Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine

Canadians take great pride in our history of innovating for the public good. Today there are a wide range of people, projects, networks, and organizations working in the social impact space across diverse sectors – ranging from enterprises and social service agencies to schools and community foundations.

Innovations such as The Women’s Institute (1897), the Palliative Care Movement, Insite – North America’s only supervised injection site, Roots of Empathy, the Desjardins and Credit Union Movement, and the Registered Disability Savings Plan are Canadian social innovations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors that have and are significantly improving outcomes around the world.

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Yet, it’s an uncomfortable fact that Canada’s many billions spent in social outcomes can produce better outcomes. Our contention is that while the social impact sector has always conducted research & development (R&D) and innovation to some degree, the scale and complexity of the challenges we face today mean we need to dramatically up our game.

What if Canadians embraced the value of R&D for

generating outstanding outcomes in social impact?

R&D for social impact could be far more intentional, connected, and supported. In that way, it would be much more accessible, widespread, celebrated, and most importantly, impactful.

What if we had a virtually accessible, distributed R&D function for the sector that everybody could share in and benefit from? This would an audacious opportunity for Canada as we near our country’s 150th birthday in 2017: we can create a breakthrough in the way that R&D is conceptualized, catalyzed, shared, incentivized, and made accessible for the world.

The functions of an R&D engine might be a range of possibilities, including catalyzing and incentivizing — as well as amplifying and sharing — new impactful processes, approaches, knowledge and models for the benefit of all. This might include:

  • helping to catalyze a national network of social innovation labs in communities;
  • designing a pro-active obsolescence management system for social programs and services; or, 
  • developing a financial incentive for NGOs to conduct R&D, similar to the Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SRED) tax credit available for the private sector.

R&D has shifted the paradigm of how new and relevant solutions get unleashed in sectors such as: automobile, life sciences, construction, and technology. Now imagine the benefits of robust national R&D resources and support systems for the immigrant settlement, or child & youth development, or senior care sectors.

Canada has yet to marshall required resources to develop a comprehensive networked R&D engine (our metaphor for Canada’s high octane social impact R&D function for the 21st century) that all sectors working to better the world can use. Not-for-profit leaders, passionate amateurs, social purpose entrepreneurs, public policy professionals, philanthropists, think tanks, front-line social service professionals, corporates, private and community foundations, and academic partners are often unable to access the appropriate resources to conduct R&D and innovate on an ongoing basis.

An R&D engine could help share knowledge, tools, platforms, innovation systems and supports to:
  • rigorously define problems;
  • generate hypotheses and conduct better experiments;
  • leverage big data in new ways being pioneered for the social sector by organizations like Data For Good and others;
  • access models and approaches from across the sector and beyond;
  • build and test prototypes;
  • assess which initiatives to scale or pivot;
  • share failures;
  • simulate solutions and scenarios;
  • design feedback loops for pro-active obsolescence management; and,
  • surface and share what works widely and accessibly.

Platforms like MaRS Solutions Lab, Alberta’s CoLab, Canada’s funding bodies’ knowledge mobilization networks (jointly funded by SSHRC, CIHR and NSERC), Ashoka Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund and Innoweave, Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities, the global Impact Hub network (and home-grown domestic analogues like the Centre for Social Innovation and HiVE), BC Partners for Social Impact, CIFAR, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK’s Nesta and What Works Network serve as helpful launch points.

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A sector-wide R&D engine would learn from, expand upon and complement existing platforms, and offer Canada the ability to actively foster process, product and systems innovation in a cohesive and networked way by better generating the right questions, challenging existing orthodoxies, launching grand challenge competitions, and catalyzing moonshots – practices, systems, tools or products that have the potential to become mainstream in 10 years.

Such an engine could:
  • catalyze, conduct, apply and evaluate R&D;
  • incentivize R&D;
  • build accessible R&D capacity, available to organizations and passionate amateurs;
  • strengthen purposeful cross-disciplinary and cross-generational collaboration;
  • scout, harvest and share R&D from across the sector and beyond; and,
  • celebrate and nurture a culture of inquiry.

