Empathy – a key element for systems change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

community

Source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

- Arianna Huffington, Co-founder, the Huffington Post

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

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

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

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

- Ashoka

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

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What is the civic intelligence of your university or college?

A couple of years ago, Forbes Magazine and other news outlets reported on the “Smartest Colleges” in the United States. The brain training company Lumosity announced that MIT was smartest, followed by Harvard and Stanford, based on how well students had performed on a battery of online puzzles.

Many of my students (and I) suspected that this focus on “smartness” received more attention than it deserves. Although puzzle solving may be a reasonable indicator of success for certain occupations, such as computer programming, it’s not necessarily a good measure of whether a person will make a good citizen.

For one thing, good citizens are likely to feel responsibility towards their fellow citizens and have the “democratic faith” that John Dewey wrote about. For another thing, puzzle solving is a far cry from the types of “wicked problems” such as inequality, oppression, climate change and environmental degradation that citizens must actually address (and not just through voting). Moreover, the mistaken and dangerous idea that exact answers can be found for complex social problems by treating the world like a puzzle or a computer algorithm, may be more likely to prevail if puzzle solving is seen as the ultimate achievement.

I teach at the Evergreen State College (WA, USA), a non-traditional progressive liberal arts college. Evergreen is a public college that offers a variety of interdisciplinary programs that are often team-taught. Students are evaluated with written narratives, not letter or numeric grades. And I’m happy to say that Evergreen is one of the 40 colleges featured in the book Colleges That Change Lives.

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

At Evergreen I offer classes and a research lab that examine — and practice — civic intelligence, the capacity for people to work together effectively and equitably to address shared challenges. Civic intelligence puts the focus on our actual and potential ability to govern ourselves wisely. More importantly, it looks at how we might diagnose and improve this ability. My students and I have been exploring the idea of civic intelligence for at least 15 years.  We explore how people might make their communities, and the world, better for all.

In response to our concerns about “smartness” as the über ranking of colleges, our “Social Imagination and Civic Intelligence” program decided to explore alternative ranking approaches based on civic intelligence. The exercise proved to be educational for all of us; the challenges of identifying, interpreting, and presenting social data can’t really be appreciated if one only sees somebody else’s final results. And I admit that the utopian notion that colleges might actually compete for high civic intelligence scores was an exciting prospect.

Working collaboratively, we identified five broad dimensions that highlight how the civic intelligence of a college could be assessed. Obtaining viable values for these and somehow rolling them together in a meaningful way are the logical next steps. Then, in a civically intelligent spirit, we hope to evaluate this approach with results and feedback from several colleges and revise our approach as necessary.

(1) How does the college conduct its own affairs in civically intelligent ways? 

Are meetings open and are finances and grievance procedures transparent? Are there processes in place for communication across sectoral boundaries and is there openness and participation in curricular development? Do faculty and students participate in its evaluation?

(2) What does the college do to promote civic intelligence among students?

This includes the classroom and other forms of evaluated teacher / student activities as well as other activities outside the classroom including student groups and activities, informal as well as formal. We also identified interdisciplinary classes, especially those focused on societal problem-solving, as very important, as well as the quantity and quality of student engagement and leadership in educational endeavors.

(3) How does the college cultivate civic intelligence in the community?

This was intended to identify how the college cultivated civic intelligence beyond its perimeter and to what extent the work of the college influences the wider world. What percentage of students at the college are engaged in internships with educational, service, or non-profit organizations? Is there a legacy of non-profit groups in the community that were launched by students or faculty at the college or though educational efforts that started there? (See, for example, the Sustainability in Prisons Project). Are events related to civic intelligence open to the public? Does the college maintain a community partnership focus through centres and ongoing collaborative projects? And does the college enter into alliances with other colleges to build networks of civic intelligence that increase dialogue and innovation and provide more opportunities for students and faculty members?

(4) How does the college address significant societal issues and needs?

This refers primarily to how well and to what extent the college performs its social role of preparing students for the future. A college that accepted a large number of students who typically aren’t accepted, or are statistically more likely to drop out, runs the risk of receiving low marks in many ranking systems. But if the college educates these students and graduates them in higher numbers, those schools would be demonstrating higher civic intelligence than ones that only accepted those who seemed most likely to succeed. For this question, we also identified questions related to financial barriers, rates of student graduation, support for minority, first-generation students and other traditionally marginalized groups, and general success with employment after college with special attention to jobs in education, non-profits, and social service.

(5) What were the enduring lessons in respect to civic intelligence that the college imparted on its graduates?

Learning this probably means obtaining some measures related to attitudes, awareness, skills, or, even, social imagination when students enter and when they leave, including perceptions, as well as actions. We’re interested in developing active civically intelligent citizens for the long-haul. Hence, ideally, we’d gather feedback on graduates at regular intervals; do they work for non-profits or did they start one, are they in public service or benefit corporations? Do they work with economically disadvantaged people or migrants or refugees?

