottawa.

Al and Vickie founded the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) in 1989 as a family-led organization to secure a better future for people living with disabilities. Since that time, they have been instrumental in numerous social innovations, both locally and nationally. Perhaps most notable among their achievements is the development of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, which was championed into being by the late Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. Now an internationally replicated financial instrument, it follows their work with PLAN, working to secure financial independence for people living with a disability well into older age.

“There is perhaps nothing more important than to feel as though our lives matter, that we belong in our community and can contribute to its vitality,” said Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National. “Al and Vickie have made it their life’s work to create that sense of belonging for all Canadians. They have set a national agenda we can all rally behind.”

Etmanski and Cammack’s work on the RDSP was followed by the development of Tyze Personal Networks: an online tool that brings people together around someone receiving care. Tyze was a response to the other question that nagged them as parents – how do we create communities of belonging so that everyone feels they are cared for? Other work includes the Representation Agreement, the Family Support Institute, as well as valuable resources including Safe and Secure and A Good Life.

“Al and Vickie’s thoughtfulness and quiet determination to make this country a nation of inclusion will have ripple effects for generations. We are hugely fortunate to work so closely with them to foster a culture of social innovation in Canada,” said Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

Al Etmanski released a new book in April, Impact: 6 Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation, in which he champions our country’s unique, grassroots methods of achieving social change. Drawing on stories from more than 50 Canadian trailblazers – including Me to We, Greenpeace and Idle No More – Al Etmanski explores essential steps required to change the status quo. Al will be speaking about this new resource in Toronto on the evening of Tuesday, May 12 at the MaRS Discovery District.

The Order of Canada is one of Canada’s highest civilian honours. It recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

For comments or interview opportunities, please contact:


Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National

w: 647.260.7844

m: 416.566.5313

t: @sigeneration


Laurence Miall

Director, Strategic Communications

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

w: 514.288.1221 

m: 438-878-1703

t: @jwmcconnell

ABOUT: SOCIAL INNOVATION GENERATION                                 

SiG is a collaborative partnership founded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Discovery District, and the PLAN Institute. Our ultimate goal is to support whole system change through changing the broader economic, cultural and policy context in Canada to allow social innovations to flourish.


Established in 1937, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation engages Canadians in building a more innovative, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient society. The Foundation’s purpose is to enhance Canada’s ability to address complex social, environmental and economic challenges. We accomplish this by developing, testing, and applying innovative approaches and solutions; by strengthening the community sector; and by collaborating with partners in the community, private, and public sectors. 

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Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine

Canadians take great pride in our history of innovating for the public good. Today there are a wide range of people, projects, networks, and organizations working in the social impact space across diverse sectors – ranging from enterprises and social service agencies to schools and community foundations.

Innovations such as The Women’s Institute (1897), the Palliative Care Movement, Insite - North America’s only supervised injection site, Roots of Empathy, the Desjardins and Credit Union Movement, and the Registered Disability Savings Plan are Canadian social innovations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors that have and are significantly improving outcomes around the world.

forhomeandcountryInsite_(logo)Exported ROE2

Yet, it’s an uncomfortable fact that Canada’s many billions spent in social outcomes can produce better outcomes. Our contention is that while the social impact sector has always conducted research & development (R&D) and innovation to some degree, the scale and complexity of the challenges we face today mean we need to dramatically up our game.

What if Canadians embraced the value of R&D for

generating outstanding outcomes in social impact?

R&D for social impact could be far more intentional, connected, and supported. In that way, it would be much more accessible, widespread, celebrated, and most importantly, impactful.

What if we had a virtually accessible, distributed R&D function for the sector that everybody could share in and benefit from? This would an audacious opportunity for Canada as we near our country’s 150th birthday in 2017: we can create a breakthrough in the way that R&D is conceptualized, catalyzed, shared, incentivized, and made accessible for the world.

The functions of an R&D engine might be a range of possibilities, including catalyzing and incentivizing — as well as amplifying and sharing — new impactful processes, approaches, knowledge and models for the benefit of all. This might include:

  • helping to catalyze a national network of social innovation labs in communities;
  • designing a pro-active obsolescence management system for social programs and services; or, 
  • developing a financial incentive for NGOs to conduct R&D, similar to the Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SRED) tax credit available for the private sector.

R&D has shifted the paradigm of how new and relevant solutions get unleashed in sectors such as: automobile, life sciences, construction, and technology. Now imagine the benefits of robust national R&D resources and support systems for the immigrant settlement, or child & youth development, or senior care sectors.

Canada has yet to marshall required resources to develop a comprehensive networked R&D engine (our metaphor for Canada’s high octane social impact R&D function for the 21st century) that all sectors working to better the world can use. Not-for-profit leaders, passionate amateurs, social purpose entrepreneurs, public policy professionals, philanthropists, think tanks, front-line social service professionals, corporates, private and community foundations, and academic partners are often unable to access the appropriate resources to conduct R&D and innovate on an ongoing basis.

An R&D engine could help share knowledge, tools, platforms, innovation systems and supports to:
  • rigorously define problems;
  • generate hypotheses and conduct better experiments;
  • leverage big data in new ways being pioneered for the social sector by organizations like Data For Good and others;
  • access models and approaches from across the sector and beyond;
  • build and test prototypes;
  • assess which initiatives to scale or pivot;
  • share failures;
  • simulate solutions and scenarios;
  • design feedback loops for pro-active obsolescence management; and,
  • surface and share what works widely and accessibly.

