The Scaling Imperative

Today, it is quite common to come across promising social innovations that tackle important sustainability concerns. The excitement around them floods our newsfeeds, seeps into household conversations, and inspires new generations of social entrepreneurs. What is less common, however, is the wider adaptation and scaling of successful sustainability innovations.

C/O Nicolas Raymond

C/O Nicolas Raymond

As Christian Seelos says, “scaling is what creates value for innovation.” Cultivating for a single tree is very different from cultivating a forest. When we talk about systems change, we are talking about growing a forest and, therefore, require concerted scaling efforts.

Truly, we cannot miss the forest for the trees.

For instance, the Equiterre Community Support Agriculture (CSA) network has 20 years of experience fostering ecological agriculture, yet to date only supports 100 organic family farms. Despite their proven potential and local success, Equiterre’s limited scale by no means challenges the prevalent food system.

Similar niche socio-ecological innovations in local food, affordable housing, alternative transport, energy consumption and production, social care, and more can be found in different communities across Canada, addressing important challenges facing our societies, but focused at the local level, where they are taken up by a comparatively small group of individuals (early adopters).

Just as the household blue recycling box has become widely adopted by municipal and provincial governments, and a normal part of our day-to-day life, how do we “blue box” other proven innovations for sustainability?

Scaling Innovations for Sustainability

Today, the challenge of climate change demands a great transition, which calls for social innovations that are intelligently networked and will diffuse quickly, at remarkable scales. Scaling innovations – ‘tipping the scales’ – will require new ways of seeing:

  1. It is not about innovating for the sake of innovation. It is about bringing value to promising innovations and the strategic cultivation of the accompanying conditions, structures and practices needed for an innovation to take root and transform day-to-day life.
  2. It is not merely about replication or bringing a niche model to scale. Instead, it is about catalyzing waves of change that can transform current unsustainable socio-economic systems and practices and drive the shift to new sustainable and resilient forms of provision.
  3. Effective scaling involves taking a pilot project’s success and adapting it elsewhere. It involves translating the essence of socio-ecological innovations to new geographic contexts, levels of society, and political arenas through a process of adaptation or reinvention. We must adjust the innovation to the local and, at the same time, ready the specific local conditions to receive the innovation. Adaptation is a twofold process.
  4. Scaling is about impact, not the organization. We need to change our focus from scaling the size of the innovating organization to instead scaling the impact of the innovation itself. Increasing organizational size is not the primary goal and is not necessarily critical for bringing sustainability innovations to scale.
  5. Spreading innovations demands rethinking ‘scale’ itself. Typically, we see scale as a nested hierarchy of geographic locations: local, regional, national, international. Spreading an innovation in today’s networked and globalized world, demands seeing ‘scale’ in new ways: ie different scales of systems or networks.

Geographer Doreen Massey’s “global sense of place” recasts what we mean by ‘the local,’ or community, beyond physical location to include our connections to international networks and flows of resources, information, collaborators, risks, and solidarities. Her thinking imagines exchanges of, for example, goods, knowledge, or finances, that are based on local-to-local connections of trust and common value, as examples of ‘local scale.’ Ethically motivated Fair Trade between local consumers and distant producers comes to mind as a type of ‘rescaling.’

6. There are different ways of scaling:

A. Scaling Out: Increases the impact of an innovation through diffusion by adaptation into new sectoral and geographical contexts. While the innovation may spread across geographic/sector boundaries, it typically remains at the “niche” level and is adopted by a small percentage of early adopters in each locale or sector.

Example: Community Land Trusts tackle affordable housing issues by separating the market price of the land from the price of the house. The CLT model takes land out of the real estate market and puts it in a community-partner-controlled trust. CLTs encourage partnerships with government and ensure that taxpayers do not have to increase housing subsidies simply to keep up with the real estate market. CLTs’ success in preserving housing affordability in the U.S. travelled from North America to the UK and beyond, a process captured by Lewis & Conaty, the authors of the Resilience Imperative.

The idea has circled back to Canada and is being explored in Prince George, Victoria, and Vancouver, where the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing brought together municipal staff, social partners, and VanCity Credit Union to pilot using a CLT for a large affordable housing project in Canada’s most expensive city.

B. Scaling Up: Escalates the impact of a particular innovation on the wider system in which it resides, in order to change that system and reach more people. The innovation scales beyond the niche level, overcoming overarching institutional regimes and pressures that limit the innovation’s spread and may have caused the sustainability problem in the first place. The innovation looks different at each new level of the system, in order to have impact on a different scale.

Example A local wind mill co-op that provides renewable electricity through community ownership is scaled up via a feed-in tariff that guarantees a price for energy produced that makes the investment sustainable. The FIT came about because of the lobbying work of organizations and intermediaries who built political coalitions in support of the feed-in tariff policy mechanism, which is designed to accelerate uptake of multiple-point energy production by municipalities, private firms, and individuals at provincial or national scales.

C.  Scaling Deep: Dedicates time and resources to improve the socialization of an innovation to achieve greater impact within a sector and, ultimately, transform systems. It is not a question of rolling out the innovation in different contexts, it is a question of evolving the innovation for uptake by different groups and system-levels.

This strategy recognizes that innovations and their new practices must be well-supported to achieve scale – there is an important, if mundane, everyday aspect to successful scaling [see Elizabeth Shove for more on Social Practice Theory].

Example: Climate Smart’s carbon accounting initiative for small and medium-sized businesses evolved into a user-friendly online software. This put control over feedback and analysis of improvements into the hands of the individual firms and allowed them to compare carbon and cost-saving performance against similar firms. Improvements in benchmarking, measuring accomplishment, and providing feedback on performance compared to others in their own sector, increased buy-in from managers and workers to alter workplace practices.

If we want to get serious about social innovation for systemic change, we must think about scale from the outset. Will an innovation build, or gain, momentum across and beyond its current scale to potentially topple unsustainable systems?

Catalytic social innovations demand a much more dynamic way of understanding and thinking about scale. By intelligently pursuing the scaling strategies that are most relevant to a particular innovation, we can begin to carve a pathway for transition and bring real value to our sustainability innovations.

SiG Note: One organization that learned through experience to focus on scaling innovation early was the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. SiG profiled the organization in our series on social innovation here.

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Reframing the Local Food Dilemma

A Global Perspective

Getting a handle on complex issues – like food systems – sometimes means looking at the topic from a new perspective. For me, getting a new perspective meant getting out of Canada.

For a year, I lived and worked in northern Ghana, where I witnessed first hand the influence of ‘commodity dumping:’ when a country sells a commodity to a foreign market for much less than what it would sell within its domestic market. In many developing countries, this practice creates a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.

