Reflections on the Canadian social innovation landscape. An insider/outsider perspective.

“The knowledge society has to be a society of three sectors: a public sector of government, a private sector of business, and a social sector. And I submit that it is becoming increasingly clear that through the social sector a modern developed society can again create responsible and achieving citizenship, and can again give individuals — especially knowledge workers — a sphere in which they can make a difference in society and re-create community.” Peter Drucker.

At the end of the month, Toronto will host two pivotal events:

These events prompted me to reflect on my own participation in the Canadian social innovation movement and the disruptive conversation I think we need to have within the space.

I joined the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) team, and by extension the Canadian social innovation community in 2011. Participating in this community continues to be a transformative experience. SiG’s work has influenced a small army of highly skilled, motivated, and talented social innovation players and brought together a remarkable group of people to kickstart a social innovation movement. What will become of SiG and its small army is yet to be determined?

SiG has had tremendous reach. My own involvement has resulted in the content from SiG being applied in various settings throughout Ontario and across Trinidad and Tobago. For example, last year I hosted a workshop in Port of Spain on social innovation which brought together professionals from some of the largest companies on the island. I have worked with two philanthropic foundations in Trinidad and Tobago to help them develop new strategies that include a social innovation lens.

I have also hosted intensive social innovation studios for educators and young people called Studio Impact and the B Studio Project. These came about because SiG brought two like-minded people together. When I joined SiG, I shared a desk with Anita Abraham, we quickly realized that we both wanted to develop youth programs around social innovation. Together with some other colleagues, we worked together to get funding from The Trillium Foundation to launch Studio Impact, a Canadian social innovation educational program. The program focused on exposing youth and educators to social innovation content.

Studio Impact from Jay Kraus on Vimeo.

Simultaneously, I was able to secure funding in Trinidad and Tobago to launch the B Studio Project which was in some ways a Trinidad and Tobago version of Studio Impact. SiG allowed Anita to join me for the first year of the program which set the foundation for what would become a five-year project. In those five years, I hosted five two-week long studios focused on youth between the ages of fourteen and twenty. After five years, approximately one hundred and twenty young people were exposed to the content. Similarly, we held three Train the Trainer workshops. Sixty teachers and educators participated in these workshops focused on integrating social innovation content into their classrooms. Just in my circle, the ripple effect and impact of SIG’s work is evident and I am sure other people in the SiG network have accomplished similar things. At the SiG sunset event, Geraldine Cahill and Kelsey Spitz will be launching a book to outline some of the projects that SiG has been involved in and I am looking forward to seeing how others have been able to use the content generated by SiG. I am actively working to bring B Studio Project to Toronto.

What attracted me to social innovation, was its focus on systems change and transformation.

Not all definitions of social innovation include these framings but it is a perspective that has always resonated with me. As the popularity of social innovation has increased, I have become increasingly concerned with what I call “social innovation washing” — the mislabeling and eventual diluting of the field of social innovation. A popular conceptualization of social innovation that I find increasingly problematic, occurs when social innovation is framed only around doing good. At first glance, it is easy to think that we should be striving to do good, and we should, but in conceptualizing social innovation, we should not only be including social good in how we understand social innovation.

Firstly, the objective of social innovation should be to contribute to addressing a complex problem. Doing good is ambiguous, relative, and subjective. Many of the people I meet who are interested in social innovation have this narrative of doing good. In my own PhD work, I came to appreciate the importance of nuance when thinking about social innovation.

One of the greatest innovations of the modern world is the invention of hospitals and the field of medicine. There is no question that modern medicine has made a great contribution to improving both the quality and longevity of lives around the world. Paradoxically, healthcare has gotten so good at keeping people alive, that we are amid conversations around dying with dignity. There are countless stories where medicine has kept people alive for far too long, suffering undignified deaths. These are incredibly complex, messy and emotional conversations. They demonstrate the dark side of social innovation. Despite all the advancements in healthcare, improved practices have produced not only thorny unintended consequence, but also produced high rates of avoidable harm to patients.

Social innovation cannot and should not only be defined in terms of doing good.

