Labs in Place: Weaving Networks to Achieve Systemic Change

Designed by Karen Gomez, background image from LEDlab.

In 2015, Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU partnered to initiate a social innovation lab to design, test, and scale solutions for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city.

In the consultation phase, the team analyzed current literature on social innovation labs to develop a presentation of how a lab process might work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We then took this presentation to DTES community organizers and change leaders, where we quickly learned that adaptation, flexibility and continual iteration needed to become our mantra. A centralized, process-driven approach was not welcome in this particular community, and had the dangerous potential to entrench problematic dynamics already at play.  

This early lesson started the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) on a path of iterating a social innovation lab model with the added characteristic of place. Our hypothesis is: when embedded in a community context, labs need to be respectful of preexisting relationships, networks, and change initiatives – and must adapt their role from process designers to network weavers, working in service of systemic change.     

Principles of Place-based Labs

Zaid Hassan (2015) describes social labs as multi-stakeholder change processes that are social, systemic, and experimental.1  The Social Innovation Lab Guide (2015) defines a Social Innovation Lab as a three-step process involving (1) Initiation, (2) Research and Preparation, and (3) the Workshops.2 While LEDlab embodies many lab-characteristics – such as problem identification, co-creation of solutions, rapid prototyping and continual learning – we felt compelled to re-imagine a lab model without highly structured workshop settings, where the inflow and outflow of participants could be more fluid.  

Below we share the principles of what we are now calling LEDlab’s place-based lab approach. These are our lessons learned from reconciling a more expert-driven social innovation lab process with our experience of working on the ground in the DTES community to create systemic change.

Please note: The principles below were gleaned from working in the DTES, which is a very rich and resilient community with a long history of activism and a difficult relationship with the research community. There are many people, places, and systems that may be open to more structured innovation processes, or which may present a different set of conditions, opportunities and constraints. The principles outlined below speak only to our current experience.

Daniel, past intern at the LEDlab, worked with the Downtown Eastside Market. The Market supports hundreds of vendors by providing a safe space to conduct business and allows them to earn extra income to supplement their income assistance. Image from LEDlab.

We embed ourselves in existing community networks and processes

Many labs seek to pull people out of their work in order to challenge assumptions and co-design new solutions. Our experience in the DTES suggests that in a neighbourhood and community context you can’t/shouldn’t pull people out of their work because it is EXACTLY their work and the ability to prototype within it that holds the substance and opportunity for solution-building. Convening of any kind is inherently exclusive – there are always people that are ‘in’ the group or the process and others who are not. In a community setting, the creation of any ‘exclusive group’, even when the group is convened for the good of the whole, can quickly become political and may cause real harm to relationships that exist between neighbours, friends, and colleagues.  

In a place-based lab model, we have learned instead to leave the community where they are and to embed ourselves into existing community networks and processes to identify high-impact ideas. We fundamentally think of innovation happening in and with the community, not about innovation happening in our lab.  

We build trust in service of systems change

We consistently ask ourselves: How can we add value? The answer is often surprising. Something as simple as sending a personal invitation to a meeting, calling a colleague to celebrate a win, or transitioning a network’s membership list to a listserv can offer tremendous value to a network. We often don’t place enough emphasis on the small acts of service that can build the trust within a network. The quality of relationships between people matter, and are so foundational to affecting systemic change.

We work at multiple scales, convening the ‘whole system’ in a responsive and emergent way

Interested in the incredible work of the LEDlab? They are hiring! Deadline to apply to their internship program is June 13, the internship is open to grad students only. Image from LEDlab

As ideas surface and gain momentum from various community members and stakeholder groups, the lab is able to responsively convene from across the system around a specific project idea or strategic initiative.  In this way, co-design is first grounded in community insights and felt needs. Second, we ask: who isn’t at the table, and bring together people with resources and mutual interest to develop out and test community-driven innovation.  

In the LEDlab model, there isn’t just one group of lab participants, but rather the lab is embedded in a multi-hub network, working on multiple solutions, where we play a bridging role across multiple networks, sectors, and scales. 

The Tapestry of Systems Change

Taken together, these principles inform a  lab model that sees itself as a platform for systemic change, willing and ready to respond to the emerging needs of the system in which it is embedded.

Recognizing that the DTES community is fertile ground for innovation, LEDlab’s work is two-fold:

  1. To keep our eye on, and give voice to, emerging ideas with the potential to contribute to the overall objective of creating an inclusive and vibrant local economy; and.
  2. To responsively convene new human groupings with the dynamic potential to create and implement innovative solutions. 

LEDlab is continuously creating and supporting social infrastructures to achieve new results. For this reason, our lab staff might more accurately be described as “systems entrepreneurs” – weaving their way across and through complex systems and networks, stitching together a vision and strategy for collective action. The approach is showing promising results in Vancouver’s inner city.