C/O Adam Jones

C/O Adam Jones

Northern Ghana has enormous capacity to produce rice locally, and it is a staple part of the local diet, yet rice farmers can buy foreign rice cheaper than they can produce their own crop. That is because many foreign sources of rice are highly subsidized and when that cheap rice is sold in Ghana, smallholder farmers can’t compete – undermining the possibility of a competitive and thriving local economy.

The Ghanaian rice dilemma is labelled a food dumping issueIn Canada, the same issue has largely been framed as a local food issue. If we set the obvious differences of extreme poverty aside (which I do not want to under-represent), there are common themes between the equity of food production in Ghana and in Canada. Namely, our farmers are also subjected to a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.

Back to Canada

Let me tell a story that exemplifies this. When I returned home to Canada from Ghana, I went into a community grocery store in Edmonton and did what I had always done before living abroad: I grabbed a hand basket and started to hunt for the first item on my list.  Suddenly, I stopped and looked around – the grocery store had enough food variety to satisfy almost any whim I had.

Grocery stores have 60-100 thousand individual products with different tastes, prices, brands, coupons, sales, and marketing. Who makes all that food? Which companies craft those recipes and brand stories? Standing in the grocery store, there is no way of knowing the answers or understanding that part of our food system.

Yet the majority of food in grocery stores comes from fewer than a hundred companies. There is an illusion of abundant choice, but when we track our purchases back to who we are giving our money to, that choice diminishes.

In this way, we are very like the Ghanaian rice farmer who buys foreign rice because that rice is, temporarily, the best option at hand.

We lack the information, and thus the impetus, to invest in our own communities through our purchases. We are habituated to not knowing, and not looking to know, who makes our food, how it was made, where it was made, and who we are giving our money to. This situation is called ‘information asymmetry:’ the disparity between what consumers know about the lifecycle of their food products and the information there is to know.

What about the power of information and informed choice?

Can’t we develop a way for consumers to have access to the full context of their food?

The answer is that we can.

In a world where we are constantly connected to the internet of everything via new technologies, we, as consumers, can expect to see the barriers of information fall away, giving us the power to choose and purchase based on our own values. And as the information asymmetry diminishes, the power to build a more resilient food system emerges.

Localize-Badge_The-Story-of-Your-Food_185x185 (1)Localize Your Food

The public discourse on food issues has been growing for years, but an opportunity has been missed by not including grocers in the dialogue or the exploration of solutions that could be mobilized within the retail grocery world.

Systemically, grocery stores have enormous power to effect change in how we eat and from whom we buy our food. As I have built Localize for the last two and a half years, one of the most gratifying and hopeful signs of change has been the willingness of grocers to be part of a solution. They are increasingly becoming the power brokers between consumers and food producers, creating opportunities for both of these players to align with a common vision. They are searching for the same solutions as their customers: economically viable ways to respond to and resolve issues that consumers care about.

At Localize, our major success has been aligning the values of grocers, consumers, and food businesses. Consumers want informed choice and transparency; producers need to be able to compete fairly and gain access to retail space; and grocers need to be able to market and communicate innovative approaches in a way that serves their brand and their operating budgets.

How have we done this? We work to create systems that enable the rapid flow of information between and to all of these stakeholders. Our concept isn’t all that complicated: We aggregate information about food – who produced it, where, the narrative behind where and how they sourced ingredients – and then connect with grocers to make that information available along with the price of a product: aka the point of sale.

0031-Localize_high-resA simple concept, but the power and impact of information is enormous: consumers are empowered to make informed decisions at the point of sale on how to align their dollars with their values and grocers are empowered to engage directly in the issues that their customers care about – a major step towards fairer food.

Future Fair Food

Fair food is about destroying the barriers to making decisions in alignment with our own values, by building systems to facilitate informed choice. Local producers and processors have enormous power to build transparency into their brands from the ground up and, someday, the largest food businesses might follow suit, providing high-quality information to consumers about how they have sourced and produced their food.

Localize’s audacious goal is to be at the forefront of designing and building a system that supports a world where consumers have access to the full story of their food. Building systems that sustain themselves and make sense to everyone is the engine of our growth. Most importantly, we envision a day in the not-so-distant future where we scoff at the idea that food could ever lack this basic information; where we ‘take for granted’ the opportunity to engage in choice via a symmetrical relationship of information between producer and consumer.

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Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (March 2014)

C/O VBG

C/O VBG

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of March 2014. In no particular order:

1. Booklet by Innovation Unit, “10 Ideas for 21 Century Healthcare,” describes an exciting possible future where services are delivered in radically different (empowering!) ways. The booklet provides compelling examples from around the world of how the ideas are being brought to life and explores some of the vital principles underpinning 21st century healthcare.

2. Great simple ideas for bringing more wellbeing and happiness into our everyday lives: 100 days of happy, a pledge to acknowledge and share one thing per day that makes us happy, and 24 hours of happy, a seemingly never-ending dance video of people dancing in the streets, in buildings, in gardens, with friends, to an addictively upbeat tune.

3. Excellent report,Systemic Innovation” by The Social Innovation Europe Initiative (SIE), explains what systemic innovation is, explores strategies for transforming systems, highlights European examples of initiatives driving towards systems change, and makes recommendations on how to support systemic social innovation.

4. Blog post with a rich collection of resources,45 Design Thinking Resources for Educators,” that are useful to anyone wanting to understand more about the design thinking movement and how strategic design may be relevant and helpful in your own setting (education-related or not).

5. Interesting read, “Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning” essay by Russell Ackoff, about the System around us, how we got into some of the mega messes (a.k.a. wicked problems), and why they are so tough to navigate and address (h/t John Maeda).

6. Huffington Post article, “What does public innovation mean?,” answers this question by pointing out that public innovation isn’t necessarily about something shiny, new or complex, but it is about something that works better, leads to better results, and creates a better pathway forward.

7. For the last half of March, three members of InWithForward were in Toronto, ON to work with St. Christopher House. The team were there to capture stories and start to re-imagine, with Drop-in Centre members and staff, what could be different for the Meeting Place and other Toronto Drop-in Centres at a system-level, service-level, neighbourhood-level, and relationship-level. The team is now onto their next Canadian starter project in Burnaby, BC. Make sure to check out InWithForward’s business model and hunches, which offer a super interesting and innovative approach to running a lab.

8. Pretty neat! “Design Action Research With Government” is a guide (with examples) for designing and implementing civic innovations with Government.

9. Super interesting blog post, “Social Sciences in Action,” by Jakob Christiansen of MindLab, where he shares the exploration, debate and “a-has!” from a meeting between social scientists Sarah Schulman (InWithForward), Anna Lochard (La 27e Region) and Jakob. Take a peek into their minds as they dive into questions like: How do we put social sciences into action and not just design thinking? What is the role of everyday people in our work? How do we spread and scale processes, not just products? “Of course, what we came up with was not definitive or polished. But it did open up some new arguments and ways of conceptualizing issues we each face in our day-to-day practice.”