While a college may reap a more prestigious ranking by concentrating on puzzle-determined “smartness” in both admissions and pedagogy, America’s democracy depends on the civic intelligence — which includes creativity, skills, compassion and many other characteristics— of all of its citizens. This broad focus, while more difficult to implement, must not be ignored in the rush to enshrine STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — as the preeminent educational pursuit.

Are there representatives from three or so schools in North America who are willing to tackle this initial challenge?

We haven’t gone to the next step – that of developing an approach where colleges could conduct a self-evaluation that would yield valid data.

We will continue our examination of civic intelligence at Evergreen and we encourage other schools to examine theirs. The rankings, of course, aren’t intended to be permanent. They are aspirational and, with work and encouragement, the hope is that colleges and universities will become a critical backbone of social purpose, cooperation and civic intelligence that builds on their deep experience advancing the world’s knowledge and humanity.

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Remaking a Living: A shared journey of social innovation

This blog can only do so much to share the inspiring journey of the Remaking a Living Project. If you would like to learn more about their journey, process, and  recommendations, please visit the Remaking a Living website and the project blog. All images were provided by the Remaking a Living Project unless indicated otherwise.

Our world is filled with complexity that cannot be grasped merely by way of numbers or facts.

A prime example is the unemployment rate – a widely cited statistic that fails to tell the whole story of those who find themselves not currently working; it only counts those who have looked for work in the past four weeks.

So where do the rest get counted? Statistics Canada refers to people who want to be working but have given up, over the short term or the long term, as ‘discouraged workers’ and considers them outside the work force, rather than ‘unemployed.’ These are the people that the Remaking a Living project sought to understand. They wanted to hear from the people who aren’t in the news and don’t make it to, or find success at, the employment centre. Mostly, they wanted to know:

How can we best assist those who have been marginalized in the labour force, so they can participate in the economy on their own terms?
Natalie Napier hard at work. Image provided by the Remaking a Living project.

Natalie Napier hard at work during the summer.

The process began last summer in Peterborough, which often ranks as the municipality with the highest unemployment rate in Canada. Natalie Napier, from the Community Opportunity & Innovation Network (COIN), led a small team to explore this question with coaching from InWithForward (IWF), an organization that works all over the world to re-design social services from the perspective of the people who use them, and financial support from the Atkinson FoundationUnited Way of Peterborough, and the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Natalie Napier to chat about Remaking a Living:

KG: How did you become involved in this project and what were you doing at COIN prior to this?

NN: I have been at COIN for five years – it all started with an internship. These days my title is Lead Specialist in Innovation Projects. I was getting exposure to the innovation lab model, and I liked the idea of people from all parts of a system coming together to develop more holistic solutions, but in practice the innovation lab seemed to be geared to more privileged members of systems and the last thing I wanted was to carry out a project in which we learn about people experiencing a problem from other people.

KG: This kind of work is – for many- a completely new approach. What inspired the project?

NN: We were inspired by the Atkinson Foundation’s Decent Work Fund that asked, “What is decent work?”. COIN works with people who are marginalized from the workforce, sometimes people who have never had a job. I wanted to explore this question, but I didn’t want to get a grant and have none of the funding reach the very people I was hoping to help. Atkinson put us in touch with IWF.

KG: How did IWF become involved as a coach? I believe this is the first time they coached someone within an organization to conduct the work alone.

NN: The great thing about IWF is that they are always willing to think “How can this be done differently?”. COIN was excited about the potential, but as a small organization – even with our incredible partners – we were not in the position to hire IWF the usual way and they had other projects still in progress. Eventually we came to a solution: I would manage the project with a team and IWF would coach me, mostly remotely.

KG: I understand that Remaking a Living staged various interactions, which I was fascinated by. How did you come up with unique ways to approach people?

Watermelon Trading Post. Image provided by the Remaking a Living Project.

Watermelon Trading Post.

NN: IWF taught us to think of each interaction as a design brief. In one of the interactions, we wanted to get out of the city and talk to people who could tell us first hand about the experience of rural long term unemployment. A contact suggested a food cupboard based out of a church and the organizers of this food cupboard gave us some parametres, mostly to reduce any sense of stigma users might feel. We had to be inside the Church at the back of the room in which people wait to be able to access food and supplies; people had to choose to go out of their way to talk to us. Our goal was to stand out, to be family-friendly, to offer something of value, and to make people feel comfortable enough to tell us their stories.

Throughout the summer the project staged various interactions to explore this question, like a makeshift sneaker cleaning station outside a shelter to understand the impact of peer networks. Image  was provided by the Remaking a Living Project.

Another interaction was a makeshift sneaker cleaning station outside of a community dinner to understand the impact of peer networks.

The staff also mentioned that fresh fruit wasn’t usually available so when watermelons went on sale, we recognized them as the great big, juicy props they are and came up with the Watermelon Trading Post. A central value behind this project has been reciprocity, so we always had something to offer.

KG: How did you adapt to going from working inside an office to interacting with people all the time?