More broadly, it could expand our collective understanding of how social and systems innovation takes place in Canada and how it can be accelerated. The engine could become a proof point demonstrating the power of R&D unleashed to do good better.

Why does R&D matter?

Canada is fortunate to have some remarkable social service systems. Unfortunately, many of them, conceived and deployed many decades ago, are struggling to renew themselves.  They aspire to evolve through continuous refinement to ensure they stay relevant for the growing complexity of Canadians’ needs in the 21st century. Think of challenges like fetal alcohol syndrome, increasingly unequal levels of educational attainment for different populations, child and youth mental health, an aging population, or retooling a curative health system into a preventative one. New R&D support tools like the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and the Social Progress Index can be used in local or national contexts to help orient public policy.

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While Canadian social impact organizations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors have deep knowledge about the vulnerable populations they serve, they are often trapped in highly restrictive funding models that don’t value their strategic work as social impact innovators. They lack access to financial, knowledge, process and systems innovation resources — resources that would enable experimentation, innovation, cross-sector collaboration and multi-organization consortia to respond to new needs and to improve outcomes on longstanding social problems.

New insights and new tools are emerging. The last decade has produced an enormous suite of applicable new knowledge and tools. Think of the new methodologies and approaches, like social innovation labs, for designing enhanced social outcomes that derive from…

  • the application (and combination) of new hard and soft technologies (e.g. smart phones and apps);
  • new “nudge” insights or “social stickiness” (informed by the rapidly growing knowledge about human psychology and brain science); and, 
  • the range of ways that social innovation researchers (an academic field only several decades old) are beginning to crack the innovation code.

Many social service delivery systems, originally established and funded only to ameliorate symptoms, are itching to repurpose themselves and solve problems at their roots by using their accumulated experiential wisdom plus new innovation tools and insights to reinvent pathways to sustainable wellbeing.

Think of a microcosm of social delivery, the immigrant settlement community. Currently, it is a billion dollar industry on its own. Doesn’t it make sense to have a national centre of excellence supporting immigrant settlement service innovation?

Do we have an innovation system commensurate

with our public spend for social outcomes?

Looking down from 70,000 feet, Canada’s public spending on social outcomes (health, education and social policy) represents a whopping 17% of Canada’s GDP, or $338 billion (2014 estimate). Canada’s not-for-profit sector (including hospitals and universities) is calculated to be about 7% of GDP or $100.7 billion (2007). While there is some very sophisticated R&D in parts of the social impact sector, like health, there is a real thirst for R&D by leaders in others, like frontline community services.

Now imagine…

What if social impact organizations had access to an R&D function in the same way they have access to a finance or communications function? What if funders, donors, and grantmakers support, incentivize and even reward R&D? What if an R&D engine could help organizations with pro-active obsolescence management, so social services and programs are constantly renewed? What if we could invest in growing R&D capacity within organizations?

What if Canada led the world in achieving breakthroughs in homelessness, child and youth mental illness, community care, and other complex challenges as a result of a robust and integrated R&D function shared by social impact organizations across the country?

Author’s note: The authors would like to thank outside readers, listed below, for making important comments on earlier drafts of this blog. Of course, any errors or affirmations remain the responsibility of the authors. Thanks to: Maureen Fair, Zoe Fleming, Tatiana Fraser, Allyson Hewitt, Stephen Huddart, Indy Johar, Luc Lalande and Geraldine Cahill.

About the authors

Tim Draimin Photo smallTim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG), partners on collaborative cross-sector initiatives strengthening Canada’s social innovation ecosystem. He is a member of the scientific advisory board of Grand Challenges Canada and a senior adviser to MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.

unnamedVinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader helping to enhance Canada’s impact infrastructure so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He works with The HUB, the world’s fastest-growing professional community and innovation platform for people working to better the world. Vinod is also involved in HUB’s incubation of Rideau Hall Foundation, which aims to catalyze and align ideas, people and resources to move the Canadian spirit forward.

Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (Sept 2014)

C/O Ashley Goldberg

C/O Ashley Goldberg

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of September 2014. In no particular order:

1. Innovation in aged care and wellbeing: “Circle,” created by Participle, is an innovative membership-based service open to anyone over the age of 50 that supports individuals and communities to lead the lives they want to lead. Members are supported across four areas of their lives: social activity, life’s practical tasks, tailored learning, and appropriate health and wellbeing services. At the heart of Circle is a fundamental belief that everyone has the right to a flourishing, independent later life.

2. Blog post: “Crickets Going Quiet: Questions of Evolution and Scale” by Giulio Quaggiotto (UN Global Pulse Lab) & Milica Begovic Radojevic (UNDP Europe & Central Asia). The post explores the insights and thinking that emerged from a gathering in NYC with a diverse array of development professionals (ecologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists…) and prompted Giulio and Milica to ask the very tough question: How do we create the space for constant adaptation in bureaucracies that are predicated upon predictability, risk aversion, and stability?

3. New online quarterly magazine launched by Nesta, “the Long and Short“, with stories being published over month-long ‘seasons’ rather than all at once. The aim is to offer a journalistic and storytelling approach to innovation to audiences that, while interested in new ideas and the way the world is changing, don’t typically identify with Nesta or the innovation community in general — while also providing entertaining, interesting stories for people that do.

4. Excellent practical guide written for local authorities (in the UK): “Commissioning for outcomes and co-production” written by nef’s Julia Slay and Joe Penny. The guide provides a framework, a set of principles, and practical guidance to re-assess how services are currently procured and provided.  It can help to re-focus services on the outcomes that really matter to those who are intended to benefit from them. The practical guide sets out the core ideas and how to put them into practice. This rigorously researched and tested guide is the result of eight years of collaboration between nef and local authorities (wow!).

5. We are talking a lot about social innovation ecosystems lately (stay tuned for a new two-pager by SiG on the topic to be launched soon). This Q&A style article, “What Are the Components of the Canadian Innovation Ecosystem and How Well Is It Performing?” by David Watter in the TIM review, is timely and useful in thinking about innovation ecosystems in Canada. The article explores and lays out the components for effective innovation ecosystems — that is, the supports and the collaborations that underpin a thriving innovation pipeline and activities.

6. Mindmup: Stoked about this great (and free!) mind mapping and systems mapping online software — we used this for a SiG strategy session! (hat tip: Kelsey Spitz)

7. GC Design, sponsored by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS), is Canada’s newest government innovation unit. The studio is taking on four assignments to work with a policy/project team and departmental representatives on an internal red tape reduction initiative, as announced in the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Destination 2020 report. Be sure to follow @GovCanDesign and GC Design’s first two employees: Blaise Hébert and Sage Cram. (also, while you’re at it, you’ll want to follow #StudioY fellow Meghan Hellstern for insider #GCDesign scoop!)

8. Great video of a talk by Noah Raford from back in 2009, “Explaining The Cycle of Adaptive Change,” where he compares forest cycles (a biological system) and the US car industry (a social system) using the adaptive cycle (a Frances Westley favourite!). The video is super helpful in wrapping one’s head around systems change!

9. In June, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unveiled a new portal for innovation in the public sector: the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. The portal aims to collect, share and analyse examples of public sector innovation and to provide practical advice to countries on how to make innovations work. The portal will be demonstrated at the OECD Conference on Innovating the Public Sector: From Ideas to Impact, which takes place in Paris, France, on Nov 12-13 2014.

10. An interview with Parsons DESIS Lab’s Eduardo Staszowski and Lara Penin, by Creative States. Check it out for Eduardo and Lara’s answers to questions:

  • In your view, how has the field of design evolved over the last 10 years?
  • How is DESIS Lab preparing the design field for these emerging trends?
  • Would you say your work shifted from documentation to application?
  • What sorts of research questions do you explore in “Public and Collaborative”?
  • How does “Public and Collaborative” work?
  • What types of projects are you working on now?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of working as a ‘lab’ within a university setting?
  • How would you define success with “Public and Collaborative”?
  • Where do you hope to see “Public and Collaborative” ten years from now?