10. Blog post, “How Social Innovation Labs Design and Scale Impact” by the Rockefeller Foundation, about the social innovation labs they support (including MaRS Solutions Lab!) and their thinking around the global labs movement.

11. We are always on the look-out for social innovation resources in French and we came across a bunch this month. We learned about the following french terms for “wicked problems:” problèmes complexes, problèmes irréductibles, problèmes indécidables, problèmes malins, problèmes épineux, and problèmes vicieux (h/t to Stéphane Vial and François Gougeon). Also, the National Collaboration Centre for Healthy Public Policy and the Quebec Government published this excellent french information page on wicked problems, “Les problèmes vicieux et les politiques publiques,” which explains and describes what wicked problems are and applies the concept to the realm of public health. There is also a new social innovation blog, “CRÉATIVITÉ 33” by Andre Fortin (formerly with  l’Institut du Nouveau Monde LABIS), with tools and advice for innovating. And finally, here is a round-up of what French Lab La 27e Région has in store for 2014 (they have English resources too – check them out, they are excellent communicators!).

12. Excellent report, “Innovation in 360 Degrees: Promoting Social Innovation in South Australia,” from Geoff Mulgan’s term as Adelaide’s Thinker In Residence. The report is from 2008, but there are tons of great insights for government innovators and systempreneurs. Geoff highlights key elements of public sector innovation, examples from around the world, South Australia’s biggest challenge areas (that are not dissimilar to Canada’s), and recommendations for becoming future-ready.

13. Provocative read: Guardian article challenges us to rethink the idea of the state as a catalyst for big bold ideas. Author Mariana Mazzucato argues that a program of forward-thinking public spending is crucial for a creative, prosperous society and that we must stop seeing the state as a malign influence or a waste of taxpayers’ money: “…the point of public policy is to make big things happen that would not have happened anyway. To do this, big budgets are not enough: big thinking and big brains are key.”

14. The Young Foundation announced that they’ve added top innovators to the team to spearhead its mission to disrupt inequality. You will gasp “wow” when you see the list, which includes Indy Johar (check out the SiG webinar with Indy, “From One to Many: Building Movements For Change,” from a couple months ago to get a taste of his thinking).

15. Great book lists this month: A team of editors at The Die Line, a platform and blog for package design, curated a selection of their favourite design strategy books (h/t Alexander Dirksen). The Guardian, with help from readers, came up with a list of the best books on policy leadership and innovation. And for a sure-fire way to get lost down the rabbit hole, Designers & Books is a website where 50 famous designers share the books — 678 in total — that inspire them (h/t John Pavlus via Andrea Hamilton).

16. Blog post from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Ugly Truth About Scale,” offers three tips to those in the social sector tackling complex challenges: 1. Stop trying to feel so good; 2. Push to use technology much more strategically; and 3. Philanthropy must take risks (h/t Cameron Norman).

17. Blog post, “The Network Navigator,” explores how the power of a networked world is shifting the emphasis of work from expertise to navigation; includes the 8 skills of a Network Navigator, which are pretty interesting.

18. Last, but certainly not least, very exciting news from Alberta: the Government of Alberta announced the launch of a 1 billion dollar Social Innovation Endowment Fund – the first Canadian province to do so. The fund will support innovation via three streams, one of which is prototyping tools and methods, i.e. Labs. Here is the news release and the speech from the throne.

What have we missed? What lab-related links have you been following this past month?
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Wicked Problems & Empathy (Part I)

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others…” – Marianne Williamson

The ‘mechanics’ of social innovation are difficult enough: achieving durable, transformative impact at scale to fundamentally disrupt the very system that created a wicked problem in the first place.

As a sociologist and cultural theorist, I can’t help but complicate things further by focusing on the social in social innovation – the cultural conditions and the very fabric of human relationships at play when we think about systems or breakthrough social change. By looking through a social lens, we dive even deeper into the complexity inherent in wicked problems.

A call for empathy

Two weeks ago, graduate students at the Munk School of Global Affairs decided to take this dive into the social, kicking-off the 8th Annual Munk Graduate Student Conference with a keynote address by Seán Coughlan, Chief Executive of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI), on subject of: Wicked Problems, Effective Solutions and the Role of Innovation and Empathy.

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Seán Coughlan opened his address with a tip of the hat to Roots of Empathy, a Canadian social enterprise with a mission “to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults” that has successfully scaled out of Canada to the US, UK, Europe, and New Zealand.

The impetus for Roots of Empathy is similar to that behind a broader call to nurture empathy in society: there is a critical need to build understanding, break cycles of violence, and shift systems by opening our eyes to see, sense, and care for the networks of individuals around us.

Why are there cycles of violence or wicked problems in the first place?

Seán Coughlan shared his belief that human nature is basically good – generally, people are good. But “if a majority of people are good, why don’t we have a greater impact?”

The first answer: an absence or lack of empathy, emphasizing the critical importance of cultivating empathy among children – the driving force and goal of Roots of Empathy.

The second answer (potentially an even more broadly entrenched barrier): a fear of empathy – a fear of really walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Seán explained that this fear of empathy grows from a fear of helplessness. Empathy is ‘to understand and share the feelings of another’ – but what if we feel for someone, but feel powerless to help them? If we can’t see a solution, we are afraid to feel for the person facing the problem. Or as Seán put it, it may seem “better to be blind than feel helpless about the situation.”

It is hard to hear that articulated (or read it written) without immediately stopping to consider: “Have I done that?” Sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, I followed Seán’s train of thought one station further: our fear of empathy is likely also rooted in a fear of guilt or culpability.

What if we do understand what someone else is experiencing, what if we feel for them, but do not try to help? Or worse, what if we do understand, feel for the person, know what to do…and still do nothing?

In a way, we face these questions and their consequences every day, several times a day, beyond our own relationships or communities. Globalized communications, transportation, and information networks mean an entirely new scale of access to stories of suffering.

In sociology, there is a great deal of focus on the power of images and stories to shape our cultures and socialize our actions. The explosive and calculated use of deeply evocative images of suffering by cause-related campaigns and media (in the public, private, and social sectors) often overwhelms our compassion, while the language of globalization – and global power flows – implicates not only our role in these problems, but often (rightly or wrongly) our capacity to simply do something about it.

This can lead to pushback: ‘I can hardly handle empathizing with all the suffering in the world; I can’t be responsible for it all.’ The combination of helplessness, guilt, and responsibilization becomes an enormous deterrent to empathy, deepening our fear of opening up to empathy.

