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Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation

I recently attended an extremely worthwhile conference, Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability, organized by the Canadian branch of The Natural Step.  The conference proposed new ways for dramatically shifting gears in how we reach sustainability by reaching for levers that will drive systems change.

My role was to moderate a panel entitled “Why Collaboration Matters: Exploring Collective Impact and Shared Value.” The two presenters were Avrim Lazar, a tri-sector athlete who is the former CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada and a prime mover of the historic Canadian Forest Boreal Agreement, and David Hughes, CEO of Pathways to Education and a visionary in gold standard scaling out and scaling up. The following are my introductory remarks at the Accelerate conference:

Several months ago, evaluation expert Michael Quinn Patton observed that collaboration is like teenage sex:

  • Everyone is talking about it,
  • Everyone thinks everybody is doing it, and
  • In reality, nobody is doing it very well.

If the bad news is nobody is doing it very well, the good news is that collaboration is a topic whose time seems to have arrived. Last week my inbox was stuffed with collaboration articles boasting headlines like:

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c/o Fast Company

Why is collaboration important?

I come from the field of social innovation: using a simple definition, social innovations are new ideas meeting unmet needs. They are social in their means and social in their ends. SiG uses a more complete definition of social innovation courtesy of our colleague, Frances Westley:

Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact.

Given how so many major social and environmental indicators are not performing well; think of biodiversity, climate change or aboriginal educational achievement or social inclusion. There is a growing market for social innovations. Recent research on successful social innovations is teaching us that collaboration is an essential element of effective innovation. As my SiG colleagues Michele-Lee Moore and Frances Westley explain in a recent article for Ecology and Society, there is a direct correlation between social innovations expanding their boundary spanning reach and those innovations’ heightened impact:

 “Complex challenges demand complex solutions. By their very nature, these problems are difficult to define and are often the result of rigid social structures that effectively act as ‘traps’… Therefore when a social innovation crosses scales, the innovation is crossing a boundary that separates organizations, groups, hierarchical levels or social sub-systems, whether they are economic, cultural, legal, political, or otherwise. The more boundaries that the innovation crosses, the wider and possibly deeper the impact, and the more likely the result is more transformative change.

Boundary spanning action is often made possible by boundary spanning collaborations, partnerships, and culture. Unfortunately, the antiquated systems we operate in often impede collaboration. British innovation writer Charles Leadbeater wrote a recent paper entitled “It’s Cooperation, Stupid”:

Humans are more cooperative than other species because we are capable of more fine-grained forms of cooperation: we are prepared to cooperate with strangers, over large distances and times, overcoming obstacles
of language and culture. This deeply wired capacity for cooperation will be more important than ever to enable us to create shared solutions to complex challenges, from global financial regulation to ageing and climate change. Yet most of our systems, institutions and models of public policy 
lock us in to a miserable, impoverished view of ourselves as untrustworthy and selfish. These approaches actively crowd out cooperation, supplanting cooperative solutions with systems that rely on material incentives. They remake the world in their own image.

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c/o Centre for Social Innovation, New York Launch Party

My SiG colleague Tim Brodhead frequently speaks about there being four drivers for collaboration:

1      Austerity – The efficiency argument
* We are heading into an increasingly tight fiscal environment, we need to be much better stewards of limited resources

2      Impact – The effectiveness argument
* The “collective impact” approach fits here, individual organizations can only have limited impact on a tough problem

3      Complexity – The social change argument
* Solutions to complex and persistent problems necessarily need to draw upon a broad range of expertise and stakeholders

4      Culture – The enabling environment argument
* To succeed, meaningful social change has to rely on allies to overcome a broader context of barriers that foil scaling potentially disruptive innovation.

To those I’d add a fifth,
5      Systems – The systemic change argument
* Individual and heroic social innovations are wonderful, but their widespread and lasting impact – even if they are individually scaled up –requires them to shift the entire system around their issue, tilting the way innumerable organizations, processes and sub-systems operate.

These drivers are five lenses that we can use to view the challenges of introducing innovation with collaborative platforms. In upcoming posts I’ll review learning opportunities available to foster collaborative partnerships, as well as examine success stories to uncover their rich innovation DNA.

