Is our playbook out of date?

A photo by Greg Rakozy. unsplash.com/photos/oMpAz-DN-9I

Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges — ranging from mental health, Indigenous communities’ access to quality education, and a lack of affordable housing — demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimental and replicating approaches so people can access the best possible services, supports and solutions, no matter where they live in Canada. This is where R&D comes in.

Canada’s not-for-profit, charitable, B Corp, and social enterprise organizations have built strong capabilities in volunteer management, donor stewardship, and program delivery, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that social change in the 21st century requires an additional strong capacity and capability in research and development, or R&D.  

Just as R&D in the business world drives new and improved products and services, R&D can also help social mission organizations generate significant and rapid advancements in services and solutions that change lives. However, currently only a small proportion of social mission organizations repeatedly incorporate a wide range of new knowledge (like insights into how the brain works and how positive behaviours can be encouraged) or new technologies (like machine learning) or new processes (like human centred design).  

R&D is not yet well understood, 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.

The “Social R&D” exploration aims to catalyze a change. The exploration is incubated by SiG, seeded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Open North, Community Foundations of Canada, MaRS, Engineers Without Borders Canada, among many others.

The new report, Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector authored by SiG Fellow Vinod Rajasekaran, with a Foreword by Nesta’s Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan, highlights 50 compelling R&D practices from 14 organizations across Canada, including: Saint Elizabeth’s field visits with frontline staff, GrantBook’s digital simulations, Skills Society’s neighbourhood prototyping and The MATCH International Women’s Fund’s 15% staff time for experimentation. The report illustrates that pursuing R&D helps organizations minimize costs in program growth, track improvements and learning more effectively, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for and with the people they serve. The intention in the future is to move beyond the report and host an online collection of practices with open access.

There are wonderful elements of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector and this report is an attempt to make a small portion of them visible to demonstrate that investment in R&D is a critical success factor in seeing measurable gains in social wellbeing. Against a backdrop of increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, together we can transform how social mission organizations enhance lives for the 21st century.

SiG invites grantmakers, philanthropists, governments, and practitioners to join the movement to boost Social R&D capacity, capability, infrastructure and capital in communities across Canada.

The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking Part II: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change

This is the second part of a blog series on systems thinking. In part I, Realizing the ultimate impact of community-based innovations,” I introduced the theory and core elements of systems thinking.

In Part II let’s begin with two questions: what can individuals and organizations do to be part of systemic change? And how can powerful institutions like governments be more part of the solution than the problem?

In Systems Innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggests two sets of answers.  The first: it is essential to ground individual change actions within the context of the “broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.” For Mulgan “the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. Realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of leverage. If you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.”

The second: recognize and leverage the essential role of what I call the missing middle or what Mulgan calls intermediaries. In order to succeed, “the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. In retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies.”

The roles played by intermediaries can include: orchestrating advocacy campaigns; engaging critical stakeholders; demonstrating alternatives; and facilitating the required networks into power structures and changemaking communities. Some of these roles resemble those of “backbone” organizations in collective impact initiatives. Mulgan lays out a valuable chart for seeing the range of roles and their goals:

goal-actions_geoff

Joined-Up Innovation, Geoff Mulgan p. 21

Building the Enabling Systems-oriented Ecosystem

What would be elements of an ecosystem building approach for systems innovation that a government should focus on? Social Innovation Europe suggests seven:

1.    Developing a common vision around the need and potential for systems change
2.    Supporting greater experimentation
3.    Expanding rapid learning through open innovation platforms, greater transparency, and much more cross-sector collaboration
4.    Expanding incubation support systems and platforms to enable systems innovations
5.    Targeting capacity building focused on critical competencies
6.    Developing enabling conditions through funding instruments, regulation and legislation
7.    Growing networks connecting key stakeholders in order to spread and disseminate innovative practice and generally enable knowledge mobilization.

How imminent is a heightened focus on systems change? What conditions will prevail to shift us in that direction? Charles Leadbeater, in his essay in Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series, says there are four main ingredients to the systems shifting process (that he calls “regime change”):

1.    Failure Stacks Up – The multiplying failures and frustrations with the current system
2.    Landscape Shifts – The landscape of the current regime shifts so much that it is left at odds with the world
3.    Alternatives Accumulate – Real alternatives start to grow, multiply in overlapping fashion
4.    New Technology Offers Accelerated Impact – “These new approaches are energized by the application of new technologies, which open up new possibilities for organizations, businesses and consumers. These rising new technologies add to the momentum and excitement for change.”