Fostering conditions for empathy

During his address, Seán Coughlan offered a way to counter this fear of helplessness: new, powerful solutions to complex problems that help us tackle these challenges and tie us to the calling of empathy to grow the solution. With this in mind, Social Enterprise Ireland focuses on the systems-changing potential of social entrepreneurs who “have the most potential to have an impact.”

Charismatic leaders and role models in and of themselves, these social entrepreneurs dare to prototype solutions to wicked problems, thereby empowering us as a society to re-engage fearlessly in empathy. Our fear can dissipate when the possibility of helplessness is erased. All the power is stripped from our fear- and guilt – by the power of the solution.

Empathy becomes an inherent cascading effect of impactful social solutions.

I like to think of it as ‘solutions-oriented empathy training’. By supporting innovative social entrepreneurs to scale their impact and reach more people, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland implicitly fosters the conditions for empathy – scaling the solutions that might just empower us to empathize with others through the possibility of positive action. 

Chicken-and-egg

The cultivation of empathy is also a fundamental step to further fostering the conditions for broader social innovation (as SiG Communications Manager Geraldine Cahill explores). Empathy is an important element of systems thinking; understanding and caring for others enables us to appreciate multiple perspectives and better understand the networks of relationships in a system. At the end of the day, social innovation and empathy are mutually constitutive.

C/O B Hartford J Strong

C/O B Hartford J Strong

Systems-change will never be the work of one person; but one person, or a small group of people, can be essential to tipping the scales on emotional norms, inspiring us to embrace, not fear, empathy. Art, literature, and films abound with the stories of these inspirational figures: they share their hope, challenge our helplessness, and invite us to welcome, care for, and share in the experiences of each other.

But not all stories get to be heard. As we begin to conquer our fear of empathy, and resolve the absence of empathy, through powerful social solutions and innovations, the next challenge will be to listen for the voices of those whose stories and experiences we don’t even know exist.

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Impact Ontario Closing Panel Digest

On Tuesday, March 18th, the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing hosted ImpactOntario, a landmark conference designed to bring together investors, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, financial institutions, and thought-leaders to explore opportunities, network, support deal-flow, share experiences, learn from the past, and look to the future of impact investing.

The conference was a reflexive and dynamic microcosm of the impact investing ecosystem.

By the end of the day, deals had been struck, key learnings were internalized, and a great buzz of energy around impact investing had spread infectiously among conference goers – the perfect time to zoom out and reflect on the entire ecosystem from ’35,000 feet.’

C/O ON Social Enterprise (@OntarioSE)

C/O Ontario Social Enterprise (@OntarioSE)

Moderated by Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, the closing panel focused on lessons from abroad with insights from Michael ChodosSenior Advisor to the US National Advisory Board on Impact Investing, and Geoff Burnand, CEO of Investing for Good, a UK Community Investment Company (CIC).

A true episode of Dr. Who, the final panel was a unique chance to look back, stand still, and see the future of impact investing. Here is the Closing Panel Digest:

Current Activity & Current Concerns

Michael ChodosThe US National Advisory Board is focused on what the ecosystem looks like, which policies and practices work, and which need to be discussed with policymakers to remove barriers, promote what works, and support what is emerging. Chief concerns:

Language is a distracting challenge - discussions of impact investing always turn, in part, into a definitional conversation about what it means. The way to think about impact investing is two-fold:

      • (Look Back) There are existing policy tools that the US government has used for decades that are valuable, that work, and that should serve as a learning platform from which we can grow (ex. CDFI
      • (Look Forward) Grab hold of the spirit of entrepreneurship and unleash that spirit to deploy private capital in new ways

The story of impact investing is ‘the blind men and an elephant ‘-  people often have a specific stake or interest when they join the space and see only one part, instead of the whole ecosystem.

Steps forward? Develop a common framework for educating policymakers and other actors to enable the synergistic development of the impact investing ecosystem.

Geoff Burnand: A couple years ago, Investing for Good arranged the first UK Social Bond for a charity (Scope). Last week, the first social bond fund in the UK was announced – a fund to be managed on the premise of Social Alpha (aka a “commitment to delivering financial returns for investors [that] is brought to bear while also delivering positive social returns”). Chief concern: 

What do these types of fund managers know about social metrics or value? It is important to remember that “pioneers get the arrows and settlers get the land.”

Steps forward? Become settlers. Get our business model right and try not leave the space open for other people to come in who are probably not as aligned to the mission we are trying to deliver as they should be.

Field Building: Corporate Form

Michael Chodos: “That which is measured is that which is achieved.” We organize commercial activity around money because it is the simplest universal metric for measuring success.  There is no universal metric (yet) for measuring impact.

The problem of ‘I know it when I see it’ is that everyone sees everything differently. Looking ahead, new corporate forms (B Corp) might help resolve how we measure success in social returns and how we ‘give permission’ for organizations to take the social and environmental into account.

Steps forward? Create more flexible corporate forms and continue to move forward on social metrics. Develop a common language and a common way of thinking about success, so that new products and approaches can be created in uniform, universally understood ways.

Social Impact Bonds

Geoff BurnandSocial Impact Bonds (SIBs) are really complicated instruments that are broadly unintelligible to mainstream capital and mainstream investors. They don’t fit into portfolios easily; they are hard to value; there is no exit. They will evolve, however, driven by commendable interest in developing new financial vehicles. 

Michael Chodos: There are a relatively small number of SIBs in the US, but they are gaining momentum. By end of year, they will probably measure in the dozens. It is important to separate a discussion of SIBs from a discussion of ‘pay for success’ generally.

Pay for Success - outcome-based metrics apply across government deployment of funds, beyond SIBs.  It is a more fundamental rethinking of how government deploys money.

SIBs - While still in the early stages,  SIBs have captured the imagination of the public as a way of deploying private money to solve a problem at the prevention stage (smart expenditure up front), before spending 3x as much in the remediation stage (wasted taxpayer dollars).

The risk in SIBs is currently born by foundations, corporate social responsibility dollars, or high-net-worth individuals, with traditional investors coming in behind, generating complicated transactions with multiple ways of linking capital to a project. This current process, however, is part of the ‘proof of concept’ stage.

Steps forward? If the concept is proved, money is saved, and public entities actually pay as promised, then all of this complexity will begin to dissolve in the next few years.

Role of Philanthropic Capital
Jordan Gildersleeve (@JGild)

Jordan Gildersleeve (@JGild)

Michael Chodos: There is a massive body of institutionally-managed and philanthropic capital in the United States; at the moment, a very small percentage of that capital is being deployed in program-related investments or income-earning instruments. Philanthropic capital can drive social finance innovation in two ways:

1. Drive increased effectiveness by deploying the tax-advantaged capital ear-marked for grant-making to income-related instruments, building capacity for engaging in these types of transactions. Fund innovation, prototyping, and proof of concept.