We welcome feedback from other practitioners, community members and academics. We look forward to adding to these principles and documenting the methodology in more detail as it evolves.

The author would like to thank Brenda Kuecks for her thought partnership and contributions to this blog.

Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. California, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Westley, F., Laban, S. (2015). Social Innovation Lab Guide. Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/sites/ca.waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/files/uploads/files/10_silabguide_final.pdf

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A disruptive Conversation with Al Etmanski

“Impact – Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation”

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation and hosts a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Al Etmanski. Al is a serial social entrepreneur, and author of the book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation. In this podcast, Al shares many insights on his years of working to change the system of care for people with disabilities. Al proposed and led the campaign to establish the world’s only disability savings plan – the RDSP. He is an Ashoka Fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He has been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. In this podcast episode, he provides wonderful insights from his years of experience on how we disrupt sectors or systems.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.

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A disruptive conversation with Cheryl Rose


Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation but when I met him he was working with our SiG@Waterloo colleagues at WISIR. Much of our time together was spent evaluating the SiG Knowledge Hub. Since then, Keita has gone on to complete a PhD in Workplace Learning and Social Change and to kickstart a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Cheryl Rose. Cheryl is a Senior Fellow with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has spent many years working to support social change agents through education and training that helps them to have more impact.

In this episode, Cheryl shares a wealth of knowledge in how we can think about changing systems and sectors. Having been a mentor and coach to many disruptors, she reminds us to hold a systems lens or a complexity lens when thinking about generating change. For her, generating change is about accepting the honest complexity of our world. What are the implications of confronting honest complexity? With this question, she reminds us that change takes a long time and takes significant investments of resources. In the conversation, she stresses that resources are not just related to money, but are also connected to the social capital we invest in the problems we seek to solve.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.

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What happened to the map?

Have you filled out our survey? As we evaluate our current work and explore possible next steps, it is important for us to hear from you. The survey will give us a better sense of the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. We’re especially interested in where you access learning about social innovation.

Since 2007, SiG has seen the social innovation ecosystem blossom and last year we posted an earlier version of this map to visually depict that growth. Its purpose was  to demonstrate the strength of the sector for a meeting we were attending. It was a prototype if you like, developed under a tight deadline when it first became public. It was far from perfect and excluded some key players in the sector. Several iterations have since been developed in an effort to respond to our community.

We were excited by how popular the map was, and we decided to make it a project of its own. We are happy to release the infographic (below) that illustrates the sheer size of the sector in Canada, and the national/global reach of organizations well as, an open database to capture in more detail the incredible work of the sector.  

In red: filters will allow you to narrow organizations based on their area of operation and their impact (regional, national, or global). In green: if you want to look for a specific organization by name we recommend you use the text search feature with Ctrl+F or ⌘+F.

What is our criteria?

Social innovation is still fairly new to most, and many have never heard the term, much less identify their work as socially innovative. Given this, perhaps the most exciting aspect of mapping the ecosystem could be to capture who did see their work or the work of others as socially innovative AND provide an opportunity for people across the country to see what others are doing at a bird’s eye view.

In the last 10 years, the most satisfying work we’ve done has been in partnership with other organizations. It is our hope that people will find synergies in their work, learn about the work of great organizations, understand the incredible capacity of social innovation in Canada, and even connect with each other as they discover others who are encountering similar challenges in their work.

How can you contribute?

It’s inspiring to hear about the incredible work being done in Canada. There are incredible initiatives popping up in every corner of the country – from Code for Canada, to the LED Lab in Vancouver, to Inspire Nunavut, to the 4Rs Youth Movement. We recognize that social innovation is alive and well in every province despite our current database showing otherwise, and we hope you will take part in this project to reflect social innovation activity in Canada. Here are some ways to start:

  • Check the database

Make sure it includes your organization and that the work of your organization has been accurately captured. If it is not, change it! The database is open for anyone to edit.

  • Help us by capturing the work people are doing all over Canada

The database includes initiatives at all stages and sizes. Gaps we are especially eager to close are in the Northern provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island.

  • Take the time to learn more about the incredible work of others

You’ll be surprised to learn the incredible diversity of the work being done by others in Canada, and just how unique some of it is. For instance, Kudoz is an incredible learning platform in Burnaby, British Colombia for adults with cognitive disabilities that was a finalist for the 2016 Global Service Design Award.

  • Share the work of others

We don’t spend nearly enough time sharing the work being done in Canada. It is about time we stop being humble, and recognize what others around the world have – that Canada is a leader in social innovation. In the last year the ecosystem was recognized by the Economist in their Social Innovation Index 2016.

Who holds the keys to this project?