NN: For me, this project was about designing programs outside of boardrooms and I saw getting ‘out there’ as part of the process. IWF’s coaching had prepared me for it, and I am outgoing, but it wasn’t always easy. The people who we were trying to approach are often under-stimulated and isolated since they don’t have workplace interactions or spending money for activities. We found that as long as we struck the right note, and had something to offer (a laugh, watermelon etc), people were happy to chat.

KG: What were the obstacles you encountered?

NN: This was an incredible learning experience, but when you are processing so much yourself, it can be hard to share it with others. I found it really challenging to describe this project and its potential outcome to our funders. We also had to adapt IWF’s process to our non-profit: for example, our board wondered whether our adventures into people’s homes would be covered under our insurance and health and safety policy.

The finished web product of the Remaking a Living project, with their prototyped solutions.

The finished website of the Remaking a Living project, with their proposed solutions.

KG: What lesson did you take away from this process?

NN: I took two lessons away from this process. The first is the incredible challenge of communicating the value of this work with any degree of complexity to anyone, including and especially to those within my own organization. This was one reason the website was so important to me. We worked really hard not just to explain, but to show what our work was about. I had many important conversations in which I wasn’t able to get the point across; words utterly failed me.

Anyone working in the social sector knows this work is challenging; we all get frustrated with the results of our work and admit that we need new approaches, but we all still have an investment in some of the status quo. When someone comes along and transmits a message about a different way of doing things, we can surprise ourselves by getting our backs up. I learned that I needed to connect emotionally, not just intellectually. I needed to invite more people on the journey with me, rather than just focusing on finding the right words.

The second lesson I learned was that organizational learning and change takes time. IWF is designed to move at the speed of light: to analyze and reinvent. It was exciting and invigorating to work with an organization that has that kind of energy. My organization, while small and relatively agile, is designed to provide the stability of inclusive, flexible programming to people who are marginalized. Those are two very different machines. I wanted to import some of that IWF magic to my own organization, but I met resistance. At the time, it felt like a brick wall that I could not get through, but I can see now that I was just pushing too hard. Opportunities to incorporate aspects of IWF’s Grounded Change approach seem to abound now.

We don’t recognize patience as a virtue in innovation nearly enough.

KG: Would you say there is an interest in trying new things within Peterborough’s philanthropic landscape?

Last November our Executive Director spoke at the Philanthropy Forum in Peterborough about Social Innovation - the appetite is there.

Last November, SiG ED, Tim Draimin, spoke at the Philanthropy Forum in Peterborough about social innovation – the appetite is there. Photo provided by the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

NN: The very fact that all these partners within Peterborough’s social and philanthropic landscape funded our project, and that so many local organizations allowed us to come into their spaces, is evidence that there is an appetite for new things. There are several really great grassroots projects and programs cropping up in Peterborough. Smaller organizations are often able to innovate with a nimbleness and boldness that larger institutions lack until there is more evidence available.

 KG: Do you think you’ll try this approach again?

NN: While the Remaking a Living Project has not found traction with its proposed solution ideas, it is still early. There is a lot of interest in exploring different issues using a similar process. I am currently crafting another project with this approach, including all the lessons learned from our first go – particularly the need to incorporate partners into the process.

I can’t imagine that anything I do in the future won’t owe something to IWF’s work. I am an evangelist. I think everybody deserves to be a force in the definition of ‘problems’ and creation of solutions that are about their lives. I don’t think there are many situations in which we should work any other way. I can’t go back.

Debriefers

IWF suggested that the project assemble a team of people who would be sympathetic to the project, but not afraid to ask tough questions and make us see things from different angles. They assembled the debriefers from different sectors who would look at what they were doing, asked questions, offer practical advice, and barrier-bust.

 

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What does Canada look like in 2067?

I first heard this question asked by the leadership team at MaRS’ Studio Y in Toronto in early 2015. It was the echo of a similar question posed in a 2015 Possible Canadas workshop convened by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Reos Partners. It’s the kind of question that passionate young people get excited about answering.

Throughout my time with Social Innovation Generation (SiG), we have looked for ways to support the next generation of social change leaders. In hearing the question,“What does 2067 look like?”, and sensing the growing energy to spend time answering it, a cohort of youth leaders, youth-led organizations and SiG began exploring the development of a vision and how we could get there together.

Enter the 4Rs Youth Movement, Apathy is Boring, Studio Y and some graduates from the University of Waterloo Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, with supportive energy from the McConnell Foundation and ImagiNation150. Together, these groups represented a wide range of experience, knowhow and action, from systems thinking to movement building to civic action to reconciliation and deep partnership.

hed_ottawa

Photo: Renaud Philippe

Several of the early participants familiar with systems thinking wanted to put their research into action, so there was a lot of talk about committing to transformational change. Some of the Diploma graduates wanted to build on the work they had just completed for their program, while others were interested in keeping the focus very broad to allow for an emergent pathway forward.

With diverse directions on the table, instead of agreeing on a particular idea to collaborate on, we focused instead on agreeing on a common vision for 2067.

Waterloo graduate and collaborator, Derek Alton, called it finding our north star. It meant finding common language and agreement that could guide us for the next 50 years. No small task. We noodled around with language that would keep us all going when life inevitably throws curve balls. What could bring us back to centre when we travel down divergent roads or down rabbit holes?

