Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 3 — Deepening involvement with and connections between practitioners, policymakers, funders and the international community

Author’s Note:

This is the last of a three-part blog post series documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of our social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported by SiG. The purpose of this series is to candidly share our journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others.

This post, as the last of three, focuses on phase 3 (read phase 2 blog here) — deepening relationships with and demonstrating value for practitioners, policymakers, funders and the international community. This phase was about raising awareness with the grantmaking and funding community, and adding new layers of connectivity for practitioner community. This phase also had an international dimension, including engagements with innovation ecosystems in Silicon Valley, UAE, UK, and with the UNDP network. It included milestones like the ‘How Can We Support R&D in Canada’s Social Sector?’ report that highlighted actionable recommendations for funders, the ‘Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D’, the 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering, social R&D being included in Government of Canada’s social innovation and social finance strategy consultation document, and an experimental fund hosted by McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada to support social R&D.

Note: This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet – learn by doing.

Social R&D is not an opportunity, but a necessity today in the social change field,” said one practitioner.

We knew the practice was getting real. The term ‘social R&D’ began to gain traction. Not only that, practitioners began to see it as essential to their organizations’ core mission and work. As the wise Al Etmanski would say, social R&D was beginning to “enter the water supply.” In phase two (read blog here) of this ecosystem-catalyzing work, we developed, tested and demonstrated the demand for a peer-to-peer learning, coaching and exchange environment. For phase three, we decided to deepen involvement along four channels of activity: first, practitioner interaction and learning; second, grantmaker awareness and engagement, third, informing federal social innovation policy development, and fourth, learning from international innovation ecosystems.

Phase 3 also welcomed Jason Pearman as a SiG Fellow on interchange from the federal public service in June 2017. Jason had just wrapped up a two-year mandate with Natural Resources Canada to help the department experiment with novel policy tools. Jason’s primary focus was to lead the practitioner interactions and learning channel. My primary focus in this phase was to lead the work around enhancing R&D literacy among grantmakers, learning from international innovation ecosystems, and informing federal public policy.

Channel 1: Practitioner interaction and learning

As part of the work in the practitioner interaction and learning, we hosted the second social R&D Practice Gathering in summer 2017. Like the 2016 practice gathering, the program was purpose-designed for practitioners from diverse domains and geographies to share insights, learn about each other’s experiments, build relationships, coach each other as peers, and cross-pollinate methods and practices. There were a few changes we tested; we doubled the size of the gathering (again demand was well over available spots), we compressed the time together (2.5-days versus 4-days), we invited funders like the United Way/Centraide, the Toronto Foundation, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to send grantee partners, and we introduced more time for demos and unstructured relationship building. We also hosted a special session at the gathering for members of the Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy co-creation steering group so that practitioners could share what would help them do their best work. The results from the Gathering were promising: 97% of attendees met someone new, 83% learned something new, and 71% gained a new perspective from another sector or discipline or region. We had validated the demand. Seeds of a peer network were sown. To this day, practitioners engage with and support one another in their work – whether it’s the frequent calls between Shift Lab and The Winnipeg Boldness Project teams to compare notes, or the InWithForward and Grantbook crew getting together to mock-up principles for a data commons. In addition to the in-person gatherings, we continue to test other means of keeping the community connected: Radicle – a digital digest on examples of compelling R&D, telephone conference calls, a Social R&D Slack channel, etc.

Channel 2: Grantmaker awareness and engagement

A growing number of non-governmental funders and grantmakers were keen to better understand social R&D and consider funding and integrating supports for grantees. In the spring of 2017, SiG hosted a roundtable that convened funders like Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada Council for the Arts, RBC Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, The MATCH International Women’s Fund, Ontario Trillium Foundation and among others to highlight the value of investment in R&D alongside funding program delivery. Long established social service agency funders like United Way Centraide and Community Foundations were also invited. At the roundtable, practitioners from Teach for Canada, Exeko, Grounded Space, and Skills Society shared their perspectives and experiences regarding the state of social R&D funding in Canada and how social innovations are weaker due to weak R&D capacity and lack of embedded R&D infrastructure. The roundtable also helped to organizations around the table to see each other’s points of view, as practitioners and grantmakers had never had an exchange on this topic. Given that Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta, wrote the Foreword for Getting to Moonshot, we invited him to speak about why it is both important and urgent to make social R&D funding mainstream among the Canadian grantmaker community. In November 2017, McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada jointly announced a catalytic opportunity, a experimental new fund for social R&D. The fund now supports R&D projects in 33 organizations including: Powered by Data, Inspire Nunavut, WEST Neighbourhood House, and Canadian Blind Hockey. I believe this experimental funding initiative has the potential to transform the social R&D funding landscape.

