Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo – Seeding a Social Innovation Ecosystem

Can a cross-sector partnership, that bridges the gaps between corporate, academic, public and social profit entities — with their different cultures, values and perspectives — foster a lasting ecosystem of social innovation in a region known internationally for its reliance on oil extraction?

This was an unusual partnership in an unsuspected place.  Starting in 2009-2010, the Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF), the University of Waterloo (UW), the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) and the United Way of Fort McMurray came together to build the capacity of the not-for-profit sector (renamed the social profit sector) in the Wood Buffalo region and create the preconditions for a culture of social innovation that would long outlast the project itself.

11UW001_ProjectID_tagThis partnership is the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) project, which has sought to take advantage of the complimentary strengths of reflection and action to build an ecosystem for social innovation in Wood Buffalo, within the social profit sector. Five years on, the project is winding down and taking stock of how much a lasting ecosystem for social innovation has developed.

SPWB began in part with the ideas presented in Getting to Maybe (2006), which guided much of the project’s work with the community.  Some of the most powerful ideas that practitioners in Wood Buffalo have embraced include:

  • the importance of grasping the whole system;
  • the value of developmental evaluation to inform decision-making and ongoing work, and;
  • the importance of social entrepreneurship, linking ideas to power and windows of opportunity.

Through workshops, learning events, resources and reports, SPWB gave its social profit partners the opportunity – sometimes even described as ‘permission’ by participants – to look above their foxholes, to pause, to take stock, to talk, to reconsider, and to celebrate.  This space was also a place for participants to explore the murky adjacent possible and create new partnerships and programs to serve the community.

While SPWB looked to Getting to Maybe, as well as the growing academic analysis and next practice of social innovation coming out of the University of Waterloo, Social Innovation Generation, Tamarack, Innoweave and other groups, this project has always been at its core community driven.  Surveys and brainstorming conversations allowed community partners to identify their priorities, while on-going questionnaires and reports allowed these partners to hold the SPWB team accountable over time.

It took a long time – several years in some cases – for SPWB to earn the trust of its social profit partners, highlighting the importance of long time commitments for projects that seek to support social innovation.  This time invested was not time wasted however, as it made the hard conversations about wicked problems possible.

A constant focus on trust building and community voice also built a sense of community ownership around the outcomes related to SPWB interventions – whatever SPWB did, it did walking alongside community partners.  SPWB acted as an incubator and backbone — convening meetings, acting as note taker and reporting back, doing research and communicating results — which allowed its partners to explore new partnerships, test out new initiatives, and take risks.  Some of the successful risks included the creation of shared space for social profits; a new arts council; a new, amalgamated capacity building organization called, FuseSocial (from Capacity Wood Buffalo, Leadership Wood Buffalo and SectorLink); and the annual Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards.

FuseSocial Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap

FuseSocial Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap

As this phase of the SPWB project ends, is the interest in social innovation it has supported in Wood Buffalo sustainable? Has it created that rich ecosystem for social innovation that will last for generations?  There is definitely increased awareness and knowledge of social innovation and complexity, and an increased use of developmental evaluation, and the social profit sector is more valued by the public and private sectors, as well as more confident in themselves.

This success has conversely translated into a concern, however, among SPWB’s social profit partners about what will happen when their champion of process passes the torch to the community.  Will the sector still have the depth of research? Will there still be safe spaces, where competition for resources and clients is left at the door?  Is the embrace of social innovation thinking deep enough that it is the new norm?

These questions are yet unanswered.  Although some will be addressed as the project members define the tangible elements of SPWB’s immediate legacy (who takes over what, where do resources go), with others, only time will tell. One challenge will be the ongoing clash between standing still (making ‘reflective practice a centrepiece of action,’[1]) and the inherent action-oriented focus of the social profit sector in Wood Buffalo.  While many organizations, at several scales, embraced the value of grounding themselves in evidence and asking probing questions, very few of SPWB’s community partners wanted to pause.  Learning and reflection were valued as long as they were paired with moving the conversation forward or could be tied to organizational goals.  Thinking always had to be paired with action.

Rather than resolve this dilemma, perhaps there is a space to manage or embrace what seems like an insurmountable tension between action and thinking.  Future projects could embrace the fierce interest in doing, while still maintaining the value associated with standing still.  New approaches such as social innovation change labs have certainly embraced research to drive meaningful, deep exploration and possible action – what possibilities lie in these emergent processes?



[1] Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton, Getting to Maybe (2006) p. 89

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Katharine McGowan About Katharine McGowan

Dr. Katharine McGowan is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo, working with the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Project. She is an affiliate of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience.

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