2. Find a way for the 95% of philanthropic portfolios that are currently under ‘normal asset management’ to service the mission of the organization. Develop strategies for aligning the portfolio with the purpose of the foundation.

Steps forward? Think about ways foundations can act as catalytic capital in social finance transactions to better develop and focus these instruments. The foundation world can lead the way: get into transactions early, trial them, share emergent lessons from the process, and develop evidenced-based research on what structures work, what is replicable, and what actually makes a difference? 

Geoff Burnand: Philanthropic capital is an important and active part of the social finance field. It is the area probably most fertile for bringing the impact investing space together, for both investors and investees.

Steps forward? For example, Impact for Good is arranging the first social investment fund for the arts in the UK; the fund will focus on the social value of arts (The Arts Ventures Fund), rather than art for art’s sake.  A prerequisite of the fund is that it have some philanthropic first-loss to leverage in private capital underneath. This is a key role philanthropic organizations and individuals can play: seed and support new financial models and projects, unlocking capital flow from the private sector. 

The New Normal: Steps to the Future of Impact Investing
  1. When can the average person invest his/her portfolio in impact investments?
  2. Will we likely see retail impact investing products anytime soon?
  3. Will a transformation of financial theory at the University-level be necessary?

Geoff Burnand: It is astonishing that the financial advising/services sector does not get more engaged in the development of the impact investing field. It will likely be ten years before someone could walk into his/her financial advisor’s office and move part of his/her portfolio into impact investments.

In terms of retails products, we need to focus on making potential products as mainstream as possible. When Investing for Good launched the first social bond, it was listed on a regular exchange, was properly constructed, and had a proper prospectus. 

In terms of transforming curriculum, it will be absolutely necessary to start teaching about the positive use of money and to emphasize greater prudence on social value.

Michael Chodos: Already, many professors are starting to think about environmental, social, and government (ESG) returns. There is an ongoing evolution of thought.

With respect to the productization of impact investing opportunities, the average mid-level retail investment advisor is not going to be the pioneer; they are going to follow once metrics are established, risks are known and it’s easy enough to explain as a simple retail product. Key leaders need to be the major banks and financial institutions; they need to be part of driving the conversation, efforts, and engagement to start socializing these products. For now, it’s mostly sophisticated investors who will be buying their own shares of SIBs.  

Tax Policy: the Future of Incentives

Geoff Burnand: This week, the details of a tax break for social investors will be announced (Social Investment Tax Relief). The tax break targets investments in small social enterprises to try and grow the community finance space. While this will obviously be beneficial, some frontline community organizations will still be considered too high risk; these types of organizations need to be de-risked before mainstream investors take interest.

Steps forward? Tax relief should be expanded to apply to all social purpose organizations, regardless of their size. If the policy goal is to move mainstream capital into social enterprises, targeting only small social enterprises might not be as effective as they carry higher risk. 

Michael Chodos: There are three main streams of government policy to consider: tax policy and subsidies; public-private partnerships and fund-matching; and social procurement.

While the likelihood of comprehensive tax reform in the short-term is probably low, there are many effective tools embedded in the tax code that have already moved billions into affordable housing, community health, and economic development.

Steps forward? Focus on the intersection of existing experience with tax policies that work and developing a more robust focus on measurement. Increasing discipline around measurement will help us to identify the true benefit of things like community health, local economic development, and affordable housing; if we quantify and monetize those benefits in a more explainable, consistent way, the tax policy conversation will shift and we will see positive forward movement. 

Looking Ahead: Opportunities for the Next 5 Years

Geoff Burnand: There is not enough focus on real deals: what money is moving, for what reason, does it come back, and, if so, why? We need to focus on that and understand what is happening in the ecosystem. 

Michael Chodos: We need to focus the conversation on metrics instead of anecdotal stories. In five years, we should be able to share experiences about what works, what does not, what outcomes look like, what vehicles make sense and which do not. We need to develop more proof-points and share the raw data of what works and what doesn’t.

Tim Draimin: There is energy, buzz, and optimism about impact investing, but making it a reality is harder to do. We can’t be wooly-eyed about what we need to be able to do. This focus on metrics – being clear on what we’re trying to achieve and being able to prove it –  is very important.

*This digest summarizes the content of the closing panel and does not necessarily reflect verbatim statements. 

 

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Why Failure?

FF_

Ashley Good

“Failure is…any situation that teaches you a better way of doing something. Basically, anything you can learn from. For me, every failure has the potential to be a force for good.”

Let’s start simple. Why “failure?”

I have been asked this question almost daily since I started Fail Forward three years ago.

Clients: “Can’t we use something more positive? What about ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’?”

Partners: “Shouldn’t we provide a range of word options that would be more widely palatable?”

My Mom: “But honey, doesn’t that make you a full-time failure?” (Okay, this one was a joke – my mom is awesome like that).

But really, why not use another word less steeped in emotions like shame or regret? My answer to all who are thinking along these lines is: you are right.

Failure is more than a tough word. It is emotive and physical: we have all felt the pain associated with it and perhaps wish we could forget or undo it. We work to delay that inevitable moment when it shows up again. But all of that is precisely the reason I continue to use the word “failure,” over many other less powerful options.

While the terms ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’ have existed for years, we are still unable to speak openly, or have the honest conversations we need to have, about what is working and what is not. If we want to talk about our failures, we should talk about our failures – not our “achievement deficits” or other concepts that give space to skirt around what is actually important.

Moreover, I have an increasingly supported suspicion that euphemizing the experience of failure actually strengthens our fear of it, giving it a taboo status. Watered down terms might actually discourage us from getting to the conversations on risk-taking and innovation that we seek.

We need to pull up our pants and learn how to interact with failure more productively. Not by skirting around it or renaming it, but by acknowledging it, even appreciating what it can teach us, so we can keep moving forward.

When everyone speaks openly about failures, we can implicitly say: “If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest or you are not being innovative.” It is a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you are not under-performing if you fail; you are under-performing if you do not admit failure, because when we admit failure, we all learn from it.

This process of admitting and productively interacting with failure starts with the practice of intelligent failure.

Intelligent FailureFailForward_Logo (2)

Intelligent failure is the intentional practice of productively reacting to failure. Since we are seldom taught how to fail, our instinctive reactions are usually defensive, dysfunctional, and generally do not serve us very well. The practice of intelligent failure involves building both the skills and a culture – for yourself or for your community – that can start turning those reactions around.

Personally and organizationally, this practice might mean reacting with appreciation for and curiosity about what was (or can be) learned when we, or those around us, fail.

It might involve creating a safe place where innovation and smart risk-taking are rewarded. It could also be communicating failures to others in a way that focuses on the learning opportunities.