Channel 3: Informing Federal social innovation policy development

Kicking off in early 2017, Government of Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy co-creation process has the opportunity to be inclusive of and meaningfully advance social R&D. While Canada’s social sector, consisting of approximately 180,000 organizations, represents 8.1 per cent of the GDP, it remains one of the least supported sectors in terms of access to R&D infrastructure, capacity and capital. Simply put, despite its ongoing demonstrated value to Canadians, the social sector has been locked out of Canada’s R&D system. Over the course of 2017, SiG actively engaged with Employment and Social Development Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in their respective strategy consultation processes, including the consultation session at the 2017 social R&D Practice Gathering. Based on conversations with practitioners, we put together a set of policy recommendations to serve as a helpful base document. We also facilitated conversations between public servants and practitioners to better inform social innovation policy development through meetings, demos, and participation in the federal government’s inaugural Policy Community Conference. Following over a year of working with the practitioner community to inform the strategy process, it was wonderful to see social R&D included in the input document for the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy.

Channel 4: Learning from international innovation ecosystems

The final channel of activity in phase 3 was engaging with and learning from international innovation ecosystems. Ecosystem building gurus like Tim Draimin remind me that an integral part of catalyzing a domestic ecosystem is to listen to, learn from, and build relationships with ones beyond our borders. Canada’s journey to grow R&D capacity in the social sector is complemented by growth of social R&D around the world. Individuals like Geoff Mulgan from Nesta wrote about the importance of social R&D for the next decade and organizations like the Skoll Foundation have written about the importance of investment in social R&D for social enterprise. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE Foundation in California, notable institutions that catalyze innovation, also noted in his blog, “running great experiments and building a culture of experimentation are crucial for driving breakthroughs in your organization.” So, since January 2017, as part of learning from international ecosystems, I spent some time each month in the San Francisco Bay Area, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem to better understand: their culture of experimentation, how organizations structure themselves to pursue R&D, and the role of grantmakers in supporting R&D. The two questions I pursued were: first, as we help create the conditions for a vibrant social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem teach us, and second, how might we begin to bridge the two ecosystems for exchange and mutual learning? In Silicon Valley, I spent time with mission-oriented startups like HandUp and Year Up, innovation outposts like Swissnex and Unicef innovation, community hubs like Impact Hub, accelerators like Fast Forward, funders like Tipping Point Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and institutes like Long Now Foundation, Institute for the Future, and Singularity University. My takeaways in Silicon Valley are captured in a first set of field notes on hive culture and a second set of field notes on what drives experimentation.

In addition to producing the field notes, we began to build relationships and bridges: I led the formation of a partnership with the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), the world’s leading publication for social innovation to curate a first-of-its-kind supplement entitled ‘Canadian Innovation in an Age of Acceleration’ in the Winter 2018 issue focused on Canadian social innovation along with SiG, Community Foundations of Canada and McConnell Foundation. The supplement featured Canadian social innovations in food security, newcomer settlement, digital philanthropy, social finance, among others. We hosted Renuka Kher, founder of Tipping Point’s R&D lab, based in San Francisco at the 2017 social R&D Practice Gathering where she spoke about her journey of founding the lab and how it supports their grantees to grow in-house experimentation capacity. We also plugged into the UNDP innovation network through UNDP’s Innovation Days conference, where I spoke about Canada’s work to embed R&D and I had terrific exchanges with experimenters from around the world. The learnings are captured in a blog post. Overall, the language of R&D resonated internationally and while there is much to be learned from the global community, they are looking to Canada’s leadership to catalyze an enabling ecosystem for social R&D – one that connects globally.

Canadian delegation at Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s inaugural Innovation Conference

So, here we are after two years. With a growing practitioner community, increasing voice in the policy space, grantmakers trying out ways to fund R&D, and international community looking to Canada, we cannot stop now. Our work in 2018 will focus on exploring solutions to address remaining gaps in infrastructure for social R&D: mainly the availability and retention of specialized talent, the story telling/storycrafting needed to mainstream this emergent practice, the data systems and protocols to share insights across organizations and geographies, and formalizing support for the social R&D practitioner community beyond the SiG Fellowship (there is a unique opportunity through the co-creation of the Government of Canada’s social innovation and social finance strategy to support R&D in the sector for the long-term).

Over two years of field-catalyzing has shown us that the case for this is simple: in order to address complex social challenges in our communities and our country, social sector organizations need to generate strong and sustainable social innovations. Strong social innovations require strong capacity, investment and infrastructure for social R&D.

Insights

1. Create the conditions that solicit policy recommendations

Social R&D is an emerging field and community with a short history, and does not have a mature or sophisticated advocacy vehicle. Therefore, social R&D would not be on the radar for any policy input or consultations. Don’t dwell on that. Find ways to actively create the conditions for conversation with policymakers to solicit recommendations.

