Social R&D



For the social sector to have lasting impact in a fast-changing world it must have capacity, resources, infrastructure and permission to conduct research and development, or R&D. This is the hypothesis that has fueled Social R&D at SiG: an initiative to seed a vibrant ecosystem of public good R&D-enabled innovation across corporate, academic, public and community sectors to generate lasting positive impact.

Why? 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.

  • 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

Strong R&D leads to transformative and scalable social innovations.

Social R&D at SiG uses a multi-disciplinary approach to pursue this work. There have been policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, among others contributing to the journey so far. Each phase of the project has informed the way that social R&D functions thrive such that they are inclusive, resourced and have sustained long-term value.

We envision Canada’s innovation ecosystem becoming inclusive of social R&D such that knowledge, experiments, unique insights, capacity and infrastructure from across public, private, academic and social sectors are integrated to address grand challenges future.


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 Social R&D at SiG has been to support the individuals leading this work.

Social R&D practitioners use a range of R&D tools and processes including behavioural science, randomized control trials, lean prototyping, positive deviance, and ethnography across the spectrum of social change work from immigrant settlement and urban sustainability to youth employment and disability.


To date, this work has evolved over the following three phases:

Phase 1: Following Curiosity and Testing Water

This early phase of the journey was about exploring, question-finding, learning about the state of R&D in the social sector, sensing need, and mobilizing commitment to action. It included milestones like the thought-piece by Tim Draimin and Vinod Rajasekaran, “Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine, and the Social R&D Declaration of Action that captured the intent of a diverse group of front-line professionals, foundations, creatives, entrepreneurs, public policy professionals, academia, NFP leaders to embark on a discovery process.

Phase 2: Conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning

This phase was about empowering a collective ecosystem-catalyzing process, identifying positive deviants in the social sector and understanding their R&D practices and needs, creating an enabling environment for practitioner peer to peer exchange, coaching and learning, and beginning to inform federal innovation policy development. It included milestones like the ‘Getting to Moonshot’ report that showcased the R&D habits of 50 high-impact social mission organizations, and the 2016 Social R&D Practice Gathering, a first of a kind gathering for social R&D practitioners to help them strengthen their craft.

Phase 3: Seeding value of R&D in public policy community, grantmaking community, and deepening the practitioner peer community

This phase was about deepening the engagement with the public policy community, raising awareness with the grantmaking and funding community, and adding new layers of connectivity for practitioner community. This phase also had an international dimension, with engagements with the innovation ecosystems in Silicon Valley, the 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.

Now, at the end of 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 that resonates.

“If our societies are to thrive in the 21st century, we’ll need to make R&D mainstream in the social sector.” Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, Nesta


Contributors to the Declaration of Action, saw social R&D as complementary and reinforcing activities that unleash continuous process, product, policy, service, structural, and systems innovation across society.

These activities include, but are not limited to:

Exploring, community-led inquiry, ethnography, lit review, case studies, data sourcing
Brainstorming, generating hypotheses, leveraging small, big and open data
Designing and testing, piloting, prototyping, evaluating, designing feedback loops, co-production
Building/sharing capacity, aggregating/sharing lessons from success, failure and process development, leaping by learning

Though a number of definitions are emerging, our working definition is that Social R&D can be described as the art and science of applying research and experimental processes on the frontline to generate new knowledge and new innovations that transform lives.

It’s important to note that R&D functions can take a number of guises within organizations. Some have a problem-first orientation and others have a curiosity or discovery-first orientation. Some have a dedicated structure independently or adjacent to the core business, while others are embedded into everybody’s job descriptions. Some are shared across organizations and others are in service to a single organization.

Overall, R&D is not yet well funded or widely practiced by the social impact sector and thus is not yet adopted as a core organizational practice. It is a new field with a small body of codified knowledge and practice. This is changing.



In our ecosystem building efforts through the course of 2016 and 2017, social R&D practitioners identified six areas of importance that could help to advance this discipline, boost legitimacy, and increase adoption in a more systematic way.

  1. Metrics and data standards: investment into metrics to compare, evaluate, track, communicate and benchmark social sector R&D; and data standards and protocols to better share and unlock new insights.
  2. Talent and capabilities: recruitment and retention of specialized talent (e.g. data science, UX design, technologist, ethnography, research, and among others), and funding skills and capabilities development to do R&D well.
  3. Storytelling: identify assumptions and systemic barriers to norming R&D in the sector, explore core audiences and value propositions, prototype idea concepts and launch parallel experiments to build evidence for strengthening ecosystem storytelling.
  4. Funding approaches: including the value of modernizing funder community norms such as dedicating a percentage of a grant to research and experimentation, shared R&D functions, and pooled R&D funds to demonstrate the value of R&D.
  5. Practitioner connectivity: a supportive network and animation to stay connected to practitioners, experiments, learnings and insights that matter.
  6. Public policy: developing and advancing an enabling public policy frameworks with provinces and the federal government to legitimize and support R&D in the social sector

Between SiG, social R&D practitioners, and funders there is progress on all fronts. However, acute gaps remain on the talent gaps and storytelling, and an opportunity for significant advancements on the data infrastructure: this is where we’ll be focusing our energies in early 2018.

Finally, with the planned sunset of SiG, we’ll be working with the team exploring the creation of of a formal network for social innovation in Canada, the Social Innovation / Social Finance Co-Creation Steering Group, GC Talent Cloud and others to keep Social R&D practitioners connected to work in this sector.




Jason Pearman

Tim Draimin

Vinod Rajasekaran


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