I was the one who originally created the visual and have been charged with keeping track (or losing track) of suggestions, but I am leaving SiG at the end of June to take the next step in my career. SiG will keep a copy of the database in the event something happens to the original, but we are giving this tool back to the community to take a shape and life of its own.

We are experimenting if you will, walking the talk of Social R&D.

Will you update the map?

The map is still a visual tool we will use at SiG for presentation and the most recent version will be available here, but will not be updated frequently. Let us know what you think of the infographic below.

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It Is Time We Honour The Communities

Have you filled out our survey? As we evaluate our current work and explore possible next steps, it is important for us to hear from you. The survey will give us a better sense of the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. We’re especially interested in where you access learning about social innovation.

From the Acadia Center

We honour the entrepreneur. The awards, magazine spreads, interviews and panels that recognize success and lessons learned, focus on the entrepreneur. The founder  is the star; the person who has taken risks to create a new business. In the world of social entrepreneurship however, risk doesn’t look the same.

The community and clients of social entrepreneurs take on a unique risk. To improve their lives, they put their trust, efforts and time into the social entrepreneur’s venture. Too often I’ve heard the sentiment that if an idea brought to a community doesn’t work, there is no harm, no foul. However, there is harm. There is an opportunity cost for the community. Had the community put their efforts into a different venture that could better achieve the outcomes, the community would be better off. Where are the awards and celebrations that honour the communities who place their trust and time in the social entrepreneurs?

What struck me at last year’s Skoll World Forum were the social entrepreneurs who spoke about their community with reverence. It was clear that social entrepreneurs understood that they were only able to do their work because their community is willing to be partners in charting new territory. It was the communities that offered the local nuances that brought success to the social entrepreneur’s work.

As a social entrepreneur, I have experienced this first hand. Our work at building I-Think has only been possible because of the ingenuity of and feedback from our community of educators and leaders. It has been our educators that have innovated on our work and demonstrated its application across grades, subjects and perceived student abilities. I hope we are building an education movement that is remarkable. If that recognition comes, it should in celebration of the educator leaders in the I-Think community. Currently, there is no way to make this happen. It is time that we honour the communities who make social entrepreneurship successful.

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The future of SiG: Social Innovation at an Inflection Point

Social Innovation Generation concludes its decade-long run in its current form in December 2017. This blog is our opportunity to update our community and partners about SiG’s status and possible next steps. We are also conducting a short survey on what the social innovation ecosystem needs today – please take a few minutes to give us your input!

SiG was only a twinkle in instigator Tim Brodhead’s eye in the mid-noughties. By 2007, SiG was born as a partnership composed of a charitable foundation (The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation), a business-sector-spawned urban innovation hub and convergence centre (MaRS), a university (Waterloo), and a serially innovative non-profit (PLAN Institute). SiG National emerged in 2008 in response to a recognized need for a backbone office, which was documented after the fact in the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s 2014 Evaluation Roundtable report.

McConnell Presidents Tim Brodhead (1995-2011) and Stephen Huddart (2011-present)

What was the Challenge Prompting SiG’s Birth?

The catalyst for SiG was leadership in the McConnell Foundation sharing the frustration of the broader community that proven social impact innovations they and others funded were having a challenging time scaling. Too many entrenched systems didn’t like accommodating change. And Canada lacked enabling programs and services to add booster rockets to each social innovation’s liftoff.

The original SiG idea was that a diverse group of partners could directly create the conditions for scale by fostering or encouraging institutions and governments to develop the missing or nascent elements of a robust social innovation ecosystem: the mindset, resources, partnerships, curricula, platforms and strategies needed for social innovations to scale, endure, and have impact.

These partners integrate funders, innovators, academic researcher/teachers, MaRS’ civic-minded business leaders and governments. Each SiG institutional node made individual contributions, while concurrently collaborating as a team to be more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts and produce impact that would not be possible as individual actors. SiG National was created to be the vital backbone to enable collaborative impact for activities as diverse as the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, communications and narrative building, policy support and connecting the dots on national and global network building.

In order to encourage new players to enter the field, the SiG partnership was conceived as an unincorporated initiative with a sunset clause. Originally funded for 5 years, SiG has been extended twice, with a broad range of partners (foundations, governments and corporates) joining McConnell in investing in activities it spawned. Legacy assets catalyzed with many partners over the decade range from:

— field building for social finance (e.g. MaRS Centre for Impact Investing)

— post-secondary courses and certificates in social innovation

— research contributions on decoding the genome of social innovation and its definition

— support for integrated social entrepreneurship education (e.g. RECODE, Studio Y, etc)

— enhancing policy receptivity and cross-sector regional networks

— broadening Canada’s participation in a growing and dynamic global social innovation community of practice

— contributing to new grant-maker approaches, competencies and traits helping shape new narratives for how civil society can impactfully initiate and co-create large scale social change.