The idea that we are going to do good is noble and we should work to leave things better than we found them, but we cannot guarantee that we will not be producing new problems that will one day need to be addressed. One of the main reasons people think of social innovation within the context of doing good is perhaps best explained by John Wilson, in his book Thinking with Concepts. He argues that concepts can be analyzed as being questions of facts, value, meaning or concepts. For Wilson words do not really have meaning, they only have uses. He argues that analyzing concepts in terms of fact, value or meaning makes little logical sense. His assertion is that questions of fact, value or meaning are dependent on how we define the concept. In cases where the definition is uncertain, conceptual analysis cannot be achieved at the level of fact, value or meaning until we have established what counts as the concept in question. Consequently, we should be examining these emerging terms as questions of concept.

Social innovation as a concept is about transformation and systems change. Many people have things in mind that they would like to count as social innovation – they place meaning and value on particular activities that they deem to be worthy of the definition social innovation. For others, social innovation is a noun. It is fixed. For me, social innovation is a verb, it is dynamic and continuously changing. It is a way of doing. It is a way of approaching systems change and transformation.

In my thesis, I define social innovation as an activity or activities that profoundly change social relations or interactions, deeply challenge or shift existing paradigms, and significantly change resource flows within an existing social system. In the tradition of passing the baton, this reframing of how to define social innovation builds on Frances Westley’s definition, “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”. Words change meaning. They have uses, and there are times when it is appropriate to be prescriptive in the use and application of concepts. If our goal is transformation and systems change, then this is one of the rare occasions where I would lobby for being prescriptive in the use of a concept.

My tweak of Frances Westley’s definition is how I see the future role of the those of us who have had the privilege of being able to participate in the space. Our role is to improve on the foundation that has been laid by others. For example, in improvisation, the task is to set others up for success. Your role is to make it easy for the next person to improve what you have put into the space. Our social innovation predecessors have done what they can to set us up for success. It is time for us to yes and them.

By building on the work of people like Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley, I have turned the definition of social innovation into framing questions or focusing questions. My definition focuses on three areas: paradigms, resource flows, and social relationships. With the most weight being placed on social relationships. These three areas orient the actor to focus on transformation and systems change. The objective is to get them to make implicit assumptions explicit. To do so I ask:

  • What changes in paradigm would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

  • What changes in resource flow would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

  • What changes in social relations would need to be true for us to generate social innovation?

This approach gives practitioners the opportunity to make their thinking explicit. The process gives groups a tangible place from which they can work.

When I joined SiG, much of the conversation focused on how to create the conditions that foster social innovation. During my thesis, I fell in love with the concept of creating the conditions of possibility. I would like to see an initiative emerge that returns to these core values of SiG. I would like to see a space where we can engage in radical openness, co-production, and knowledge creation. I imagine this as some type of community of practice that meets regularly to develop both the theory and practice related to social innovation. Many people in the space have tried to do this before, but to my knowledge, it has never been well resourced or the explicit focus of a team. In an ideal world, we could have this group educate and coach practitioners within the space.

When I used to run track and field, our coach would often say, “It is not the team with the fastest runners that finds success, it is the team with the best transitions and the right order of runners.” The Canadian social innovation movement is at a moment of inflection. There is an opportunity to pass the baton in a meaningful way. The question is, who is prepared to step up to receive it? Who should run the next leg of the race? Importantly, are there any people we might be leaving on the sidelines?

When I attend events like Spark, these are the kinds of discussion I hope to be part of, and I am excited to join the upcoming conversation. My perception from the outside is that the organizers are trying to spark new ways of thinking and doing within the field of social innovation.

I would like to see social innovation head in the direction of applying a social innovation lens on itself. How are we as a community contributing to the problem? What are we doing that is preventing us from creating conditions of possibility? What could we be doing differently that would strengthen the field?

To change an organization, you must know — and change — yourself.” — Paul Heresy.