This is where we landed:

In 2067, the diversity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who share these lands are in an authentic and inclusive relationship with each other and with the natural environment.

Each word was carefully chosen. We wanted to acknowledge and include everyone. We wanted relationships between people to be authentic – meaningful, respectful, honest – and for equal respect to be shown to the natural environment.

Photo: Cheryl Rose

Photo: Cheryl Rose

Importantly, the words also built off those spoken by Jess Bolduc, who heads up the 4Rs Youth Movement and was part of our cohort from inception. She placed the language of our north star in an Indigenous context with particular attention to our relationship to the land.

Once we had agreed on the north star, we turned our attention to designing a pathway to get there. The subsequent months were pretty murky to say the least. There were many ideas and also several challenges to participation. Despite wanting to engage, some of the recent Diploma graduates felt the pinch to focus on other work. For some of the organizations involved, our joint project felt like a distraction from more pressing initiatives. While wanting to remain agnostic about and open to what the work would become, it was difficult for me to see the early energy dissipate.

And then there was a shift.

2015 was a big year in Canada for several reasons. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released, including 94 Calls to Action. The first Indigenous Innovation Summit was held in Winnipeg. The federal election brought in a new government who immediately announced an inquiry into the deaths of murdered and missing Indigenous women and a commitment to answer the TRC calls.

In parallel, and in a much quieter setting, I was fortunate to be present for a convening organized by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Canada Council and The Circle on Indigenous Philanthropy. It was a retreat for artists who had received funding for {Re}conciliation: a groundbreaking initiative to promote artistic collaborations that look to the past & future for new dialogues between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Following the retreat, and in recognition of the growing momentum of the 4Rs Youth Movement and the national energy around reconciliation, it suddenly made much more sense for our small team to focus our vision on Reconciliation. The 4Rs’ mission is to change the country by changing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. Over the past year, 4Rs has developed a cross-cultural dialogue framework to articulate what they have learned about what is needed in a shared experience for young people to engage in dialogue that furthers respect, reciprocity, reconciliation, and relevance. This has been a crucial year in building shared capacity as young people to lead dialogue in ways that honour its complexity, and respect the vision of 4Rs to support the change that Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth want to see.

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Photo: www.4rsyouth.ca

By flowing with this energy, we thought we might uncover how we could make a unique and helpful contribution and nurture the rising tide. So we placed the 4Rs approach at the centre of our work. Rather than duplicate efforts, we are now working to amplify their outreach and produce a shared story of 18 months of dialogue and visioning with and by youth across the country. The journey story will be shared at a national gathering in November 2017.

It is an ambitious project and it has already provided many lessons for me.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has been an early champion of our exploration and I’ve shared this blog with their community as well. The way forward will be strengthened by partnerships with more and different organizations and networks. I suspect the rest of the way to 2067 will be equally dependent on collaboration. Let’s see what we find out as we journey on.

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Seeking! Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Social Innovation

The University of Waterloo’s Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) is offering a postdoctoral fellowship to start August 1, 2016 for one year. WISIR was founded as part of a national initiative funded by The J.W McConnell Family Foundation and is designed to build capacity for broad system change in Canada.

  • One year fulltime postdoctoral fellowship
  • $50,000 annual salary, office and administrative support provided
  • Supervision by Frances Westley, McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and Dan McCarthy, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)

Currently, four specific areas of interest and commitment concerning WISIR are:

  1. The challenges of indigenous innovation and engagement,
  2. Capacity building in the social profit sector– particularly the development of the skills and mindsets required for addressing increasingly complex social-ecological problems,
  3. The integration of art and science in stimulating innovative and breakthrough approaches to linked social-ecological systems
  4. General theory of transformation and social innovation in linked social-ecological systems, with particular emphasis on historical cases.

The postdoctoral fellow will work primarily with Dr. Frances Westley, McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and Dan McCarthy, Director of WISIR but will also have the opportunity to engage with a team of staff, faculty members  and graduate students attached to the SiG@Waterloo initiative.

The successful candidate can collaborate with researchers across campus in such interdisciplinary centres as the Waterloo Institute on Complexity and Innovation and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.  Qualified candidates must have a PhD (completed within the last five years), be familiar with complexity theory, social innovation theory and social-ecological transformation processes including such approaches as the Multi-Level Transition theories, and resilience theory approaches to adaptation and transformation. A strong research background and sound methodological training is a must. An ideal candidate will be interested in joining problem solving teams in writing proposals for research funding, leading teams researching social innovation, and collaborating on research articles for publication.

Review of applications will begin on July 11, 2016 and will continue until the position is filled. The position will start August 1, 2016

Please send curriculum vitae, one research paper and, two letters of reference with the subject line “Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Social Innovation” to: Nina Ripley, Office Coordinator at nmripley@uwaterloo.ca

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Searching for a passionate social innovator

Addiction, substance misuse and hardship. Resilience, community and hope. These are addressed daily at The Phoenix Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education Centre (The Phoenix Society) in Surrey, BC. Registered as a not-for-profit society in March of 1992, the life’s work and vision of Michael and Ann Wilson facilitates a substance misuse recovery program that has grown to include multi-phase housing, education assistance, an employment program and home ownership opportunities. Original and fresh in approach, The Phoenix Society is not your average recovery centre.

