A disruptive Conversation with Al Etmanski

“Impact – Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation”

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation and hosts a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Al Etmanski. Al is a serial social entrepreneur, and author of the book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation. In this podcast, Al shares many insights on his years of working to change the system of care for people with disabilities. Al proposed and led the campaign to establish the world’s only disability savings plan – the RDSP. He is an Ashoka Fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He has been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. In this podcast episode, he provides wonderful insights from his years of experience on how we disrupt sectors or systems.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.

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Making Indigenous histories and futures visible

The YVR Art Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1993 by the Vancouver Airport Authority to foster the development and enhancement of BC First Nations art and artists. The First Nations of British Columbia have artistic traditions that have been part of their fabric of life for millennia. While these traditions are not unique to BC, the Vancouver Airport is one of the only public authorities that has decided to dedicate space and championship to the celebration of local Indigenous art and craftsmanship. 

jade canoe

Bill Reid -The Jade Canoe at Vancouver International Airport 

Last week, some 4,000km away at Toronto’s YWCA, dedicating and creating intentional space to celebrate Indigenous culture was the heart of a public discussion convened by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam about Truth and Reconciliation in an urban context.

The panelists included Susan Blight, an artist and activist; Sam Kloetstra, Youth Coordinator, Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle; Sarah Midanik, Executive Director, Native Women’s Resource Centre; and Andre Morriseau, Director, Awards and Stakeholder Relations, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB). 

One of the most cited critiques of Toronto’s city planning during the discussion was the lack of intentional place-making for Indigenous peoples. Many suggestions were offered: renaming streets and waters, a multi-functional space/community centre to re/learn culture, a centre for Indigenous Social Innovation, a dedicated district – akin to Chinatown, Little India etc, and an Office of Indigenous Affairs within City Hall.

Sam Kloetstra recently moved to Toronto and Kristyn accidentally introduced him as having just moved to Canada. As Sam pointed out, what’s interesting about the mistake is that, “Not every Indigenous person identifies as being Canadian, but every Indigenous person I’ve met identifies as being Torontonian.” This knowledge is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto. So, how to step up its game?

North American Indigenous Games

North American Indigenous Games

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) will come to Toronto in 2017 – the same year the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, which Prince Harry announced last year with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wynne in attendance. In contrast, few people have heard about the North American Indigenous Games, which have been held since 1990. These kinds of events can help raise the profile of Indigenous leadership. Similarly, Andre Morriseau spoke of a missed opportunity to build on the success of the Toronto-based 2015 Pan Am Games by creating a living asset of Indigenous experience, athleticism and culture in Toronto. Amplifying the profile of the NAIG’s is a very achievable way to learn from that missed opportunity.

Still, there are some inspiring rogue and entrepreneurial examples of place-making and place-keeping out there that others can build on. Susan Blight and Hayden King took to the streets a few years back, making stickers with Ojibway translations of Toronto street names that they plastered over the English signs, beginning with Queen Street, or Ogimaa Mikana. What began as a political action became a full scale billboard project.

First Story app

First Story app

There’s also the work of First Story. Since 1995,  First Story Toronto, (formerly The Toronto Native Community History Project), within the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been engaged in researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto with the goal of building awareness of and pride in the long Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. They have created a handy mobile phone app (via itunes and google) and you can take self-guided tours of the city, learning about Indigenous heritage and communities in Toronto.

Naturally, in addition to place-making efforts, citizens themselves need a culture shift. Education systems can play a role in this and many are making strides to introduce new curricula. But on the streets and in our every day, how do we foster better relationships with each other? I think it was Andre that remarked, “If you don’t have a dog, do you talk to anyone in the park?”

While making things visible may be the easier first step, actually allowing oneself to be uncomfortable in not knowing how to demonstrate your willingness, to work on Reconciliation is the harder part. Chad Lubelsky from McConnell’s RECODE project wrote recently:

A key challenge therefore is to not rush into solutions, but to live with the tension that resetting relationships will require everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to change, and to change together. Change happens in concert and takes time; perhaps more time than we’d like…These tensions will create discomfort, and increasing our discomfort might be an indicator that we are making progress. It’s hard work that will only get harder.