11. Blog post by Nesta’s Stian Westlake, where he offers “Eight options for a Radical Innovation Policy.” These include:

  1. Go large // Innovation policy as usual, but much more. For example, increase the science budget, the TSB budget and R&D tax credits.
  2. Go downstream // A massive reorientation of public resources from research to development.
  3. Get in on the upside // Make sure government gets a share in successful innovations that it funds. Use this to invest more in innovation.
  4. The Teutonic pivot // Reform Anglo-Saxon capitalism to make it more long-termist.
  5. The Austrian pivot // Conclude that the 17-year alliance with industrial policy was a mistake and scrap everything that doesn’t correct simple market failures in as straightforward a way as possible.
  6. Citizen innovation // End technocratic innovation policy and empower ordinary people to both innovate and decide the direction of innovation funding.
  7. Get creative // Innovation is nothing without creativity – and it’s often cheaper to fund than science. Back creatives to make innovation flourish.
  8. Go green // Focus innovation policy on one mission – decarbonizing the economy and mitigating the effects of climate change.

12. InWithForward share the next iteration of their discussion paper, “Grounded Change,” and explore three different critiques they received (including a name change to the document).  For a deeper dive into the Grounded Change model, don’t miss InWithForward’s new online seminar series: “How do we get to change?” – where the team will share (and invite you to debate and critique!) their approach of starting from the ground-up to develop impactful new programs and policies. Session dates:

  • Oct 24, 12pm-1pm ET (free) — Making Solutions for Impact (Taster & Info Session). What kinds of solutions prompt change for people most on the margins? An intro to ‘Grounded Change’ and a preview of the next seminar: Making Solutions for Impact.
  • Oct 31 & Nov 14, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($149) — Making Solutions for Impact (Two-part Seminar). What are the missing mechanisms between policy, services, and outcomes (that aren’t in your theory of change)? Explore how these 7+ mechanisms can apply to your programs and policies.
  • Nov 7, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($29) — Collaboration for whom? Collaboration is one of the change processes of choice among social service and policy makers. But…does collaboration actually change outcomes for people?
  • Nov 21, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($29) — Building capacity to innovate in services & systems. How do we get out of the trap of meetings, workshops, and planning sessions? And actually think and do differently? What does it take to organize work from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down?

13. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in this year’s Albright Challenge, hosted by MIT Collaborative Initiatives and facilitated by Marco Steinburg and Justin W. Cook (formerly of Helsinki Design Lab). The Challenge uses the HDL inStudio model (a major influence for my interest in labs) and aims to “stimulate inventive, collaborative solutions to today’s major societal issues […] and to reinforce the critical need for and value of prevention in all areas of societal concern.” My group of 9 worked to redesign Education and Learning systems to enable 21 Century US citizens to thrive. I was delighted by the focus on wellbeing — the literature on ‘5 ways to wellbeing‘ came in handy!

14. The Tamarack Institute put out a Call for Abstracts (deadline Nov 10, 2014) for papers on the topic of “Using Collective Impact on Community Development Issues,”. The chosen papers will be published in a special issue of Community Development in late 2015. The intent of this issue is to provide a collection of high quality articles on various aspects of using the Collective Impact approach. The idea is that, given that Collective Impact is still in its developmental phases, both scholars and practitioners can make significant contributions to the literature by sharing research and practices from organization, conceptual, and implementation phases. Agreed!

 15. Launched: The Global Innovation Fund. £30,000 to £10 million in project grants to invest in thoughtful social innovations initiatives that aim to improve the lives and opportunities of millions of people in the developing world.

16. As of November 1, Christian Bason (head of MindLab) will become the new CEO of the Danish Design Center. Kit Lykketoft (currently Mindlab’s deputy director) will step into the leadership role at MindLab. In other staff news, the executive summary of Jesper Christiansen’s PhD thesis, “The Irrealities of Public Innovation,” is available for our reading pleasure.

17. Article by InWithForward’s Janey Roh and Sabrina Dominguez explores and explains the prototyping process, using their insights and lessons learned from their Burnaby Project.