Phoenix Society

“The Phoenix Society is dedicated to social innovation. We encourage community initiatives that help participants exit the cycle of addiction and homelessness.” 

With Michael moving towards retirement, the centre has enlisted MNP Executive Search & Professional Recruitment (MNP) to spearhead the nationwide search for their next Executive Director. “The right candidate will have the leadership skills to honour and continue Michael’s vision, as well as the social innovation to keep The Phoenix Society on the cutting edge of addictions recovery.”

Like all provinces across Canada, British Columbia is experiencing compounding societal challenges that result in addictive behaviours like illicit drug use. As was reported by the CBC on June 18, fentanyl use is so prevalent, that addicts are becoming their own life-savers, taking training to administer naloxone (trade name Narcan), a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. ”An investigation by B.C.’s chief coroner found that fentanyl was detected in the blood of 148 people who died of a drug overdose in the first four months of 2016 — more than three times the number in the same period last year. In Vancouver, it has meant about one death every five days.”

While solving social challenges like systemic poverty, family violence and isolation will hopefully stem the uptake of addictive substances in the long term, providing care and recovery programs to encourage and assist people in achieving personal, family and community health, free from substance misuse, is still hugely necessary.

Working collaboratively with The Phoenix Society, MNP has built a leadership profile of success and expects to have a new Executive Director in place by September of 2016.

If you know someone that’s right for the job and needs more information, visit the MNP website, contact Linda Beaudry at 778-432-3056 or email Linda.Beaudry@mnp.ca

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INNOVATING INNOVATION: Connecting technological, business and social innovation

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog and Tamarack CCI.  Earlier Spanish and Basque versions of this blog were published in Spain by Innobasque.

We have reached a watershed moment.

After a century of robust development of technological and business innovation, plus several decades of cracking the code of social innovation, the time has come to create an integrated innovation system.

Nasa_grid Innovation has long been recognized as necessary for a nation’s economic and business success. But citizens have relied on a trickle down approach for the benefits from technological and business innovation to trigger broad societal well-being. Unfortunately today’s social, ecological and economic problems – ranging from preventable chronic disease to social exclusion to youth unemployment to climate change – are escalating in scale, severity and urgency. They won’t wait for laissez-faire innovation.

Society’s needs and innovation’s benefits can be more directly connected and aligned. The opportunity of the 21st century is to harness the combined power of social innovation and mainstream (technological and business) innovation.

Mainstream innovation is an advanced ecosystem of technological, business, financial and human resources wired to produce efficiencies, profit and, increasingly, disruption. Social innovation works primarily at the margins to take on the most pressing social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. Social innovation responds to gaping tears in our social fabric made more visible as aging systems fall behind or fail to use new tools like behavioural economics, human-centred design, collective intelligence, and both open and big data.

The urgent call is to steward a new collaborative mindset and approach. One that integrates today’s tools and technologies with new knowledge emerging from across all sectors on innovation, social behavior, social capital, collaboration and networks.  We need an innovation system driven by a new integrated innovation paradigm and a solutions-oriented economy.

The status quo isn’t working.

The OECD reports that “[i]n 2014, OECD countries devoted more than one-fifth of their economic resources to public social support”.  It is estimated that 17% of Canada’s GDP, or approximately $300 billion, is spent on social outcomes. In the US, that figure is closer to 19.2% of GDP and in Spain, it is higher still, at 26.8% of GDP.

What are we missing by not having a more inclusive, integrated national innovation system, capable of producing greatly improved and robust social outcomes? How can we repurpose the large investments in social programs that are structured mostly to mitigate rather than solve societal challenges? How can we catalyze a purpose-driven innovation ecosystem?

The problem is not that these questions are not being asked. Nor that we are not already deploying social innovation and advancing social outcomes in critical domains. The problem is that these efforts remain marginal to the scale of our challenges.

Something more is needed: we must rewire the innovation system.

We have to be intentional around rewiring the innovation system with a solutions-orientation. This includes its:

  • Purpose: Solving grand challenges in the pursuit of inclusive prosperity and well-being;
  • Processes: Integrated social, business and STEM innovation;
  • Players: Public sector, business, civil society organizations, marginalized communities, media and academia; and,
  • Guiding rules: New paradigms of collaboration and competition, new open and bottom-up principles, new forms of interoperability and sustainability.

This will require a new role for public investment, one that honours the vital role of government in market creation and driving periods of transformative change.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato, in her groundbreaking research on public investment, notes:

“…markets are ‘blind’ and the direction of change they provide often represents suboptimal outcomes from a societal point of view. This is why, in addressing societal challenges, states have had to lead the process and provide the direction towards new ‘technoeconomic paradigms’, which do not emerge spontaneously from market forces.”