Tri-Ministerial Social Innovation Summit 2011 at MaRS

Working With a Cross-Sector Perspective

During the past decade, the founding SiG partners have valued important partnerships with a broad range of charitable organizations, foundations, nonprofits and governments (municipal, provincial, federal).

These partnerships and relationships have led to some milestone outcomes that we will cover in our forthcoming book. But to highlight a few key collaborations, we:

— Produced watershed insights informed by the McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, Dr Frances Westley and her colleagues at WISIR, contributing to global understanding of change in complex systems. Importantly this includes a definition of social innovation that recognizes the need to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience.

— Convened a cross-sectoral, blue-ribbon Canadian Task Force on Social Finance leading to the establishment of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the mobilization of many millions of dollars in mission related investing, two social impact bonds, and multiple ongoing outcomes.

— Supported Trico Charitable Foundation’s design of the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum and subsequently invested human, knowledge and financial capital, lending octane to Alberta’s fast growing social innovation ecosystem.

— In partnership with the City of Vancouver, Province of BC and numerous local organizations, the UK-based Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) brought their annual international Summer School to British Columbia in 2014, recognizing the pioneering work of the BC Partners for Social Impact and PLAN Institute and also the integrative partnership approach SiG has followed in international social innovation systems development.

SIX Summer School Opening Ceremony 2014

— Acted as early champion of social innovation labs’ role as catalysts for powerful multi-sector change collaborations, contributing to today’s globally recognized network of Canada’s emerging labs now organized around things like energy futures, reconceived social services and repurposing the engineering profession.

— Inspired social enterprise incubators on numerous campuses (UNB, McGill, Concordia, Ryerson, SFU, etc.).

Looked for ways to support allied new fields developing like the Indigenous Innovation community which has organized two national summits, and pioneered one of Canada’s leading labs, the Winnipeg Boldness Project.

We see social innovation as a “big tent” and “big team” approach reflected in SiG’s focus on working at the macro- and meta- end of the social innovation spectrum. This is in order to accelerate the efforts of all sectors; to shift their deployment of resources to tackle complex problems through collaborative partnerships (described variously as collective impact or generative partnerships) using a system change lens.

Is social innovation in the water supply? Certainly, we believe social innovation has begun to be part of the way that we understand and engage with complex challenges.

What happens next?
We are now asking ourselves: “If our mission was to help foster a culture of continuous social innovation, how do we know if we were successful? If we find that we made a good start, then what else is still needed? Where are the opportunities today and who can take advantage of them in what ways?”

Examining our circumstances through the lens of the Adaptive Cycle, we are in a process of creative destruction – of letting go – of the structures and resources that held us in this particular configuration for the last 10 years. We are now asking  what new impactful arrangements of energy and resources could be next? And we would like to include you in this reflection.

Dr Frances Westley defined social innovation

Some of the arenas of activity that are reorganizing themselves include the academic research work, which has evolved into the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) at the University of Waterloo. The Waterloo social innovation curriculum has been seeded from the University of Waterloo to the Banff Centre through their summer immersion program in Social Innovation. WISIR graduates have started additional educational programs at Mount Royal University and Simon Fraser University.

Our support for regional network building and policy work is reflected in collaborations such as the Partners for Social Impact in British Columbia and ABSI Connect in Alberta. Our policy work is now collated on our website here. and is disseminated via thought leadership initiatives and partnered convenings with Public Policy Forum, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Philanthropic Foundations Canada and Community Foundations of Canada (CFC). Our incubation of nonprofit sector innovation, organized through Social R&D, has evolved into a national partnership with the CFC. More recently, we have actively collaborated with the McConnell Foundation on social innovation initiatives such as RECODE, Cities for People and Smart Cities challenges.

Rather than re-inventing wheels, SiG has always valued nurturing international relationships and partnerships that allow us to learn from our analogues around the world. In fact, the first joint activity of SiG was a learning journey to the UK with Canadian partners from foundations, government, and research institutes. We subsequently supported regular thought leaders’ visits to assist Canadian innovation leaders, institutions and governments to leap frog strategies and avoid duplicating knowledge generating efforts. Sometimes these visits helped spark local investments in infrastructure or programs. Sometimes the nurtured ideas faltered before reaching liftoff, such as the highly anticipated Alberta Social Innovation Endowment Fund that had been championed by two premiers.

TACSI’s Ingrid Burkett discussing practice at ESDC Ottawa 2016

We have a learning partnership with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), an organization that started shortly after we did. In 2016, TACSI did an intensive knowledge-sharing seven city tour of Canada. Stephen Huddart will be hosted by them later this year on an Australian speaking tour.