18. Blog post by Tessy Britton, “Citizens who have changed big systems – by building new examples.” Tessy shares insights from her work at the Civic Systems Lab (and beyond) around what needs to happen to make possible the type of experimentation and scaling required to tip systems. Theses insights are:

  1. The models you develop have to be open
  2. The models have to be flexible and adaptable – while remaining effective
  3. People need a learning mindset
  4. It’s more practical than political
  5. The economics have to work well
  6. Government needs to share the risk taking with citizens

19. Must read article: “Time to go beyond the climate change and social innovation debate,” co-authored by dynamic duo Indy Johar and Filippo Addarii, is a rallying call to “reinvent and transition a generation of institutions,” rather than continuing to patch externalities and symptoms of our complex social and environmental challenges. You may feel the urge to throw your fist up in the air and exclaim “YES!” after reading it 🙂

What have we missed? What lab-related links have you been following this past month?

Social sector innovation report highlights opportunity but lacks specificity

I first heard about the paper When Bees Meet Trees from Tim Draimin, who heads up the Social Innovation Generation National team.  He thought the article, which explores how large social sector organizations can help scale social innovation, would be of interest and asked me to share a few thoughts.  Little did Tim know that I would write several paragraphs critiquing the paper!

I had the feeling that the term ‘social innovation’ was used in this paper very broadly and loosely to apply to almost any change in the social context, in social service delivery or within a social organization.  To give just one small example, the paper cites as a major innovation the inclusion of hearing aids on the list of items covered by the National Health Service in the UK. Granted, this is an excellent and very welcome policy shift.  But is it a social innovation? (see the SiG knowledge hub for a definition of social innovation)

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c/o Blair

Any term can become almost meaningless if it is employed too loosely and is applied to characterize virtually any type of change.  I believe that there is a need for more conceptual clarity around the notion of social innovation.  For example, there is not a clear distinction made in this paper – or in conversations more generally − between the concept of social innovation, (characterized by durability, impact and scale) and social sector innovation.  The latter is less broad and represents one subset of the former concept. I had some difficulty with the paper advising the social service sector to embrace social innovation because it was written in such general terms. The paper’s call to “engage with social innovation, and commit at a leadership and business planning level to trying to support social innovation reach scale” needs to be better explained.

The paper does set out a very helpful list of how-to’s for enabling social sector innovation but it should make a conceptual distinction between internal organizational innovations and substantial qualitative innovations in service delivery.  For example, there are innovations within organizations in terms of how they communicate; how they raise funds and finance their operations; how they learn and communicate with their members; and how they train their staff.  However, these internal changes may not change the methods or interventions they employ to deliver their services.  Presumably, social sector innovation implies at least a disruptive shift in service delivery and, ideally, a change in organizational processes as well. Sarah Schulman’s work in Australia focuses on profound changes in service delivery, which then lead to internal organizational shifts.

Additionally, the distinction between organizational incremental change and radical change to approaching a problem is not well made.  Organizational changes are often made by modifying the current procedures in place.  They start with the status quo and build up from there.  These shifts are primarily process-based.  Disruptive changes, by contrast, start with an identified problem and ask what needs to be done to tackle the challenge more effectively. These changes are mainly outcomes-based.

It also seems to me that the impetus for disruptive change may have to come from some place outside existing organizations (e.g. a lab or the “bees,” like small innovative organizations).  The large social sector organizations or “trees” typically will not select new methods that end up cutting themselves down.  The bees have an important role to play in stirring up the pot.

Finally, I believe that another conceptual disaggregation is required.  The social sector itself is not a monolith.  It actually comprises a wide range of generic interventions that apply to many groups within the population (e.g., affordable housing; training) and group-specific interventions (e.g., persons with disabilities; children in care).  I am not sure whether the to-do list set out in this paper is equally applicable to all these components.

Although there is a need to break down the silos within the social sector, I think this has to be done from a different starting point than what the paper advocates. The shift should start from the community rather than the organizations currently involved in service delivery.  The latter tend to be in survival rather than experimental mode.  Current funding structures don’t encourage the required experimentation. Consequently, profound shifts likely will not come from within the organizations themselves. They will feel comfortable engaging in a few upgrades and modifications to their internal processes.  While important, that is not what disruptive change is all about. Small nimble organizations and the broader community offer the most promising spaces for radical innovation.