Here are some easy practices from our guide, What We’ve Learned About Communicating Failure:

  1. Create a safe space for dialogue. Take the time to ask yourself and others why they do, or do not, feel safe discussing failures in your current context and explicitly design with the feedback you get. Do this each time.
  2. Suspend assumptions. Set ground rules that recognize when you or others share what they believe to be true: opinions need to be respected and different perspectives are relevant, useful, and valid.
  3. Internalize the locus of responsibility. Make it a ground rule to, or assign someone to, with care and respect, watch out for the behaviour of blaming factors you could not control. If you are practicing this alone, push for the courage to look at what you could have done. In a group, acknowledge that everyone has agency and everyone plays a part – no matter how small.
  4. Speak to the aspects of failure to which you contributed. This will be difficult – it goes against our natural confirmation bias – but you must watch blaming others to the best of your ability. You should only ever recognize the failure of another person if you genuinely wish to do so for their benefit and focus on how changes of behaviour could have created a different outcome.
  5. Target root causes. For example, instead of staying at the level of, “I made the wrong decision, which caused the failure,” take the time to ask why that decision was made. This looks more like, “I made this assumption based on these interactions or these experiences, but failed to notice this crucial piece for this reason which, in turn, caused me to make a decision that resulted in the failure.”

Intelligent failure is not about celebrating failure or even embracing it. Failure is not great. But it is also largely inevitable. Considering it is going to happen, we must transform our approach to failure. How could you come to understand failure in a more productive way?

Eddie Obeng talks about how the pace of change in today’s world has surpassed our ability to learn or have the knowledge needed to solve our most important challenges. We have to create space to experiment, figure out what works, and when something does not work, we need to learn and adapt as a result.  The ability to fail intelligently, whether personally or organizationally, empowers innovation and creativity and is an essential skill for coping with the increasingly complex challenges of our contemporary world.

wknzw8

To learn more about the practice of intelligent failure, I invite you to attend the Fail Forward 2014 Conference, taking place on July 9th at MaRS Discovery District. Early Bird discounts are available for the first fifty registrants.

See also: Social Enterprise Spotlight on Fail Forward, an in-depth interview with Ashley Good.

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Nothing about us without us: engaging youth through co-production

Nothin About Us Without UsThe slogan “nothing about us without us” is a message that gained early prominence in disability activism in the 1990s and has since been used as a rallying cry across many different disciplines. The core is the same: any decisions about a particular group (such as people living with HIV/AIDS, women, or aboriginals) should be made with the full participation of members of that group.

Beyond being an underlying principle for the fight against oppression, the phrase “nothing about us without us” can be translated to a number of different scenarios whereby a group of people is being “served” or “guided by” individuals lacking lived experience, who do not take the group’s opinions into account. Take for example, a women’s empowerment organization governed solely by men or a new immigrant integration policy that is made without input from any immigrant voices.

While these examples may seem unsettling, they are in fact the norm. And nowhere is this more evident than in the health and human services field. Here, the dominant model is a dichotomy between “provider” and “user:” users seek a service because they are in need, while expert providers are there to care for and serve them.

Unfortunately, users are rarely asked to give their opinion on how services could better meet their needs, let alone given the opportunity to provide their own input into problem-solving or share their knowledge to help others. But what if things could be different? What if we turned this model on its head and used the notion of “nothing about us without us” to guide the integration of service users into the design and delivery of services?

Co-production is a model that proposes just that. This innovative approach values professional experience and lived experience equally, by designing and delivering services in true partnership between citizens and professionals.

℅ Julissa Stewart, Unleash The Noise 2014 delegate, Canada’s Student-Led Mental Health Innovation Summit

Imagine a diabetes service that not only offers professional support to help deal with medical concerns, but also facilitates meaningful ways for people with diabetes to support each other in managing their illness through diet and exercise.  Healthcare providers often field questions about diabetes-friendly meal planning or how to talk to kids about having needles in the house – concerns that are prime for discussion by a group of peers, giving providers more time to focus on issues of a medical nature.

More than just a theory, co-production provides a framework that helps us understand whether users/clients/citizens are being meaningfully heard and included. Take youth engagement in mental health as an example. Many mental health agencies will say that they practice youth engagement, citing examples such as a young person on their board, a youth advisory committee, or consultations with youth when making decisions. What this often looks like in practice, however, is a young person sitting at a board table as a token member whose voice is overlooked; a group of youth who meet once a year to give opinions that are not adequately taken into account in decision-making; or young people being offered the choice between the red version or blue version of a pamphlet.

In contrast, co-production approaches help improve health and social services through engagement, which is especially important in the youth mental health context. Many young people don’t access mental health services because of stigma or fear of labels. Moreover, many of these services do not provide a welcoming environment for youth or are not designed in ways that helps overcome these barriers. We know that youth engagement is effective at addressing these issues and co-production offers a model on how to engage youth (users) in a more meaningful way.

Headspace, Australian Youth Mental Health Org

Headspace, Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation

When young people have input into the design of services, those services become more youth-friendly, accessible, and inviting. This can be as simple as providing service hours late into the evening, creating a meeting space with comfy sofas, or providing non-traditional mental health services that incorporate music, technology, or exercise. One of the most important connections between youth mental health services and co-production is the example of peer support.

As many as 80% of youth are more likely to talk about their mental health issues with a friend or peer than an adult or professional. Recognizing this, mental health agencies could more effectively serve youth by: enabling workers to provide coaching and training to young people on how to support each other; starting peer support groups where young people share their issues with a professional standing by to provide expert input or facilitation if needed; or simply creating the space for young people to interact with each other beyond their individual clinical sessions, so they can feel less alone.

The benefits of a co-production approach in youth mental health are many:

  • Better provision of services:

    Many well-meaning adults believe that they know what youth want. In many cases, however, they don’t. If you want to tailor services to the needs of youth, you have to ask them what they want and invite them to help design the solution. Doing so will help youth mental health agencies make better use of their resources and increase their impact.

  • Increased cost-effectiveness:

    A system that is entirely dependent on professionals providing one-on-one services to users is not economically feasible or sustainable, especially considering that one in five Canadian youth is dealing with a mental health issue of some kind. Positioning professionals to provide expert services when deemed necessary and appropriate, and to act more as a facilitator or coach when youth are better able to help each other, is more cost-effective and enables the system to reach more young people than the status quo.

  • Improved outcomes for youth:

    Evidence shows that therapeutic alliance – individuals working in partnership with providers rather than as passive recipients – results in better treatment outcomes for youth and promotes help-seeking behaviour. Youth also report that being engaged improves their overall mental health by helping them build positive relationships with adults and develop feelings of self-worth and identity.