Learning from global partners, SiG continues to decode and disseminate proven templates of social innovation platforms like UpSocial (a European strategic partner helping JUMP Math and other innovations scale outside of Canada) and The Young Foundation.

Slated to close in its current form (SiG 3.0) later this year, SiG has accelerated its 2017 partnerships to assist the birth of key future-focused resources before our denouement. At the same time, there are various visions and multi-institution conversations about potentially spring-boarding “SiG(s) Next”. Such possible successor activities, whether branded as SiG or not, would address remaining ecosystem gaps and challenges while supporting continuing efforts to catalyze, develop and mainstream social innovation.

SiG is fortunate to have this year, 2017, to plan an orderly exit or possible transition to a successor vision or platform. This year includes preparing a set of resources to capture and make accessible the SiG story, valuable insights, key tools and research reports. A Toronto capstone event is planned for November 28th to launch a book, website and knowledge repository. Please take note of the date! In order to receive information about the forthcoming book and other news, please sign up to our newsletter.

As well, a national collaboration including the network of alumni from social innovation educational programs is planning a 2017 Social Innovation Summit to convene social innovators from across Canada and grow the community of practice.

Your Input Requested!

As a part of this reflective and transitional work, it is important for us to hear from you. We have prepared a short survey to better reveal the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. To assess the value of the resources we have generated, we’d love to know your sources of knowledge and inspiration, and which communities feed your work. Your input is enormously valuable. Thank you and stay tuned for further updates!

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Social R&D in Silicon Valley: Field Notes #1

This is the first in a series of Field Notes this year on methods, business models, conditions, as well as profiles of organizations pursuing or supporting R&D in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. The observations, ideas and provocations here are meant to help us revisit our own assumptions and ask if our approaches are fit for the future, all with the aim of strengthening Canada’s Social R&D ecosystem.

Peter Diamandis, Co-founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE Foundation, two highly regarded impact-oriented organizations in Silicon Valley, reflected on the value of experimentation in a recent blog.

Singularity University is a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Diamandis noted:

“Running great experiments and building a culture of experimentation are crucial for driving breakthroughs in your organization.”

He also highlighted:

“You must ask the kind of questions to which you don’t currently know the answer, but if you did, you’d change the way you operate. If you already know the answer, or if you are testing an insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, you’ll just be wasting time and money. To get good questions/experiments, you must create a culture that incentivizes asking good questions and designing good experiments.”

Since January 2017, I am spending some time each month in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to better understand: their culture of experimentation, how organizations structure themselves to deliver offerings in tandem with developing new and improved offerings, and the role of funders and grantmakers in supporting the practice of R&D in the impact sector.

The two questions I’m currently pursuing:

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?
&
How might we begin to bridge the two ecosystems for exchange and mutual learning?  

Last year Community Foundation of Canada organized a Canadian Delegation to Sillicon Valley with the help from SiG fellow Vinod Rajasekaran.

In my time so far, I have met with, had site tours, and shadowed:

– mission-oriented startups like HandUp, Year Up and DataKind;

– innovation outposts like Swissnex, Center for the Edge, and Unicef innovation;

– community hubs like Impact Hub and Kapor Center for Social Impact;

– accelerators like Fast Forward;

– funders like Tipping Point Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Omidyar Network and Draper Richard Kaplan Foundation;

– mature organizations like Kiva, Center for Care Innovations, and Feeding America, and;

– institutes like Long Now Foundation, Institute for the Future, and Singularity University.

Initial observations:

There is no ecosystem curator. They operate as a hive culture.

When I probed on the absence of a single curator to nurture an ecosystem for Social R&D, individuals mentioned that having a curator organization “can create a culture of dependence.” This might be the good-old “analog switchboard operator” versus “digital platforms” analogy. Digital platforms are more widely accessible, they can be used to self-organize for both online and offline engagements, and can help harvest collective intelligence more effectively and efficiently. However, ‘curator dependence’ is worth unpacking and following further. What are the dependencies experienced in an ecosystem by having a single curator organization? In what contexts have single curators served us well?

Grantmaking strategies must integrate funding for delivery and development. 

Individuals and organizations recognized the multi-dimensional nature of investment required to kick-start, embed and sustain R&D activities, capacity and function. It means investing in people, infrastructure, adoption, and skills, in addition to research and experiments. Nonprofits accelerator Fast Forward is an example of an organization that supports development of organizational R&D culture, skills and experiments. It is the first nonprofit accelerator that I have come across where research and experimentation capacity-building was baked into the acceleration program; enabling resourcing and mentorship around applying R&D methods such as A/B testing. Tipping Point Foundation is an example of a grantmaker that invests between $200,000 and $700,000 in unrestricted funding to build their grantees’ organizational R&D capacity over multiple years. This includes support of the development process, skills and competencies, data and research infrastructure, and initial experiments. At Tipping Point, funding both delivery and development is core to their grantmaking strategy. Grantmakers such as the Omidyar Network, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and Nasiri Foundation also deliver unrestricted funding as part of their grants and impact investments to empower R&D in their investees’ and grantees’ organizations. How might Canada’s grantmakers and impact investors take an integrated funding approach that combines delivery and R&D (embedded capacity, skills, infrastructure and experiments)?