Editor’s note: read Sherri Torjman’s post on the role of innovation ecosystems in enabling good ideas to take root. 

Bees, Trees and the Innovation Ecosystem

Sherri_Torjman bees and treesIf you ever have the good fortune to spend time with Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation National, you will learn a lot about social innovation − in Canada and abroad.

But you will also find out quickly that Tim is thinking about something that goes beyond innovation itself.  He is preoccupied with a notion called the “innovation ecosystem.”  You might wonder what on earth he is talking about.

Here is my interpretation.  Innovation represents a product, service, process or way of thinking that is qualitatively different from what is currently in place.  The innovation could be new or newly-applied.  The latter refers to something that has proven successful elsewhere and is now being applied to a new context or community.

The innovation ecosystem comprises all the actions you need to take to both sow and grow the innovation seeds.  A good idea − whether a product, service, process or new way of thinking − does not take hold just because it happens to be a good idea.  It needs to be planted in the right conditions and carefully cultivated to ensure it can take root and flourish.

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Report on how large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation

Tim has recently read a report called When Bees Meet Trees: How large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation.  The paper builds on earlier ideas that depicted bees as small organizations, individuals and groups that have the new ideas and are mobile, quick and able to cross-pollinate.  The trees, by contrast, are the big organizations − governments, companies and large not-for-profits − which are poor at creativity but generally good at implementation.  They have the resilience, roots and scale to make things happen.  Both the bees and the trees need each other.

 

While the ideas in this report may be interesting, they will not be applied unless they are disseminated, digested, discussed and debated.  Any innovation − including a new way of thinking − needs an innovation ecosystem in order to take hold.  This innovation ecosystem comprises of several components.

First, it is essential to identify the people who would have an interest in this product, service, process or new way of thinking.  Among them are those who are willing to go one step further and spread the word.  They may even be early adopters ready to apply the innovation to their own workplaces or communities.  There is a vital human resource component to the innovation ecosystem.

An innovative product, service, process or idea typically involves a variety of associated changes to take root.  When it comes to applying an idea, for example, it may be necessary to create new teams that work together in clusters rather than individually at desks.  Community locations, such as a coffee shop or neighbourhood hub, may replace a central office.  Virtual work spaces may be set up at home.  These are the physical space dimensions of the innovation ecosystem.

Before any new product, service, process or idea is introduced within an organization or community, there must be an assessment of who might be affected by the innovation and in what ways.  Innovation usually is ‘disruptive’ in that it implies a qualitative shift in how things are done.  While disruption is vital to innovation, it is important to try to minimize potential harms, such as job loss or exclusion from an essential service.  There is a key information component to the innovation ecosystem.

There are also legal dimensions to the innovation ecosystem to which innovators must pay attention.  It is possible that clients of a service may decide to launch a lawsuit, for example, if their benefits or supports are protected through legislation.  Employees may lodge a complaint or grievance if they feel that their contractual agreement has shifted fundamentally from its original signing.  While these possibilities should not necessarily block the innovation, change makers must be aware of the potential legal implications of their actions.

Of course, money is always a consideration.  How much will the innovation cost and from where will the funds come to support this new good, service, process or way of thinking?  Will they be redirected from another activity or program or will additional dollars have to be found?  Are there potentially new funders or sources of financing that might be tapped?  This is the financial component to the innovation ecosystem.

Finally, the policy component of the innovation ecosystem can help or hinder the application of a new product, service, process or idea.  For example, existing legislation may prevent non-profit organizations from raising new funds through profit-making activities.  Enabling policies, by contrast, could help open the door to new forms of financing.

At the end of the day, an innovation that has been applied well will probably be sustained over time.  If successful, other organizations and communities often want to apply it as well.  Sustainability and scaling are vital features of successful innovation.

No wonder Tim is obsessed with the innovation ecosystem.  Without it, innovation will likely not take hold.  For sure, it will not survive or go to scale.  Tim knows that it is imperative to create the conditions for success when the bees ultimately meet the trees.