14224001703_03a3ba6ee6_zMazzucato identifies the role that government must continue to play as a key, and often more daring, partner of the private sector, derisking critical directions for market development. Recognizing government as a public investor opens up the opportunity to re-deploy vast resources (currently being spent on shoring up frail systems inadequately serving public needs) toward a common mission of integrated innovation for shared and inclusive prosperity.

It won’t be easy. As Mazzucato’s colleague, Essex University’s Andy Stirling, notes:

“The more demanding the challenges for innovation (like poverty, ill health or environmental damage), the greater becomes the importance of effective policy. These challenges of innovation policy go well beyond simplistic notions of governments trying to ‘pick winners’…This is about culturing the most fruitfully cross-fertilizing conditions across society as a whole, for collectively seeding and selecting across many alternative possibilities and together nurturing the most potentially fruitful. This involves collaboratively deliberating, negotiating and constructing what ‘winning’ even means, not just how best to achieve it.”

From adhocracy to transformed systems.

There are exemplary cases of social and mainstream innovation converging to produce transformational social and economic outcomes, such as the Grameen-Danone Partnership, the co-operative movement, and the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. But we need to support a move from  exceptional successes on the margins to a mainstreamed mindset of, and approach to, integrated innovation.

light-bulb-ideaTo succeed, we will rely on new agile innovation hosting platforms where business, STEM and social innovation can actively come together with shared accountabilities and support systems. The opportunity here is to build on local experiences, capacities and knowledge assets, as well as global insight, evidence and models. One groundbreaking Canadian example of this is Grand Challenges Canada, tackling global health challenges affecting the developing world.

In the near term, this requires  a new narrative about the origin and the role of innovation, as a process that facilitates direct, not laissez-faire, public benefits. Aligning our innovation systems more tangibly with inclusive prosperity and social outcomes depends on shifting how we understand, value, practice and apply all streams of innovation

This is the watershed moment: a multi-sector opportunity and imperative to unleash the full potential of our creativity, research capacity, knowledge and resources on our most pressing social, economic and ecological challenges to foster lasting, sustainable well-being and prosperity.

 

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Opening Pandora’s Evaluation Box

“Revolutions in science have often been preceded by revolutions in measurement.” Based on the premise from Sinan Aral of the MIT Sloan School of Management

Jason Saul presented to a full-house as part of the MaRS Global Leaders series in April 2016 on his latest venture – the Impact Genome Project (IGP). A public-private partnership to code and quantify the “genes” of what works in social science. The audio of the presentation can be found below.

If you spend 5 minutes in the social impact sector you are sure to be asked, how do you know you are making a difference?

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Jason Saul and Nolan Gasser present the Impact Genome Project at the Skoll Forum in 2014

Jason and his colleagues at Mission Measurement have been tackling this question by taking us from the current state: we are spending $400 billion to achieve social outcomes without any standard way to accurately measure ROI; the evaluation industry is in disarray; evidence is unstructured and unintelligible; and yet evidence is growing exponentially – it is just not readily accessible. We have no common language; no benchmarks that allows us to compare social programs; and ultimately no predictive data meaning we can’t forecast before we invest. This is what Mission Measurement calls the black box problem.

Yet other sectors have predictive data and use it to increase their impact: think credit scores, the human genome or even Netflix. The music industry has cracked this code with Pandora and their Music Genome Project, the original inspiration for the Impact Genome Project. Jason approached Nolan Gasser, the architect of the Music Genome Project, and together they embarked on a journey of discovery asking one question:  Can we not do for social programs what Pandora did for music?

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You can watch a short documentary on the story of Pandora and Nolan Gasser on FiveThirtyEight

As it stands the Impact Genome Project comprises 11 total genomes: education; economic development; public health; youth development; international development; human services; criminal justice; sustainability & environment; science & technology; arts; and culture & identity. With 132 common outcomes. The goal of IGP is to produce new benchmarks such as efficacy rate; expected outcomes; and cost per outcome. It is an open data project with advanced analytics available via subscription.

The IGP intends to create a more level playing field by:

  • Democratizing evaluation
  • Replacing guessing with data
  • Learning systematically across the sector
  • Unleashing innovation and creating twice the impact with half the cost

It is an audacious goal and yet the future is here. The UK government is already moving to pay for outcomes and have created a What Works Centres, a network of centres to “support more effective and efficient services across the public sector at national and local levels.” Our own governments are not far behind with the Centre of Excellence for Evidence-based Decision Making Support at the Government of Ontario, which was part of Minister Deb Matthews’ mandate letter.

The UK government released a report in 2014 providing an overview of the What Works Centres.

The UK government released a report in 2014 providing an overview of the What Works Centres.

Why Canada? We have supportive genetic infrastructure:

  • Un-entrenched philanthropic institutions
  • Integrated and collaborative philanthropic sector
  • Government prioritizing evidence and value for money
  • Institutions willing to lead
  • Access to top talent/academic institutions
  • Systems-thinking expertise

We are interested in what you think. Does this seem like a way to get ahead of the inevitable move to pay for outcomes? Can we work with funders to make this approach the standard, not the only way forward but one that is “directionally correct”? What are your concerns, if any?