High velocity can create blind spots.

The ‘move fast and break things’ culture in Silicon Valley can create blind spots around inclusion and public benefit. While significant research investment goes into, as an example, the design and development of new emojis, the same proportion of investment will likely not go into research around who the emojis include or exclude, and their long-term individual and collective behavioural, policy or psychological impacts. They are, however, beginning to mitigate this risk. A recent attempt is the announcement of a $27 million open R&D fund for artificial intelligence (AI) in the public interest. The Fund is supported by the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation, among others. It’s apparent that organizations in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley often struggle to balance multi-generational effects and outlook in their work, with a world that is fast-paced, focused on the present, and rewards short-termism. Organizations such as the Institute for the Future play a critical role by hosting foresight labs in food, health, cities, and other areas. The Long Now Foundation, an organization that cultivates long-term thinking through lectures and seminars, also has an active role in this ecosystem as a counterweight to the high-velocity culture. Might the same hold true in Canada? Who is Canada’s counterweight and futures host?

Mesh technical and non-technical ecosystems.

The technology and social change ecosystems in Silicon Valley can seem disconnected and, in many ways divided, with protests around Google buses and protests for better pay for Uber drivers. However, the two ecosystems are more consciously building bridges and becoming more connected. Organizations such as: Kapor Center for Social Impact, HandUp, DataKind, Feed America, Code for America, Hacktivision and NetHope act as important bridge builders between the social services, social impact and the technology worlds. In addition, the World Economic Forum is opening their new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco focused on the public policy impacts of emerging technologies such as Blockchain, autonomous craft, and artificial intelligence.  Bridge building organizations create opportunities that deepen trust and mutual value through exchange, learning, and co-creating. Could the technical and non-technical ecosystems be more integrated in Canada in order to achieve inclusive growth?

Discovery and problem-orientation.

R&D in the social impact sector can often be centred around defining and solving a “problem” at the outset of designing an intervention or options for interventions. This approach is most prevalent in Canada, often under a ‘labs’ manifestation. While an intentional focus on the problem may get to the heart of a right-sized intervention, organizations such as Kiva, Khan Academy, Singularity University, Wikipedia and the Center for Care Innovations seem more ‘discovery-oriented’ in their R&D. The underlying assumption for this approach is that “possibilities are often hidden and oblique, so curious tinkering might lead to new discoveries that are not so obvious.” How might curious tinkering be empowered in Canada’s social impact sector?

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How can we make it easier to discover Social R&D?

We are already a month into 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday year. How exciting! This year, we are committed to building on the momentum to help strengthen the legitimacy, community, capital and capabilities of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector.

Introducing the Social R&D Digest*

*We welcome ideas on a more catchy name!

The Digest is an easy way to discover and promote experiments, insights and practitioners. Sent to your email inbox every two months, the Digest is a curated collection of crowdsourced Social R&D stories along three streams:

1 – experiments & pivots
2 – methods & practices
3 – structures & business models

We believe that by highlighting what works, insights, and pivots by people pursuing R&D in social mission organizations across Canada – that the social impact sector will work even better, and make bolder leaps and advancements to enhancing lives.

The inaugural edition will be sent out February 28th.

That brings me to… call for stories!

What experiments are you working on? What new practices have you implemented? What methods have you discovered? What business models are you trying out? What key lessons have you learned?

Let’s feature them as part of the inaugural Digest.

Send a 75-100 word story, with a photo and any web links to vinod@sigeneration.ca by 5pm Eastern February 15, 2017.

Sign up here to receive the inaugural Digest.

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Inclusive innovation policy struggles to connect the dots

By Karen Gomez

Note: This article was originally published on the Re$earch Money on January 18, 2017.  It has been cross-posted with permission. 

Over the past 20 years, the Canadian public’s understanding of a successful innovation ecosystem has evolved enormously to include social, technology, science, engineering, mathematics, arts and business innovation. From peacekeeping and palliative care to lacrosse and basketball, settler and Indigenous Canadians innovate from our unique cultures and contexts to solve problems or seize opportunities across sectors. We need look no further than the Governor General’s Innovation Awards to see the changing mindset about what constitutes innovation. As His Excellency told the Globe and Mail (June 9, 2015), besides technology innovation and business innovation, we need social innovation.