Alice Casey, from her vantage point in Nesta’s Public Service Innovation Lab, highlights two additional ingredients for people working on systems change at the community level. Her essay in the Discussion Series advocates for:

1.    Structures that value collaboration and that assist people escaping their narrow service silos to think and work together, and
2.   Relationships that enable power sharing by using an asset based approach and drawing on the tools of co-production that “help create collaborative and trusting relationships that give people the risk–friendly space they need to engage and behave in different ways.”

Systems Thinking Into the Water Supply

How do you see the issues you care about through a systems thinking lens? Does systems thinking have implications for how you imagine deepening your impact over the next decade? One of Canada’s social strategists extraordinaire, Al Etmanski, is fond of saying that we need to get “social innovation into the water supply”. For many years now he has applied his talents at the systems tilting end of the social innovation spectrum. How do we take Al’s lead to expand that essential “systems think and do”?

Related Links:

  • The indispensable desktop resource on systems thinking is the short book by Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Donnella was a co-author of the 1972 watershed book Limits to Growth that was a catalyst for recognizing earth as a system with finite limits.
  • The SiG Knowledge Hub is replete with useful content including the sections on Systems Thinking (Dip into Systems Thinking, Dive in Systems Thinking)
  • The Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary Oct 2 – 4, features an extensive line-up of systems thinkers and social innovators.
  • Nesta’s robust website contains two excellent 2013 PDFs on systems thinking: Systems Innovation and Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series. The latter carries a contribution by Canadian Daniel Miller a St. John’s, NL-based independent researcher who has a web site Systemnovation dedicated to systems thinking.
  • The field of social innovation, design or change labs is developing across Canada. It offers a growing set of basic tools to assist organizations, businesses and governments in initiating practical multi-stakeholder processes to develop, prototype and scale systems-shifting innovations. SiG has just published a new map to those resources.

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Realizing the Ultimate Impact of Community-based Innovations

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

Early in my career I worked in international development in Central America supporting the pioneering community development efforts of organizations like a country’s first ever women’s movement, campesino co-operatives, and adult education NGOs.  As strong as any individual organization’s efforts were, they were effectively undone by the worsening human rights backdrop of authoritarian governments and military dictatorships. Within 4 years I found my focus had shifted to working in Canada to support peace efforts through what later became called “citizen track diplomacy.” These were informal efforts by non-state actors like NGOs who convened off-the-radar meetings that connected belligerents and international stakeholders in facilitated processes that helped build relationships, new thinking and thereby overcome barriers to more formal peace efforts. In other words, events forced me to appropriate systems thinking to first seek to understand and then try to create ways to influence the larger forces and dynamics destructively dominating the region.

Have you ever put a lot of hard work into achieving your big idea or successfully creating a reform only to realize there are many related issues that need to be addressed? And realize your achievement may stand alone, an orphan in danger of erosion if you don’t address them? Welcome to the world of systems.

c/o Artinaid

c/o Artinaid

 

“Systems loom large in our lives”, says Charlie Leadbeater, a leading writer on social innovation. Our planet of 7 billion inhabitants depends daily on a myriad of interlocking systems for clothing, food, and shelter as well as meeting health care and other needs.

 

 

Our primary man-made systems were born – or matured – in the immediate post-World War II era when the planet was far less populated and its needs less complex. Unfortunately, many of those systems are now reaching – or have passed – their “best by” date.

Which systems do you experience as wearing thin: Social welfare? Education? Food? Health? Democratic engagement? Global finance? Environmental protection? Management of the global commons?

Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, and Charlie Leadbeater have co-published a pair of excellent articles in Systems Innovation, including Mulgan’s Joined–Up innovation: What is Systemic Innovation and How Can it be Done Effectively? and Leadbeater’s The Systems Innovator: Why Successful Innovation Goes Beyond Products. They explain what systems are, why they are so important, and how they should be a focus for change by people involved in building and scaling social innovations.

Systemic innovation is defined as “an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.” As Leadbeater predicts, “systems innovation will become the most important focus for companies and governments, cities and entire societies. In the last decade there has been a growing focus on innovation in products and services as a source of competitive advantage. In the next decades the focus will shift towards the innovation of new kinds of systems.”