There is so much more for us to talk about and action together – in urban environments and in rural communities. There is much that people don’t know. For the participants in last week’s discussion, all seemed to agree that a physical and official commitment by the City of Toronto to reflect Indigenous life is important. Yet all would also agree that we can’t stop there. As a Globe and Mail article published just yesterday outlines: “There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life.”

The City can move forward with many of the suggestions raised during the discussion, but while they work through official channels, we must all continue our own journey along this difficult but hopeful path.

Talking ’bout my generation

Decelerating is by definition, slowing down. That’s a prerequisite on Wasan Island; a beautiful cabin retreat in the heart of Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation, a German non-profit organization.

Great thinkers, from Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, Daniel Kahneman, to Ashoka Fellow and author, Al Etmanski, have written about the benefits of slow thinking.

As Al writes, “time to learn from [our] mistakes. It helps you recognize the meaning in seemingly random events and to connect the dots between disparate experiences, insights, relationships and activities.”

With a conceptual ‘hunch’ from Allyson Hewitt, a simple frame provided by Jason Pearman and Vinod Rajasekaran, and the facilitation prowess of Chris Moss, a small group convened on Wasan Island in late June to decelerate and do some slow thinking on inter-generational dialogue and relationships. We called it the Intergenerational Decelerator.

We were a disparate bunch, intentionally a range of ages and divergent experiences, all interested in what would bubble up over the few days we were together. I arrived thinking about a project I’ve been working on with a very cool group of young changemakers; while it’s still very much in its infancy, I wondered how the Decelerator would help me think through how it’s being designed.

love_meaning-wide

In our very first introductory circle together, some big thorny topics were raised which, if slightly reframed, seemed to me to be critical questions, not just for our retreat, but for life in general. Here are the unedited notes I recorded after our session:

Even in our own circles, we struggle with compassion in a fight to prove and show what we know.

Is this an eternal struggle for meaning, a sense of identity, of proving that we exist, that we are here – dammit! I have something to contribute!

This is a central yearning.

This is an innate desire, perhaps?

We are driven by a need to feel as though our life has purpose and that life is worth living.

How can we – no matter what stage of life we are in – no matter how old we are – feel as though we are contributing to something greater than our own survival?

When we’re older we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

When we’re younger we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

What is a valuable contribution?

From this Day 1 – Session 1 reflection, lots of ideas were generated – all circling around this final question: what is a valuable contribution?

This question was filtered through various aspects of life, work and how society could reimagine contribution outside of the confines of traditional workplaces and financial compensation for efforts made. In conversations over the nature of work, some interesting proposals were made highlighting specific aspects and challenges that must addressed.

For example, Leo Plue, who runs the Abilities Centre in Whitby ON, reminded us that there are hundreds of thousands of people with post-graduate degrees who languish in day programming or isolation, because they also happen to have a disability. They are unable to make a valuable contribution. How can we change the structure and nature of work to support their inclusion and contribution?

Another example…

How can we develop a new lexicon that better articulates the contributions and capacities available to us across generations?
Move from:

Age arrow Life stage
Work arrow Contribution
Job arrow Engagement

Free ourselves from the confines of words like:
  • Retirement
  • Boomer
  • Millennial
  • Youth
Redefine or refine:
  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Inclusion
Be conscious of our default questions when we meet new people:

What do you do? arrow What do you like doing? What are you interested in? What are you engaged in?

Meaningful work

We developed ideas around new mentorship programs and processes of exchange between people at different life stages. How do we design environments that are generative? What is the role and value of voluntary contributions?

Our conversation was not happening in isolation and there are many ways to look at the big question of: what is a valuable contribution? In “The World Without Work,” in the current issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes: 

“Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages. In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”

palmer_church

Photo by Raquel Fletcher from Focus on Saskatchewan

The article is not much of a stretch – imagining a world that many residents in post-manufacturing small towns and young university graduates are already familiar with.