Read the summary report here.

Yet the 2016 public policy consultations on Canada’s Innovation Agenda struggled to make the vital connection between our unique innovation strengths, the urgent complexity of contemporary challenges facing Canadians, and the opportunity to define innovation as the integration of STEM, business, arts and social innovation.

In the ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) summary report, Innovation for a Better Canada: What You Told Us, there is a terse and high-level evaluation of the innovation ecosystem. It hews to the old mindset, with the important exception of making a strong link between innovation and a greener economy.

Citing a competitive global race for tech and digital growth, the report signalled a doubling down on the mindset of trickle-down economics. From Thomas Piketty to Anthony Atkinson to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett to Robert J. Gordon, we are hearing that this laissez-faire approach to innovation economics and social well-being is failing us.

Innovating innovation

We need to innovate our understanding of innovation. The report fails to recognize that Canadians are transforming the innovation economy into a collaborative culture of cross-sector innovation oriented towards durable solutions to complex challenges and new triple-bottom line market opportunities; where economic value is created from the pursuit of social and environmental value. With this mindset, Canadians are expanding the innovation marketplace and aligning innovation to solve social and environmental challenges.

To read about the incredible work of JumpMath see the case study prepared by Queen’s University and the Trico Charitable Foundation.

Take JUMP Math. “Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies” is an evidence-based numeracy program that challenges both teaching and societal norms by overcoming the assumption that there are natural hierarchies of ability. In 2011, a randomized controlled study led by SickKids Hospital determined that the math knowledge of students taught using JUMP Math grew at twice the rate of students using the incumbent mathematics program. Incorporated as a charity in Canada, in 2015 JUMP Math used multiple revenue streams totalling $4.8 million to cover its $3.99 million in expenses, with most revenue coming from royalty advances and teaching tool sales.

In other words, a charity is leveraging diverse revenue streams to advance a transformational education innovation with a social return on investment (SROI) of $16 for every $1 spent and dramatically improving a cornerstone skillset for innovation and life.

JUMP Math shows how a combination of mindset shift, business model innovation, education innovation, and government cost saving can foster a generation with greater capacity to thrive in daily life and as innovators. JUMP is an example of a social innovation — a durable, scalable and impactful innovation that solves the root cause of a complex social and environmental problem and, in turn, produces economic value. It is also an example of successful entrepreneurship leading to global scale, with program expansion into the US and Europe.

All sectors innovate

Similar social innovations are prolific across Canada, coming from charities, non-profits, businesses and government. In particular, the social sector is leveraging new processes, tools and technologies to develop impact-focused and evidence-based innovations, such as the Insite Safe Injection Site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or Housing First in Medicine Hat, AB.

Even North America’s largest urban innovation hub, the MaRS Discovery District, runs as a social enterprise with an integrated social innovation stream. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht noted in a recent speech at University of Toronto: “In reality, innovation is too often narrowcast. It is not about shiny gadgets and cool self-driving cars, it touches every aspect of our lives and every person in our society. We are all innovators. It is also, humanity’s toolbox — humanity’s only toolbox — for tackling wicked challenges.”

With the OECD reporting that Canada’s social spend exceeded $300 billion in 2015, there is a direct economic case for social innovations that tackle root causes of social problems and hit on economic savings aligned to social or environmental well-being or redirect capital flows to create much higher SROI.

Social innovation is a Canadian strength

Read the Economist Intelligence Report on Social Innovation.

The Economist Intelligence Unit identified Canada in 2016 as the third best country in the world for social innovation. The temptation may be to interpret this ranking as evidence that all is well and stay the course. But in fact, it is intentional cross-sector partnership, community innovation and signalling from the public sector that fuelled this success — and will be critical to scaling it.

While we may be third in the world overall, the world itself is in the early adopter phase of systemically integrating social innovation as a powerful innovation pathway for dealing with the complexity of 21st Century challenges and needs. Canada’s unique opportunity and competitive advantage is to take up the mantle of leadership and advance our social innovation strengths as a cornerstone of Canada’s Innovation Agenda.

Embed social impact in innovation policy

Many of the ingredients to winning the innovation race are in our own homegrown appreciation that innovation is driven by, and can directly lead, to greater social inclusion. Yet we are looking to other jurisdictions as bad role models.

The Munk School has a great newsletter on Innovation Policy in Ontario, register here. Image from the University of Toronto

As Munk Centre for Global Affairs professors Daniel Breznitz and Amos Zehavi note, successful innovation policy in Israel led the country to leap from one of the lowest levels of R&D intensity among developed countries in 1970s to a world leader in R&D intensity. Yet, “in parallel to this success, Israel changed from being the second-most-egalitarian Western society to the second most unequal.” In response, Breznitz and Zehavi call for innovation policies to intentionally address social impact as well as economic growth and competitiveness. This is the opportunity facing Canada now as we design our innovation agenda.