Please let us know and help us determine how we can get to a better place around demonstrating our impact in a world that needs us to use all our talents to tackling our complex challenges.

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What I Learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

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It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

Alberta has a rich tradition of social innovation. It is the province of the Famous Five, who secured women legal recognition as ‘persons’ in Canada, leading to a radical shift in our social relationships and in Canadian jurisprudence. It is the only province where the Métis have a legislated land base, with the goals “to secure a Métis land base for future generations, local autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency” (Source: Alberta Indigenous Relations). And it was the first province to develop a formal interface for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues directly with government officials – the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative.

Alberta has consistently been the home of key justice and equality movements, from the United Farmers of Alberta to the Pembina Institute.

What is common to all of these milestones? Each transforms a critical relationship, introducing a new status quo that advances, in some way, inclusion, openness and deeper collaboration.

Author Thomas King (and a former professor of Native Studies at University of Lethbridge) writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories, 2003). The stories we tell about ourselves matter; they inform how we see, show up and act in our daily lives. The Fellows amplified Alberta’s story as a leader in doing what it takes for community well being and equality, shedding light on an inspiring legacy of operating at the radical edge of innovation.

It is time to raise a barn together.

While there is this rich history of social innovation in Alberta, one contemporary pattern the Fellows surfaced was in the opposite direction. Today, the social impact ecosystem celebrates and rewards individualism over collective action. There has been a shift toward communities of heroes, rather than heroic communities. Short time horizons for results and a focus on individual agency undercuts an otherwise deep interest in collaborative action and isolates successful initiatives embodying this approach.

Listen to speak.

When the Fellows began their journey last summer, social innovation was a vexed concept in Alberta, specifically in Calgary and Edmonton, where their efforts were concentrated. Some folks considered it a critical new process to advance long sought social change, others considered it an empty fad, others still saw evidence of neoliberalism in the approach, and yet others felt it was either a useful or obnoxious term to describe the kind of breakthrough work they had already been dedicated to for years.

The Fellows started from a place of deep listening, inviting each person they spoke with to share what they thought the value, definition, and possibility of social innovation is. In doing so, the Fellows killed two birds with one stone: they discovered that there is a common direction that people want to walk together  (toward solving root causes) and, by listening and resourcing, they empowered the work of a diverse array of actors in both their current work and towards that common direction.

The Fellows learned that it absolutely matters to have a shared story, but that story must be accessible, inclusive, inspiring and democratic. Here is how I heard it: our common ground is in our deep dedication to aligning our social change efforts with our fundamental intent. If the goal is to solve something, then we focus on solving it. If the goal is to change the status quo, then we reimagine it. There is a growing movement of processes, models, approaches and shared learning that will help us align intent with action, whether we must invent, innovate, adapt, adopt or collaborate to get there.

Social innovation is the stuff of culture.

With little or no preconceptions of what they would be sharing back with community at the end of their term, the patterns and opportunities the Fellows identified through emergent learning all relate to the cultural elements shaping how and why we seek to forge solutions to our most complex challenges.

What they heard and learned strikes at the heart of how we think about, enact and vision impactful social change. What we call it matters less than identifying the systemic patterns shaping how we go about it and working to break the patterns holding us from our core intent.

Like any journey without a map – and solving complex social and ecological problems is as far from having a map as possible – we must constantly check-in on our direction and our path, referencing the changing landscape, the local know-how, resonant examples, our experiences, the experiences and stories of others, and our own courage to try a path untested. With an appreciation that we alone do not have the answers, but the answers are out there, we can make a concerted effort to contribute to their collective creation.

Thank you to the Fellows for leading and inspiring a unique inquiry, learning journey and community. Thank you all – especially the funding partnershostsadvisors and contributors - for your time, contribution, support, insights and partnership. The journey continues with the Fellows’ insights offering pathways forward and a true shock of the possible.
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Cracking the Code of Internships

When my mother was just a little younger than me, she got a job by asking the receptionist in the lobby of a company if they were hiring. She didn’t just get the job but she also managed to get some of her friends interviews as well.

My job search after graduation was more complicated, which is the story for many new graduates. Competition is fierce with many entry level positions receiving a hundred+ applications. Social Innovation Generation at the MaRS Discovery District (SiG@MaRS) recently advertised for a summer internship and received 276 formal applications and about dozen more sent in offline. This number is not surprising. More and more young professionals are looking for jobs that more closely align with their values and create impact, so this unique position was expected to attract a wide range of talent. Given the size of the applicant pool, I was asked to assist in the selection process. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those applicants, so I was excited by the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table in the hiring process. Reflecting on this experience I’d like to share some tips on what I’ve learned on how to approach a job search.

