Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D

For the social sector to have lasting impact in a fast-changing world it must have capacity, resources and permission to conduct research and development, or R&D. This was the hypothesis explored at a gathering in 2015, which ultimately lead to the Social R&D Declaration of Action.

Now, in 2017, looking across Canada and across the globe, it’s clear that R&D to help social mission organizations generate rapid and continuous advancements in services and solutions to enhance lives is an idea whose time has come.

According to the OECD, Canada spends close to $300 billion on social outcomes and well being per year. However solutions are not being found at the pace required to address rising social and environmental challenges.

Examples
  • The suicide rate among Canadian girls has increased by 38% over the past decade

  • Food insecurity prevalence rose to 46% in Canada’s north – the highest rate since 2004

  • Hospital admissions for opioid poisonings have jumped 53% in the last decade, with 40% of that increase occurring in the last three years

  • Half (50%) of monitored wildlife species are in decline in Canada, from 1970 to 2014

Canada has an emerging social R&D practice: organizations like E180 in Montreal are using data science to strengthen peer-to-peer learning, Kudoz are applying ethnography in the disability sector in Vancouver, The Winnipeg Boldness Project are using social lab methods to create a new framework for childhood development in Winnipeg, and many more. These organizations are finding ways to deliver services while investing in research, design, development and delivery of new practices and services.

A central focus of this SiG Fellowship is to support the individuals leading this work.

Practice Gathering

The social R&D practitioner community have said that to strengthen their craft, they need to increase their awareness of compelling experiments and insights from across issue domains; they need time to connect with other practitioners; and they need ongoing exposure to new methods, tools and techniques.

To help address this need, SiG hosted the second Social R&D Practice Gathering this past August.

The three-day program, the only one of its kind in Canada, was designed to cross-pollinate research and design methods, showcase experiments with new technologies, share insights and know-how, build and strengthen relationships, and surface the ecosystem conditions required for social R&D practitioners to do their best work.

The report, Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D, with foreword by Dr. Alex Ryan, captures highlights and actionable recommendations from the Practice Gathering proceedings for practitioners, governments, funders and others who play enabling and supporting roles to grow this emerging field. The report is a complement to the Getting to Moonshot and Spring 2017 Roundtable reports.

Highlights
  • For social R&D practitioners: elevating one’s craft involves building new skills (from community-based research to analytics technologies), as well as taking on new roles (from knowledge translator to movement builder).

  • For the public sector: creating awareness and capacity within departments to respond to the R&D needs of enterprising and high-performing social mission organizations would give the social innovation ecosystem a significant boost in terms of increased ability, quality and frequency of generating innovations. Practitioners discussed a few early opportunities, such as departments making anonymized outcomes data available and experimenting with regulatory sandboxes.

  • For the Government of Canada Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy: practitioners felt that this was a great opportunity to open up Canada’s infrastructure for commercial R&D (funding, research support, promotion, etc.) to the social sector. For example, supporting R&D clusters in urban sustainability, immigrant settlement or youth homelessness; and establishing funding programs to support and incent R&D. Another significant gap that the strategy could help address is investigating the measures needed to ensure a pipeline of skilled talent to sustain the growth of this field.

  • For funders: practitioners are eager to work with you to reimagine the granting process, and to build and maintain an ecosystem that improves the capacity, connectivity and infrastructure for R&D.

Finally, the report closes with an outline of next steps being pursued to support the growth of Canada’s social R&D practitioner community: the creation of a three-year field incubator with a mission to make Canada’s social R&D more connected, accelerated, visible, and world-class.


SiG, along with partners Community Foundations of Canada and The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, support the social R&D fellowship that explores the initial conditions and infrastructure necessary to help strengthen the social sector’s R&D capability, connectivity and infrastructure.

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