In any move towards co-production, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Greater participation and inclusion of people with lived experience is key, but shifting to a completely user-driven and user-facilitated model is not the goal. Doing so can marginalize services, rather than improve them. The goal is a happy medium: providers and users working together in partnership, neither one disregarding the other.

Though co-production is gaining traction in the UK and other parts of the world, it is relatively unheard of here in Canada. Do you know any examples of co-production in action or opportunities where co-production might be introduced into Canadian systems? We’d love to hear from you.    

For more information on co-production, check out our co-production page or download this resource to share with your community!

 

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Hamilton: Canada’s human capital edge

Note: This post was co-written with Geraldine Cahill, Communications Manager for SiG National. 
 
When you think of Hamilton, Ontario, what comes to mind? The Hammer? Steel Town? Smokestacks?

When we visited Hamilton in February, we saw a beautiful city nestled between the soaring Niagara Escarpment to the south and Lake Ontario to the north, surging life science and health academia and businesses, and a downtown core poised for growth and change. The most striking thing of all was the conviction and passion of our hosts about Hamilton and the potential of its people.

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce believes it might be time to unleash this potential by adding a citizen-led social innovation lab to the city’s arsenal. Let that sink in for a moment. At MaRS Solutions Lab and Social Innovation Generation, we regularly receive requests from governments and community organizations for advice on setting up social innovation labs, but this is the first time we’ve had such a request from business owners.

Business turns to labs

In 2012-2013, Geraldine Cahill and her colleagues undertook field research about Hamilton’s social and economic challenges as part of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. When the results of the study were presented, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce was sufficiently convinced of the value of a social innovation lab that it wanted to explore the idea further with a broader group of Hamiltonians. Thanks to Keanin Loomis, president and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, and Doug Ward and Paul Lakin, members of the chamber’s Science, Technology and Innovation Sub-Committee, we found ourselves introducing social innovation labs to a room full of business owners, academics, community leaders, political leaders and civil servants at McMaster Innovation Park.

Click to see our presentation on building a Hamilton CityLab
Tensions and uncertainties

Like many contemporary peer cities, Hamilton is grappling with tensions and uncertainties.

  • In October 2013, the Toronto Star ran an article on Hamilton’s economic and social rise, quoting its mayor Bob Bratina as saying: “We’re now at the tipping point of a new city—one we all knew could exist.” Within the same article, a young McMaster student was quoted saying that she feels the political leaders in Hamilton are distant and need to be more in touch with the public. This sentiment was heard repeatedly during the field research on Hamilton.
  • In December 2013, the unemployment rate in Hamilton stood at 5.9%. This is a very strong number compared to unemployment rates in other Canadian cities of a similar size. Yet few newcomers to Hamilton are settling in the city permanently. The thousands of graduates from the city’s university and colleges don’t stay. What kind of a Hamilton do newcomers and graduates want?
  • According to Statistics Canada data from 2011-2012, 60.4% of Hamiltonians are overweight or obese, a figure that is significantly higher than Ontario’s 52.6% and Canada’s 52.3%. McMaster University researchers and McMaster Children’s Hospital clinicians have joined forces to tackle childhood obesity, combining expertise in genetics, metabolism, biochemistry, physical activity and other areas to develop new ways to prevent and treat obesity-related diseases. But will this be enough?

All of these issues are highly complex and seemingly intractable. There are no easy solutions that experts, stakeholders and citizens can all agree on. These are problems that we can only solve through trial and error. However, this necessary experimental approach seems impossible for government with its current structures, especially in an economic climate of decreased public resources and increased scrutiny. But the capacity for society—businesses, non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and individual citizens—to solve problems is at an all-time high. People are better educated and have access to more technology and information than ever before.

Private capital for social good is more available than it has ever been. Social innovation labs (#PSILabs) likeMaRS Solutions Lab capitalize on this emerging problem-solving capacity to meet complex social and economic challenges with society.

A history of experimentation

Hamilton has a long history of experimentation, adapting and thriving against overwhelming odds. In fact, rising from the massive losses in its steel industry, Hamilton is the most diversified economy in all of Canada. Hamilton Health Sciences is now Hamilton’s single largest employer, while corporate construction projects have topped Canadian cities two years in a row.

At our presentation, the passion and readiness of the Hamiltonians in the room was apparent. There was a flurry of questions, from how quickly we could get started and how much it would cost to what the team would need to look like. Discussions about what was possible had already begun. We felt the rare willingness to collaborate across organizations and sectors. There was tangible excitement about even our most audacious suggestion of a challenge: to transform Hamilton into a city of innovators and entrepreneurs in life sciences, advanced manufacturing, arts, logistics and agri-food—essentially to become Canada’s cutting-edge human capital hub.

After the presentation, Keanin Loomis took us on a tour of Hamilton. From the top of Stelco Tower, the panorama of Hamilton was breathtaking.

“I wish every Hamiltonian could see this,” said Keanin, pointing to the sweeping view from the knife-edged escarpment to the sparkling waterfront, “and be excited by how much more we could be!”

We believe that a social innovation lab will help drive and capitalize Hamilton’s ambitions. Is a social innovation lab right for your city?

You can view our presentation on building a Hamilton CityLab here.

- Jerry & Geraldine

This post was originally published on the MaRS Blog on March 7th, 2014. 

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole…three weeks of social innovation

Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
 

Three weeks ago, I joined Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National as the Communications Intern. As the greenest bud on the tree of knowledge in the social innovation field, I began at the beginning: with the learning essential to working within a network committed to building a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

As a sociologist and community activist, I have long been interested in and actively pursuing systems-change, unaware that this work often flirted with the concepts and approaches used in social innovation. Immediately prior to SiG National, I was researching consumer responses to proliferating marketplace opportunities to shop ‘ethically.’ Would ‘ethical shopping’ practices ignite a wave of mainstream behaviour change? No, not yet. Not really.

In the past three weeks, it has become clear that my interest in transformative social change is an interest, a passion, for social innovation: systems-level change that has “durability, scale and transformative impact.” My current process of learning could not be more poignant, relevant, or powerful.

Social Innovation 101

Why systems-level change? Social innovations target the root causes of complex problems – problems that are simultaneously cultural, social, dynamic, evolving and seemingly intractable. This means taking on and challenging the whole system that created the problem in the first place, without knowing how the system will react. In this way, social innovation is a form of lived experimentation, where innovators act with deliberate intention in the face of complexity and uncertainty, pursuing positive impact with no guarantee of transformative change (1). 

Dense waters

Social innovation is framed by a vast literature of theory, thoughts, insights and complex thinking. Diving into that literature has been the cornerstone of my acculturation at SiG. As I dove, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the more theoretical precepts of social innovation resonate with Alice’s experiences in Wonderland: could Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be used to illustrate some of the more elusive preliminary concepts of social innovation? Why not.