Seize the moment

Integrated innovation is the leading edge of a market disruption that is creating more than economic value. Inclusive innovation is necessary for communities to thrive in the 21st century.

Canada and Canadians will succeed when we clearly align our innovation policies with the range of economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges we face and embrace all expressions of innovation leading on that challenge. We can take advantage of Canadians’ cultural affinities for collaborative working arrangements to bring very diverse innovators together to amplify their impact.

2017 is the moment to seize the assets and capabilities of all sectors, including Canada’s 160,000-strong charity and non-profit sector, as well as the power of passionate amateurs, to ensure innovation is a projet de société.

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Why experiment, anyway?

A Year of Exploration

From Wikimedia Commons

December has been a month of reflection for many years – not because it’s close to year-end but because I moved to Canada as a preteen in December. I remember the start of my journey in this beautiful country. My earliest memories of Canada are snow, the holidays, and some of the more unique things we have put in place to care for one another as a society. Things like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), and a high-functioning public education system were foreign to me. My mother took English as a Second Language from an immigrant services organization that was supported by the local community foundation. The idea of a community foundation was foreign to me.

St. Elizabeth

Today, community and social assets, such as the ones I learned about when I first arrived, are all around us – many invisible. You could say they are in the air we breathe. Yet, once upon a time, they were novel. They were innovations. Some folks somewhere, decided to craft hypotheses, do research, run experiments, test assumptions, take risks, and scale what worked. No asset is designed to operate at its optimal forever, and in a fast-changing world, we often forget how fragile our community and social assets can be. How might they be ready for and evolve in a way that attends to tomorrow’s needs? How might the spark of experimentation that led to the creation of these assets be rekindled, sustained and embedded within these organizations? What conditions are necessary to make continuous innovation worthwhile?

Questions such as these led us to kick-start an exploration to strengthen community and capability, and seed more capital for social impact organizations practicing research and development, or as we are calling it for now, “Social R&D.” The exploration is incubated by SiG, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Community Foundations of Canada, Open North, MaRS, Skills Society, Engineers Without Borders Canada, WEST Neighbourhood House, York University, and many others.

The Social R&D exploration caught the wind this year, taking a multi-sector approach. There were policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, designers, and many others contributing to the journey.

We focused on four primary areas of enhancement to social and grant-making organizations:

Demystifying R&D and demonstrating R&D in action

Through Appreciative Inquiry principles, we researched and shared 50 inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector to demystify the practice, surface resonating language, and identify ways for grant-makers and social mission organizations to better activate, empower and build R&D capacity, capability, community and capital. We packaged the practices in a first-of-its kind report in Canada – called ‘Getting to Moonshot’ with a Foreword by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta.

CommuniTEA

Catalyzing a community

We hosted gatherings, had one-on-one meetings and phone calls, and engaged over 100 people practicing R&D within their organizations. Through this exploration, more Social R&D practitioners found each other. Peer relationships began to deepen and grow, across geographies, sectors and disciplines. This community has its roots in a Social R&D Declaration of Action that was co-created and jointly signed in late-2015.

Advancing practice

We designed and hosted two unique gatherings this year to cross-pollinate, advance, and increase the adoption of R&D practices. In August, we convened approximately 20 practitioners from across Canada to connect with one another and with funders to learn, share insights, exchange methods, and find ways to strengthen their organizational R&D craft. In October, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we led an inaugural study tour to Silicon Valley to learn about R&D practices, emerging technologies, and innovations in the world’s leading lean R&D ecosystem. We also contributed to the development of a new labs and experimentation learning module hosted by Innoweave. The module kicks-off in January.

Grantbook

Influencing policy

Social R&D can lead to better policy development. We also believe that Canada can drive inclusive growth by strengthening R&D in the not-for-profit and charitable sector. However, this sector remains one of the least supported in terms of access to federal R&D infrastructure, advisory support, capacity and capital. We helped to convene a cross-sector policy gathering with Public Policy Forum in June; participated in policy meetings and consultations, including the pan-Canadian innovation policy consultation, and; submitted a policy brief to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development focused on enhancing federal R&D support for Canada’s social sector.

We have just begun this journey. Not everything worked as planned, there were failures along the way – there always will be (more on the failures in January). We are thrilled to advance each of the above four areas in 2017 and have you join this exploration as a partner, champion or practitioner.

The funny thing with mainstreaming experimentation is that we will not know what approaches will work best in advance. Only through experimentation, fast learning, and showing how it’s improving lives will they materialize.

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