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider's Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider’s Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

1. The job posting is your best friend, but it is needs to be decoded

A good job post will tell you exactly what the company/organization hiring is looking for, what the role entails, and what you will need in order to be successful. Not every job posting will tell you all of this, particularly what specific projects you’ll be working on (i.e. where you could really have added-value), but the Summer Associate posting for SiG@MaRS had all these elements. A lot of applicants ignored the clues, but those who decoded the job posting and made modifications to their application really stood out. With 276+ applications, many of whom had similar qualifications, this is the way to differentiate yourself. I heard once that the best way to prepare your application was to jot down all the skills that the job posting lists in one column and in a separate column list the skills you have that match those required.  I had originally dismissed this advice, but this exercise could help you clarify the skills you have and those you are lacking.

 2. Think of your application as a road map

Young people are eager to prove themselves to employers so they list everything they have done to show just how capable they are (I may or may not, have followed that school of thought once upon a time). We had very impressive young people apply for the position, but with 276+ applications it becomes a question of highlighting the relevant skills – not all of them. At the start of this process I became overwhelmed by how time consuming looking at an entire application was, but after a quick crash course on recruitment I learned what I have always suspected – most cover letters aren’t read. Your resume is your first impression to show you are qualified. You cover letter is an opportunity to prove your first impression right and should show that all roads lead to hiring you. Now, I understand that you don’t always have all the experience needed but make the best case you can. That is what any job application boils down to.

 3. It’s not personal

Job searching can feel like an inherently intimate and personal activity. You become attached to the possibility of a job you know you could be great in. However, whether it’s because they nailed the interview, but were not the strongest candidate, or because they were very qualified, but were challenged in their interview – everyone has been disappointed at one point or another. If you are not successful, remember two things:

  • There will be other jobs. Wherever you land, remember that every job has something to offer, and the skills you learn will help you land another job in the future.

  • The selection process is full of variables you can’t control. What the team is like, what your boss is like, how much time they have to provide guidance, the skills the previous employee had. Focus on what you can control, remember the skills you lacked and be intentional in future opportunities.

4. Be intentional and value your skills

provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

RECODE is a program by the J.W. Family Foundation that provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

Looking for a job following graduation is a nerve-wracking experience but every job has something to teach you, and who you work with matters just as much as what you will be doing. You can start as an assistant, but with a true mentor by your side you won’t be an assistant for long. Similarly, you can land a great job but with limited mentorship it may be a negative experience limiting your ability to accomplish your objectives. Don’t just find a position where you would like to invest your time, find a position where they will invest their time and resources in you as well. logo55

If you are trying to break into a new field there are plenty of ways you can learn new skills, make new connections, and stand out. Some good examples of this would be volunteering at conferences to learn about the field and network, but you can pursue other strategies like writing about what interests you. Many places like socialfinance.ca and the RECODE blog accept submissions from students.

5. It’s not personal, but being interpersonal makes a big difference

One of the best investments you can make with your time is building relationships. The world is a small place and the world of social innovation is even smaller. When it comes time to look for an internship, tapping into these relationships will be the best way to find out who is hiring and even possibly getting a recommendation from someone on the inside. If you aren’t chosen for a position allow some time to pass and then reach out to the organization. Don’t necessarily ask for specific feedback, but ask to learn more about the organization. Making a contact will be far more useful in the long term. Your curiosity, engagement, and maturity is worth being remembered for.

Allyson Hewitt, the Senior Fellow in Social Innovation @MaRS, who helped lead the hiring process with me, also offers a few words of advice:

  1. Please send a cover letter with your application and clearly address the requirements outlined in the job posting. You need to make it easy for the screener to match your skills to those needed for the position. Start off by indicating why this position is of interest to you.

  2. Customize your resume based on the job posting and even if you don’t have an extensive employment history, indicate a few things you have learned at school that directly relate to the position. For example, I participated in a social enterprise competition and learned the value of getting market intelligence to back up my idea.

  3. Keep everything short: one-page cover letter, two-page resume. 

  4. Many people have great education, lots of you have great international experience, and it is really amazing to see how you juggle your course work alongside a part time job and extra-curricular activities. Indicate clearly how you prioritize all that you do.

  5. In a job like ours, highlighting your volunteer experience is important. Don’t minimize that experience and ideally indicate what you learned from volunteering.

  6. Finally, take your time when applying. Check for typos, especially the name of the company/ organization you are applying to. Ours is hard – MaRS Discovery District. Very few people got the spelling right with the right upper and lower cases but it makes a difference. It shows your attention to detail and that you really care about the place you are applying to.

Overall, Allyson and I were deeply impressed by the quality of the applications we received and we are very hopeful for the future of social purpose work in this country. If I can leave you with some lasting words, it’s that I interviewed back for a position at SiG National over a year ago, and I wasn’t the chosen candidate. I was gutted because I gave one of my best interviews yet. But I moved on, to get more experience, to look for the next opportunity – hoping I’d be successful next time. When a new position opened up 6 months later, I was invited back there to work.

Here are some resources that can help you find your way:

Careers at MaRS DD

Charity Village

C[ONN]ECT NonProfit Jobs

BMeaningful

Centre for Social Innovation Jobs Board

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