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Social innovation is not a fixed address

My colleague Professor Frances Westley, co-author of the pioneering book Getting to Maybe, leads a team at the University of Waterloo that is decoding the genome of social innovation.

One of Frances’ many insights is that “social innovation is not a fixed address.” This means that when one social innovation is adopted, it will shift the existing equilibrium governing the system it interacts with. Therefore, because of the way a social innovation meets one need, it might simultaneously surface and engender other needs that require yet more social innovation.
(more…)

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Optimizing Public Sector Innovation Platforms

Public sector innovation is a top-of-mind subject in government hallways across Canada. Innovation in the public sector has taken on new urgency as austerity budgets accelerate the necessity to re-think how government services can be provided or even how, in some cases, the system can shift from service delivery to tackling root causes that have given rise to the demand for support.

Ambitious public sector reform necessarily will range from new policies, to new ways of engaging with provincial and national innovation ecosystems, and to creating innovation Labs that support change makers inside government.
(more…)

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The Future Quotient: A New Social Innovation

In early October a new watershed report appeared, co-authored by John Elkington and Charmian Love of Volans and Alastair Morton from JWT. Entitled: The Future Quotient: 50 Stars in Seriously Long-Term Innovation, the report draws attention to the dramatic gap in modern society’s ability to be planning multi-generationally.

The Volans-JWT report accepts that the recent economic crisis was squandered by not being put to use to create positive change at a moment when modern society is heading into a period of dramatic transition. Unfortunately they identify that we are entering an era of creative destruction at a time “when natural resource and environmental security challenges are pressing in.”

(more…)

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Social Finance in the UK: Cutting Edge, Bleeding Edge

In business there is belief in “first mover advantage”, when a company gains an advantage over competitors by being first to the market with a new product or service.

In the social finance realm, Canadian practitioners have benefited from following UK’s social investment and social finance ecosystem, which is strongly supported by the government. The UK was able to pioneer and act as a role model for many new ideas and approaches that outsiders could learn from, emulate, or adapt. These include The Charity Bank, Bridges Ventures, ClearlySo, The Social Investment Task Force, The Commission on Unclaimed Assets, The Young Foundation’s and Social Finance UK’s social impact bond work, and more.
(more…)

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Trending in 2011: social innovation goes mainstream

Social innovation will be much more visible in 2011. Al Etmanski is the thought leader who advocates that “social innovation needs to be in the water supply”, his metaphor for going mainstream.

Another way to think of it is that social innovation has to be recognized as integral to the DNA of mainstream “innovation”.

I think social innovation will be embraced as the necessary, integrated complement to business-oriented, science and technology, R+D innovation.
(more…)

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Global Financial Crisis Silver Lining: European Banks Commit Funding for Social Enterprise

The recent financial crisis has led to banks in Ireland expanding funding for social enterprise.  Now the UK banks are poised to follow suit.

In late November London’s Financial Times reported that Britain’s banks could commit  £1.5bn to Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s  “Big Society Bank” as part of a “charm offensive” to “end the war between politicians and bankers that has raged since the crash of 2008.” Leading the project is John Varley, chief executive of Barclays.
(more…)

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Has anyone learned their lesson from the global financial crisis?

In 2008 the United States financial crisis sparked a domino-like global recession throwing millions out of work.  Triggered by a lax and liberalized regulatory system in the United States, the crisis sounded the death knell for the G7’s leadership and catapulted the G20 into prominence as the world’s new governance framework for global economic management.  It also fed a US climate of electoral revolt.
(more…)

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The danger of taking the social out of innovation

By dropping the social in innovation, is North America breaking the innovation chain?

Andy Grove, a co-founder of Intel and a Silicon Valley icon, is sounding two alarms about innovation’s future. Both flow from his disagreement with the accepted article of faith that the US tech sector necessarily should focus high-end jobs in the US and export manufacturing jobs.

(more…)

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Tackling Social Innovators’ Last Mile Challenge

The development of social innovations is often a complex on-going process of insight, trial and error, insight, trial and error, insight…until things felicitously fit into place and a smart approach reaches a new plateau.

(more…)

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