What we haven’t imagined collectively is how to design the second part for millions of people: environments where meaningful contributions can be made, for compensation (monetary or otherwise) that facilitate one’s own good physical and mental health, and by extension, whole communities.

With only 2.5 days, it was unrealistic to reach grand conclusions, but the group reflected on the confines of our current language, our cultural barriers to change and our desire to be more conscious of the assumptions we carry and words we use in our every day.

If you took some time to think about how you introduce yourself to people and what you want to know about them, what language do you use and what assumptions do you bring to the meeting?

I think we all felt these things were obvious, but some deliberate decelerated time together revealed how difficult it can be to put into practice.

Patterns, platforms and time for play

We’ve all seen the headlines.

The world is rapidly changing. Technology is iterating at great speed, pushing our minds and our bodies in ways we don’t fully comprehend.  The economy, which by definition is equal to the wealth and resources of a country or region, is under serious stress – and will be for some time.

Our natural climate is throwing us huge curve balls, thanks in no small part to the hits we keep sending her way.

And yet we know all is not lost.
c/o socialfinance.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

At MaRS, it is believed that entrepreneurship is key to leading the way through all of this change. Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka — and credited with coining ‘social entrepreneurship’ — would agree and add that the skill of pattern recognition is equally imperative.

Understanding how and identifying where particular stresses exist focuses the entrepreneurial mind.

Tonya Surman has been paying attention to patterns for a long time. Most recently, she has been considering what motivates the work of an entrepreneur – more specifically – her work as a social entrepreneur.

Tonya is no stranger to success. She was the founding director of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, whose work catalyzed a new legislative framework to manage chemicals and ban bisphenol A in baby bottles.

She co-founded and chaired the Ontario Nonprofit Network, an organization that serves 55,000 non-profits. She was also a founding trustee of the Toronto Awesome Foundation, an organization that distributes monthly $1,000 grants to fund local projects.

However, it’s Tonya’s work as Founding CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) that has garnered her the most public attention. Not content to seed and grow one thriving co-working space in downtown Toronto, Tonya and her team successfully pioneered the use of Community Bonds – an innovative model for grassroots, sustainable capital campaigns. CSI used this financial product to purchase a second co-working space in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and have now offered a second bond to purchase a building on Spadina Ave – opposite their inaugural home base.

c/o socialinnovation.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

In addition to all of this moving and shaking, CSI has a space in the Daniels Spectrum building at Regent Park and a whole other co-working space in New York City!

With all of this success, she might be content to sit back and smell the roses she’s been growing in her roof-top garden, but Tonya continues to push herself. As an Ashoka Fellow, she would likely agree with Bill Drayton that entrepreneurship is a life-long process. The work is never done. Just like the world of social innovation, once one peak is reached, another mountain reveals itself and one must keep climbing!

Talking through what she has learned on her journey and the secret to her impressive energy, Tonya joins the MaRS Global Leadership Series & SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact for the first time on March 31.

Register for Tonya’s talk here.

A conversation and Q&A with the Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter will follow Tonya’s presentation. Catherine writes about everything from climate change, women’s rights, poverty, mental illness, international development and community activism. She has won two National Newspaper Awards for her work. Their discussion and your questions will be a great way to end an inspiring presentation.

Whet your appetite with this recent video interview below
where Tonya discusses her current motivations:

 

A cup of sugar

In a September Globe and Mail article, Doug Saunders compiled “Five schools of thought about where the world may be headed next.” It is a thoughtful and robust analysis that includes scenarios as dire as wholesale climate panic to the beginnings of a new Cold War. The focus is on power — emerging or declining, shifting allegiances, the possibility that we soon will have no world super-power — and seeing ourselves “rudderless,” but as likely as not to continue muddling through the decades to come.

None of Saunders’ possible futures imagine a sustainable global ecosystem led by the young leaders being educated today. Nor are any scenarios informed by the young people we come into contact with at SiG, or the dozens of agencies and organizations in our orbit. It also strikes me that none of Saunders’ scenarios imagined the announcement that came hot on the heels of his speculations.