Platforms like MaRS Solutions Lab, Alberta’s CoLab, Canada’s funding bodies’ knowledge mobilization networks (jointly funded by SSHRC, CIHR and NSERC), Ashoka Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund and Innoweave, Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities, the global Impact Hub network (and home-grown domestic analogues like the Centre for Social Innovation and HiVE), BC Partners for Social Impact, CIFAR, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK’s Nesta and What Works Network serve as helpful launch points.


A sector-wide R&D engine would learn from, expand upon and complement existing platforms, and offer Canada the ability to actively foster process, product and systems innovation in a cohesive and networked way by better generating the right questions, challenging existing orthodoxies, launching grand challenge competitions, and catalyzing moonshots – practices, systems, tools or products that have the potential to become mainstream in 10 years.

Such an engine could:
  • catalyze, conduct, apply and evaluate R&D;
  • incentivize R&D;
  • build accessible R&D capacity, available to organizations and passionate amateurs;
  • strengthen purposeful cross-disciplinary and cross-generational collaboration;
  • scout, harvest and share R&D from across the sector and beyond; and,
  • celebrate and nurture a culture of inquiry.

More broadly, it could expand our collective understanding of how social and systems innovation takes place in Canada and how it can be accelerated. The engine could become a proof point demonstrating the power of R&D unleashed to do good better.

Why does R&D matter?

Canada is fortunate to have some remarkable social service systems. Unfortunately, many of them, conceived and deployed many decades ago, are struggling to renew themselves.  They aspire to evolve through continuous refinement to ensure they stay relevant for the growing complexity of Canadians’ needs in the 21st century. Think of challenges like fetal alcohol syndrome, increasingly unequal levels of educational attainment for different populations, child and youth mental health, an aging population, or retooling a curative health system into a preventative one. New R&D support tools like the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and the Social Progress Index can be used in local or national contexts to help orient public policy.


While Canadian social impact organizations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors have deep knowledge about the vulnerable populations they serve, they are often trapped in highly restrictive funding models that don’t value their strategic work as social impact innovators. They lack access to financial, knowledge, process and systems innovation resources — resources that would enable experimentation, innovation, cross-sector collaboration and multi-organization consortia to respond to new needs and to improve outcomes on longstanding social problems.

New insights and new tools are emerging. The last decade has produced an enormous suite of applicable new knowledge and tools. Think of the new methodologies and approaches, like social innovation labs, for designing enhanced social outcomes that derive from…

  • the application (and combination) of new hard and soft technologies (e.g. smart phones and apps);
  • new “nudge” insights or “social stickiness” (informed by the rapidly growing knowledge about human psychology and brain science); and, 
  • the range of ways that social innovation researchers (an academic field only several decades old) are beginning to crack the innovation code.

Many social service delivery systems, originally established and funded only to ameliorate symptoms, are itching to repurpose themselves and solve problems at their roots by using their accumulated experiential wisdom plus new innovation tools and insights to reinvent pathways to sustainable wellbeing.

Think of a microcosm of social delivery, the immigrant settlement community. Currently, it is a billion dollar industry on its own. Doesn’t it make sense to have a national centre of excellence supporting immigrant settlement service innovation?

Do we have an innovation system commensurate

with our public spend for social outcomes?

Looking down from 70,000 feet, Canada’s public spending on social outcomes (health, education and social policy) represents a whopping 17% of Canada’s GDP, or $338 billion (2014 estimate). Canada’s not-for-profit sector (including hospitals and universities) is calculated to be about 7% of GDP or $100.7 billion (2007). While there is some very sophisticated R&D in parts of the social impact sector, like health, there is a real thirst for R&D by leaders in others, like frontline community services.

Now imagine…

What if social impact organizations had access to an R&D function in the same way they have access to a finance or communications function? What if funders, donors, and grantmakers support, incentivize and even reward R&D? What if an R&D engine could help organizations with pro-active obsolescence management, so social services and programs are constantly renewed? What if we could invest in growing R&D capacity within organizations?

What if Canada led the world in achieving breakthroughs in homelessness, child and youth mental illness, community care, and other complex challenges as a result of a robust and integrated R&D function shared by social impact organizations across the country?

Author’s note: The authors would like to thank outside readers, listed below, for making important comments on earlier drafts of this blog. Of course, any errors or affirmations remain the responsibility of the authors. Thanks to: Maureen Fair, Zoe Fleming, Tatiana Fraser, Allyson Hewitt, Stephen Huddart, Indy Johar, Luc Lalande and Geraldine Cahill.

About the authors

Tim Draimin Photo smallTim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG), partners on collaborative cross-sector initiatives strengthening Canada’s social innovation ecosystem. He is a member of the scientific advisory board of Grand Challenges Canada and a senior adviser to MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.

unnamedVinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader helping to enhance Canada’s impact infrastructure so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He works with The HUB, the world’s fastest-growing professional community and innovation platform for people working to better the world. Vinod is also involved in HUB’s incubation of Rideau Hall Foundation, which aims to catalyze and align ideas, people and resources to move the Canadian spirit forward.

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