As I wrote in Shifting From Scale to Reach, individual social innovators are making enormous strides in building valuable innovations that generate meaningful social change. However, in order for those individual initiatives to scale up to achieve deep, broad and durable impact, we need to shift gears to collaborate with others operating in the related system. In most cases individual social innovators begin their changemaker careers focused on specific symptoms of systemic malaise. As they engage their system, they deepen their knowledge of it and often shift, as Pathways to Education’s David Hughes would say, from an-organizationally-centred strategy of ameliorating symptoms to an issue-centred strategy of altering systems. For example, many social innovators in the environmental movement started their careers focused on local issues like pollution or local conservation. Their experience with the underlining forces that produce negative local impacts provided them with the insights to re-think their goals and strategies in a more systemic fashion. This description reminds me of the work of Nicole Rycroft, who cut her teeth as a passionate campaigner for the protection of Clayquot Sound.  Today she is an Ashoka Fellow who leads Canopy, working with the forest industry’s biggest customers to protect the world’s forest, species and climate by shifting markets.

Nicole Rycroft Ashoka Fellow

Federal Conservative Minister John Baird & Canopy’s Nicole Rycroft

In recent decades the world has seen the rise of numerous valuable fellowships supporting individual social entrepreneurs like Ashoka, Schwab Foundation Fellows, and Echoing Green. Their field building work, and that of their fellows, has helped to crystalize today’s extraordinarily exciting new era of entrepreneurship, experimentalism and innovation. Today however, we are preparing to enter the phase of connecting up the approach of individual innovations with the emerging systems innovation approach.

Core Elements of Systems Thinking

SiG’s Knowledge Hub, which has a section on Systems Thinking, lays out the following Principles in its resource Introduction to Systems Thinking:

  • Systems are a way of thinking about the world
  • Systems behave as a whole
  • Systems understanding is observer or perspective dependent
  • A systems approach requires multiple perspectives
  • Where WE draw systems boundaries affects the system
  • We need to be aware of what is going on inside the system but also outside
  • Systems are ‘nested’ – we should always think about the system we’re looking at as being made up of smaller systems and being part of larger systems

Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three stages to employ in order to look at a problem using the lens of systems thinking:

1.    Frame the Situation – Begin by generating a systems description or map of what is involved and the important relationships that define the system
2.    Describe the Dynamics – Develop an understanding and description of the dynamics of the situation
3.    Synthesize the Understanding –Capture what was learned from the first two phases of analysis into narratives about how the situation might or could unfold in the future

How does system thinking inform the strategy of social innovation?  Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three ways:

  • It’s critical to consider the purpose, function, goal, objective for examining a system
  • You cannot talk about a system without considering who is looking at it and why
  • Understanding how elements within a system are connected allows you to identify places for intervention and transformation

Social Innovation Europe (SIE) has written a useful introduction to the topic, entitled Systemic Innovation, which outlines some of the key elements for taking a systems approach:

  • Openings appear following a crisis or period of upheaval
  • New ideas, concepts and paradigms
  • New laws and/or regulations across a broad area
  • Coalitions for change of many actors and/or across more than one sector or scale
  • Changed market metrics or measurement tools
  • Changed power relationships and new types of power structures
  • Widespread diffusion of technology and technology development
  • New skills or roles across many actors
  • New institutions
  • Widespread changes in behaviour, structures and/or processes

SIE points out that complex challenges “cut across different policy domains, sectors and political and administrative jurisdictions. Coherent responses to these kinds of challenges cannot be driven by single institutions but will be reliant on numerous people, organisations, institutions and stakeholders working in a coordinated way. And as these social challenges become more pressing, a systemic approach becomes necessary. Individual social innovations may deliver certain benefits in a piecemeal way. But if we really want to address a major social challenge, we will need to look at problems in a holistic way.”

They highlight that systems change requires a whole series of complementary innovations – often introduced simultaneously – that will rely on all sectors: business, government, community as well as unorganized households. “In many cases,” they argue, “systemic innovation results from a confluence of forces: social movements, the creation of new markets, public policy (such as new rights or new legal, fiscal and regulatory frameworks) and behavioural change. While some systemic innovations are more challenging to effect than others (because of their scale, scope or complexity), systemic innovation in general is difficult to orchestrate or support (through the creation of enabling conditions, for example) and certainly more challenging than innovation at the level of a new project or a new venture.”

A timely opportunity to learn more about systems thinking in action is at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary this October 2 – 4. Hear from systems thinkers like Charmian Love of Volans (also speaking for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series next week), Ros Tennyson of Partnership Brokers, and Vickie Cammack of Tyze Networks. Each of these individuals is currently collaborating with many partners to shift systems in new directions.

Part II — The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change