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

In the same month, the heirs to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments. “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a statement published in The Guardian, “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

This obviously made the news because the Rockefeller fortune was made in oil and yet this increasingly progressive foundation sees no future in its further exploitation. And then, there was this: just last week, multiple news agencies reported that the U.S. and Chinese presidents have laid out ambitious new targets to cut pollution in a deal that negotiators hope will inspire similarly dramatic commitments from other countries.

I like Doug Saunders’ writing very much, but I don’t think it need be naive to suggest a brighter future is at least worthy of consideration.

We see evidence that positive change is occurring and that younger generations are engaged with co-designing plausible alternatives.​ The world needn’t be so bleak and power-led — a tug-of-war between old enemies. 

Of the sectors engaging in positive futures, the philanthropic sector appears very interested in leading the way. Foundations are getting out in front of the curve. Unconstrained by policy or profit margins, they have been re-imagining their role both in our uncertain present and our possible future.

While Rockefeller may be jumping ahead south of the border, in Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is leading and creating the conditions for the exploration of social innovation acceleration and the amplification we need to get in front of our shared social and environmental challenges.

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

At the 2014 Social Finance Forum, McConnell’s Stephen Huddart launched RECODE, inspiring social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives led by young people in higher education institutions. This is one of dozens of initiatives being designed to build capacity for the next generation of leaders to see the possibilities, not the barriers in the systems around us.

Recently, I was very fortunate to hear Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak to a small circle of people about Re-imagining Philanthropy. He described the sea-change coming with the growth in young indigenous populations in Canada and how getting to change will necessarily mean integrating all parts of our national systems with aboriginal teachings and practice.

â„… The Daily Mail

â„… The Daily Mail

Nothing could be more exciting and more overdue. I see a convergence of challenges, certainly, but not hopelessness in our shared future. Atleo described philanthropy as being aboriginal in nature — like the give and the take of a neighbourly cup of sugar, the exchange is one of friendship.

On November 24th, Stephen Huddart will speak at MaRS about Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change. And if I may be so bold, I don’t think he would disagree with me: the times are uncertain, but we have more than just the best of bad choices to make. Informed by history, indigenous practice and contemporary systems approaches, together we can work towards a more resilient, sustainable future.

Register for Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change — November 24, 2014 at MaRS Discovery District, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM (EST)

Hamilton: Canada’s human capital edge

Note: This post was co-written with Geraldine Cahill, Communications Manager for SiG National. 
 
When you think of Hamilton, Ontario, what comes to mind? The Hammer? Steel Town? Smokestacks?

When we visited Hamilton in February, we saw a beautiful city nestled between the soaring Niagara Escarpment to the south and Lake Ontario to the north, surging life science and health academia and businesses, and a downtown core poised for growth and change. The most striking thing of all was the conviction and passion of our hosts about Hamilton and the potential of its people.

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce believes it might be time to unleash this potential by adding a citizen-led social innovation lab to the city’s arsenal. Let that sink in for a moment. At MaRS Solutions Lab and Social Innovation Generation, we regularly receive requests from governments and community organizations for advice on setting up social innovation labs, but this is the first time we’ve had such a request from business owners.

Business turns to labs

In 2012-2013, Geraldine Cahill and her colleagues undertook field research about Hamilton’s social and economic challenges as part of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. When the results of the study were presented, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce was sufficiently convinced of the value of a social innovation lab that it wanted to explore the idea further with a broader group of Hamiltonians. Thanks to Keanin Loomis, president and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, and Doug Ward and Paul Lakin, members of the chamber’s Science, Technology and Innovation Sub-Committee, we found ourselves introducing social innovation labs to a room full of business owners, academics, community leaders, political leaders and civil servants at McMaster Innovation Park.

Click to see our presentation on building a Hamilton CityLab
Tensions and uncertainties

Like many contemporary peer cities, Hamilton is grappling with tensions and uncertainties.