2. Let practitioners tell their stories of struggle

Set the stage and get out of the way. That’s as simple as I could articulate it. Ecosystem catalysts can talk about the possibilities of “connecting the dots” or “building the field” but we actively need to create room for practitioners to share their struggles with grantmakers and policymakers themselves.

3. Attach R&D to a global agenda

International interest helps to accelerate domestic adoption. Although we focused on seeding initial conditions for a social R&D ecosystem in Canada, we learned the value of connecting R&D to global agendas – a key global narrative was the potential for R&D to make significant advancements to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This dimension has attracted interest from leaders and practitioners abroad as well as the international community within Canada.

4. Like collaboration, peer-learning moves at the speed of trust

Social R&D is emergent in Canada. There are curricula under development to help individuals and organizations explore the mindsets and supportive tools, but learning to apply R&D in complex environments and within organizations may best be achieved via learn-by-doing and peer coaching. Feedback from practitioners suggests that the peer coaching is especially valuable, and that it’s been highly reliant on the relationships and trust. The in-person and digital convenings that have been held over the last two years have been key inputs for getting the community gelling.

Signs and Signals to Notice

1. What does the hype cycle look like?

Gartner produces a “hype cycle” for technology every year. It tells you what technologies are emerging, which ones might be fads and which ones are one their way to mass adoption. Similarly, you could also plot methods and tools used in the social sector on a “hype cycle.” Yesterday, randomized control trials was hot, today its human centred design and tomorrow, it might be behavioural science. In the absence of a third-party mapping out what’s hype and what isn’t, cultivating the discipline to be inclusive of methods and tools is key to fostering a community for the long-term.

2. How are incumbent organizations looking to contribute?

It can be tempting to focus attention and energy with edgy organizations and miss signals of interest and involvement that more mature organizations send. Incumbents add huge value to ecosystems; they can be anchor organizations, can mobilize people, and exercise influence to tip a system. Stay attuned to their interests and engage them along the way.

3. What is the minimum viable product?

When testing something new (e.g. a fund), translate the long-term vision for the fund into the first thing you can develop and test. Listen to the potential funder’s strategic interests while also bringing them along the vision. Maintaining the balance between what the funder expects and crafting something that is unique and can meaningfully add value to practitioners is imperative.

FAQs

1. Why didn’t you pursue any policy work at the provincial level?

This is one we received often as many of the practitioners pursue R&D that can inform public policy development at the provincial level, as examples, with social services or public health interventions. There were a couple of factors that drove this; the announcement of the development of the federal innovation policy, led by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the social innovation and social finance strategy, led by Employment and Social Development Canada. These opportunities and practitioners’ interest in a pan-Canadian community led us to focus more federally.

2. Who gets to be part of the community?

To date, the social R&D community is open-ended and self-selected. While the focus of the SiG fellowship was strengthening conditions for R&D in the not-for-profit sector, there is an understanding that catalyzing a multi-sector practitioner community can be of value as today’s social issue interventions cut across sectors. The community today is made up of practitioners in academic, not-for-profit, public and private sectors as well as grantmakers and sector leaders who are invested in or actively applying the art and science of research and experimental methods on the frontline. To receive news and invitations to events and gatherings, sign up here. (In addition to the above, we provide some light animation to alumni of the Social R&D Practice Gatherings.)

3. Why was Silicon Valley ecosystem important at this stage?

For a couple of reasons: first, it is the world’s largest R&D ecosystem focused on next generation products and services. Companies and governments from around the world have an innovation outpost there. Learning about the makeup of the innovation ecosystem might offer us clues for catalyzing ecosystems that have longevity. Two, given the increasingly integration of technology in all sectors, including the social sector, it could be useful to learn about how social mission organizations can embed data and technology into R&D.

4. How can this work be sustained beyond the fellowship?

In our ecosystem building efforts through 2016 and 2017 we’ve worked with R&D practitioners and others to explore and test infrastructure that could help advance this discipline, boost its legitimacy, and increase adoption in a more systematic way. We’re starting to see what works, and more importantly, there is now a community consolidated around this work. Moving forward, Jason will help the community plug into the feasibility study for the next social innovation ecosystem support organization as well as the Government of Canada Social Innovation / Social Finance Strategy development process in order to advocate for the supports that will enable social R&D to be practiced in an impactful and sustainable way.

There are also early explorations on applying the lessons from the Fellowship to catalyze micro-social R&D ecosystems in specific domain areas like youth homelessness, mental health, urban sustainability and community resilience, and other issue areas where partner organizations are looking to strengthen their pipeline of social innovations.

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Vinod Rajasekaran About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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