Zaid Hassan, author of the book, The Social Labs Revolution recently tweeted, “The original sin of addressing complex challenges is the belief that you change things without changing yourself.” Ralph Stacey, an eminent complexity theorist, argues that transformative causality occurs when “entities are forming patterns of interactions and at the same time, they are being formed by these patterns of interactions.” If this is what we mean by transformation, then those of us in the social innovation movement need to think about how we are helping to midwife the future of the field.

Palliative care for some parts of social innovation.

A friend, Eimear O’Neil, recently sent me a paper she is writing, titled: “Palliative care for white supremacy.” Some things must die for others to live. What are some of the ways of doing things within the space of social innovation that need palliative care? A mentor of mine, Norm Trainor, says that maturity is learning to live without illusions. Social innovation is hard serious work, full of tension and paradoxes. There is a belief that in creative work, if tensions do not arise then you are too close to your comfort zone. It is time for social innovation to mature and for this to happen it would mean having some disruptive conversations within our community. The first of which is to decide what is social innovation and what it is not.

A major strength of the social innovation is its commitment to cross-sectoral work. We are limited by how people frame what we call social innovation. Most people, when they refer to the word social, they are either thinking of social media or the social sector. Within the social sciences, the word social refers to the associations and relationships between humans, animals, places, and artefacts. We need to reclaim the word social and begin using the word to refer to the kinds of relationships we hope to foster.

If social innovation continues to be thought of within the context of doing good and saving the world, it will remain an othering concept. Social innovation is about helping people participate in the world as full citizens. It is not solely activist work, nor is it for wealthy or privileged people who want to give back. Social innovation needs to be about creating the conditions for full citizenship. This is the second disruptive conversation I think we need to have in the space.

Social innovation can be the framework we use to engage in work that is deeply transformative.

As members of the movement, we need to do the work that takes social innovation out of the social sector so it can be weaved across all sectors. The existing language we use frames the conversation as one that needs to occur within the “social sector.” Social innovation is citizen work that needs to transcend sectors and we need to be deliberate about the language we use. A big carrot we have in our favour comes from a recent PWC report which claims that 59% of CEOS report that top talent wants to work for companies that have social values that match their own. If this is true, it means that companies who want to retain the top talent need to work for purpose.

This changes the game.

Many of us in the space are struggling to find ways to either pass or pick up the baton. For example, my own participation with SiG led me to complete a PhD thesis focused on social innovation. In my situation, continuing as an academic would mean, in part, taking on a poorly paid post-doctoral assignment in the hope that I can one day secure a tenure-track position. Not something I am able or willing to do at the moment. I am currently working with a team who is trying to redefine financial services and find ways to decrease the number of individuals in the middle market that are underinsured. I say this to point out that where the soldiers in the SiG army land, will be determined, in part, by larger economic forces and their own personal contexts. Simultaneously, all of us who have participated in, and continue to participate in, the social innovation space should explore our privilege. Do we need to ask, who can participate in this movement? Who are the people who can do social innovation work, full-time? Who benefits from our current approach or approaches to social innovation as a practice? These questions remain unanswered or in a bucket labelled to be determined.

“I want to change the world” might be a bit of a cliché, but for some of us, it defines the work we wish to do. Bill Gates, Colin Kaepernick, Elon Musk and Steve Bannon can all be considered social innovators. Social innovators need to learn to navigate internal and external conflicts, paradoxes, and inconsistencies in their work. The typical social innovators we think of are people who have a desire to address some of the world’s most challenging problems. For these folks, social innovation is a sector agnostic, process-based approach to making a difference. Without embarking on a process where we address our own assumptions, we risk “social innovation washing”. While in its infancy, the field of social innovation needs to be held accountable to some sort of clear standard. As the application of this term increases across so many different contexts, we need to develop tools or approaches that bring rigour to the field. We need these tools to take us away from aspiring to generate social innovation and towards creating the conditions that foster social innovation. At the heart of it all, we need to keep in mind that social innovation is yet another site of struggle.

Originally posted on his personal website and re-posted with permission.

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Keita Demming About Keita Demming

Podcaster | Business Performance Coach | Strategy and Innovation Advisor | Author | Speaker | Instructional Designer | TEDx organizer | recovering PhD

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