Having so recently begun at the beginning myself, here is the (brief) ‘Alice in Wonderland’ guide to key social innovation concepts, dedicated to all the other new buds on the tree of knowledge:

EMERGENCE
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“….for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Complex systems – like life – are unpredictable.  How could Alice have predicted a talking, formally-dressed rabbit? Yet Alice has strong opportunistic instincts for potentially transformative change: she responds quickly to a novel opportunity and jumps in head first into a completely uncertain and previously impossible reality.

A key precept of social innovation then is that systems change depends on both innovative action and emergent opportunities: the ability to seize potentially ambiguous opportunity in the pursuit of transformational possibilities previously unimaginable. How many are brave enough to see and follow the White Rabbit into uncertainty when the moment is right?

RESILIENCE

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

As the conditions of Wonderland require her to become a different height, Alice mobilizes the resources around her to find ways to adapt her size, experimenting with cakes, bottles, fans and mushrooms. She keeps experimenting with different options to get her size to the best height for the given, evolving circumstances, despite being both afraid and tired of the process.

Alice’s capacity to negotiate such dramatic change demonstrates resilience: our capacity as individuals and communities to creatively adapt, co-create, and respond effectively in the face of constantly changing conditions. Resilience serves as both a framework and desired outcome of social innovation: it as a way of identifying opportunities for transformation (i.e. build capacity) and of strengthening communities’ response to externally-imposed transformation (i.e. climate change).

THOMAS THEOREM

“And the moral of that is: Be what you would seem to be…”

In a debate with a Duchess, Alice points out that mustard doesn’t seem to be a vegetable, but it is a vegetable. The Duchess responds that you should really only ever be what you seem to be. Her comments speak to a poignant concept known as the Thomas Theorem: there are real consequences to how we think about, understand, and perceive the world.

It sounds simple, but it is truly a powerful concept. If a problem seems intractable to us, it will be; if social divisions seem set in stone, they will be. Social innovation involves thinking about and understanding the world in new ways that frame and ignite new actions; in other words, social innovation “holds thought and action in tension” because “whether we think about things matters;” thought inspires action and vice versa (2).

DISRUPTION
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

For Alice, her engagement with the broader social context of Wonderland has transformed her, ‘disrupting’ who she is so much that she cannot answer the simple question: “Who…are…you?”

Social innovation disrupts the system into which it is introduced, transforming both the system and the innovator themselves. Alice’s experience of transformation is analogous to scales of disruption: personal and system-wide. Both Alice and the society she interacts with have their routines, beliefs, and power systems disrupted by their interaction. While Alice is not ‘innovating’ (she’s dreaming), her experience of disruption points to an important lesson: as successful social innovations cross-scale, they ignite cascading changes that are disruptive at the individual, community, and systems level. While the original intention of social innovation is positive impact, that will not neutralize pushback from the system.

There may always be a Queen of Hearts and her army (system stasis) pushing back against any potential revolt of her kingdom; we must always try to consider all the players in the system when we’re thinking about social innovation.

————————————-
Note: All the italicized quotes are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll.

1 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada.

2 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada, pp.22.

 

(more…)

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Shareable Cities: The power of the collaborative economy

Imagine a shareable city. What does it look like? Or are you asking: “What is a shareable city?” 
 
c/o @RedefiningTO

c/o @RedefiningTO

The concept of shareable cities is a compelling interest of Cities for People, a new Canada-wide initiative that launched this month and is designed to make our cities more resilient. This month, Cities for People and Social Innovation Generation (SiG) co-hosted a national speaking tour featuring April Rinne, chief strategy officer of Collaborative Lab, and her approach to building shareable cities.

On February 11, April made her Toronto stop at MaRS in partnership with MaRS Global Leadership and SiG’s Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series. Her message was poignant and clear: opportunities abound to build more shareable and sustainable cities through the collaborative economy.

It’s time to seize these opportunities by “connecting dots, catalyzing ideas and building networks.”

(Dot 1) Learn

We must explore and engage in the collaborative economy, the space where the capacities, ideas, businesses, actions and policies for building resilient cities are fermenting and scaling. The collaborative economy includes all types of collaborative practice:

(Dot 2) Embrace the shift

These practices leverage a major values shift from the burdens of ownership to the value of access that enables and requires a reimagining of our lifestyles, communities and marketplaces.

c/o @rwr3peat

c/o @rwr3peat

(Dot 3) It’s all about sharing

Valuing access prompts sharing assets and finding opportunities in idle capacity: all of our possessions (commercial or personal) that are underused or locked up by our proprietary ideals. Sharing unlocks wealth and value for our communities and ourselves, creating a sharing economy based on using existing assets more sustainably.

(Dot 4) Connect needs with haves

When we think about how to match what we already have to what someone else needs more efficiently, new marketplaces and community connections are born and for innumerable reasons.

  • Savings and sustainability: An average car costs more than $700 per month, yet sits idle 23 hours a day. Why not create access to a pool of cars, optimizing their use and reducing costs and wasted resources? Enter Zipcar.
  • Exercise and community: Channel your passion for running to benefit your community by running to someone’s house to help them out – they call it GoodGym.
  • Pet therapy and animal rights: Pets are left at home for hours during the day, while plenty of people want to play with or take care of your pet. What if you could connect? Yes, please BorrowMyDoggy.

(Dot 5) Know the drivers

What’s common to these examples is their technology-enabled scale and scope, the defining characteristic of the collaborative economy. Three other key drivers are fuelling and powering this transformative trend:

  1. A great power and trust shift away from centralized institutions toward networks of individuals and a human-centred peer revolution.
  2. Economic realities remind us that “business as usual” can no longer be the status quo.
  3. Environmental pressures and population growth demand that we transform how we see our habits, our businesses and our communities.
( )Connecting the dots( ): Powering a sustainable future and shareable cities
c/o @Lewwwk

c/o @Lewwwk

Collaborative platforms reimagine how we approach sustainability by transforming existing value chains and inspiring us to see abundance and opportunity, instead of scarcity, in the untapped capacity all around us. Cities can become meaningful enablers of the collaborative economy and platforms for sharing themselves, unlocking idle capacity at city hall and on our city streets. Municipal governments must jump in as regulators and service providers and consider the following questions: How can we enable these collaborative economy innovations? How are they helping us to transform our service provision for communities? Who aren’t we reaching?

These are the types of questions that Cities for People and April Rinne intend to provoke and help answer. You can watch her lecture in full below.

How shareable can we be?
  • The top 10 ways cities can become more shareable
  • See what’s happening in the Toronto collaborative economy: check out the Toronto Sharing Map

This post was originally published on the MaRS Blog on February 28th, 2014. 

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