  • In October 2013, the Toronto Star ran an article on Hamilton’s economic and social rise, quoting its mayor Bob Bratina as saying: “We’re now at the tipping point of a new city—one we all knew could exist.” Within the same article, a young McMaster student was quoted saying that she feels the political leaders in Hamilton are distant and need to be more in touch with the public. This sentiment was heard repeatedly during the field research on Hamilton.
  • In December 2013, the unemployment rate in Hamilton stood at 5.9%. This is a very strong number compared to unemployment rates in other Canadian cities of a similar size. Yet few newcomers to Hamilton are settling in the city permanently. The thousands of graduates from the city’s university and colleges don’t stay. What kind of a Hamilton do newcomers and graduates want?
  • According to Statistics Canada data from 2011-2012, 60.4% of Hamiltonians are overweight or obese, a figure that is significantly higher than Ontario’s 52.6% and Canada’s 52.3%. McMaster University researchers and McMaster Children’s Hospital clinicians have joined forces to tackle childhood obesity, combining expertise in genetics, metabolism, biochemistry, physical activity and other areas to develop new ways to prevent and treat obesity-related diseases with help from other sources like tophealth news. But will this be enough?

All of these issues are highly complex and seemingly intractable. There are no easy solutions that experts, stakeholders and citizens can all agree on. These are problems that we can only solve through trial and error. However, this necessary experimental approach seems impossible for government with its current structures, especially in an economic climate of decreased public resources and increased scrutiny. But the capacity for society—businesses, non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and individual citizens—to solve problems is at an all-time high. People are better educated and have access to more technology and information than ever before.

Private capital for social good is more available than it has ever been. Social innovation labs (#PSILabs) likeMaRS Solutions Lab capitalize on this emerging problem-solving capacity to meet complex social and economic challenges with society.

A history of experimentation

Hamilton has a long history of experimentation, adapting and thriving against overwhelming odds. In fact, rising from the massive losses in its steel industry, Hamilton is the most diversified economy in all of Canada. Hamilton Health Sciences is now Hamilton’s single largest employer, while corporate construction projects have topped Canadian cities two years in a row.

At our presentation, the passion and readiness of the Hamiltonians in the room was apparent. There was a flurry of questions, from how quickly we could get started and how much it would cost to what the team would need to look like. Discussions about what was possible had already begun. We felt the rare willingness to collaborate across organizations and sectors. There was tangible excitement about even our most audacious suggestion of a challenge: to transform Hamilton into a city of innovators and entrepreneurs in life sciences, advanced manufacturing, arts, logistics and agri-food—essentially to become Canada’s cutting-edge human capital hub.

After the presentation, Keanin Loomis took us on a tour of Hamilton. From the top of Stelco Tower, the panorama of Hamilton was breathtaking.

“I wish every Hamiltonian could see this,” said Keanin, pointing to the sweeping view from the knife-edged escarpment to the sparkling waterfront, “and be excited by how much more we could be!”

We believe that a social innovation lab will help drive and capitalize Hamilton’s ambitions. Is a social innovation lab right for your city?

You can view our presentation on building a Hamilton CityLab here.

– Jerry & Geraldine

This post was originally published on the MaRS Blog on March 7th, 2014. 

 

Facebook: a reality check

Facebook will not democratize society. They don’t claim they will and they don’t claim they can. “We know we don’t always change the world, but Facebook’s ability to connect people can have an impact. We believe in democracy,” says Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. I had the opportunity to hear Sandberg speak at the Empire Club of Canada on Tuesday this week, which was enjoyable if not particularly illuminating.

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Whole person care: the legacy of Balfour Mount

The term “palliative care” was first coined by Canadian physician, Balfour Mount in the mid-1970’s. Inspired by the work of Dame Cicely Saunders in the UK, Mount set up the hospital-based palliative care unit at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Prior to opening the ward, he found the treatments for terminally ill patients abysmally inadequate. He set out to change that and was awarded the Order of Canada for his efforts.

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