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: lab resources (archive)

SiG Note: This article was originally published on March 17, 2015 on the MaRS Solutions Lab Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Launched August 2013, the Microtainer series was created and curated by Satsuko VanAntwerp of Social Innovation Generation. The MaRS Solutions Lab then took on this legacy to spread information that was interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. To access the whole archive of Microtainers, please visit the Microtainers series page. It has since all been archived.

Interesting resources that came across our desks in the past 6 weeks (in no particular order):

 

1. Practical illustrated summary of Lab Matters: Challenging the practice of Social Innovation Laboratories

Written by Marlieke Kieboom (Kennisland) in a more illustrated format.

2. Civic Quarterly’s articleCollaboratively Designing Public Services“ by Chelsea Mauldin

“Citizens often bear the burden of public services that weren’t designed with their experience in mind. If civic designers are ever going to improve these services, we’ll need to engage both citizens and civil servants alike in their creation.”

Civic Quarterly

c/o Civic Quarterly, Issue 2, Winter 2014

3. The New Yorker’s article “The Shape of Things to Come

A rare in-depth look at Jonathan Ive and his team and “how an industrial designer became Apple’s greatest product”.

4. Devex’s article “Putting evidence into policymaking: RCTs as a tool for decision-making

“In India, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a network of researchers who run randomized control trials based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working with the Tamil Nadu government to integrate findings from RCTs into the policymaking design phase — a collaborative approach which evolved from J-PAL’s existing evaluation programs there.”

5. News: “Government’s new innovation ‘Hub’ open to new thinking

“The federal government has opened its long-awaited ‘hub’ of thinkers and policy wonks whose brainstorming could reshape the way policy is made and services are delivered in Canada.”

6. Wired Magazine’s “15 Predictions for Tech and Design in 2015

15 projections from experts in the advancement of design and tech, including edible technology, adaptive education, and health diagnosis with nano particles.

c/o Wired Magazine

c/o Wired Magazine

7. Civic Quarterly’s article “Untangling Complexity: Designing for Shared Understanding“ by Jacqueline Wallace

“The next phase of the digital revolution will be defined by products and services that facilitate shared understanding, allowing concerted participation around complex issues. In working to show the way, civic designers will need to call upon the powers of systems research, design research, social science, and open data.”

8. CBC’s news articleHarper government examines game-playing to motivate bureaucrats

“Federal memo says computer games have potential to train public-sector workers, engage citizens. The Privy Council Office, the central organ of government and the prime minister’s own department, now is looking at adopting gamification as it renews the entire federal workforce over the next five years.” ‘Harnessing the Power of Gamification’ was written by Coleen Volk, deputy secretary to the federal cabinet. Volk proposes that game-playing be promoted by a policy think-tank established by the government in mid-February, called the central innovation hub.”

9. News: “Financial Solutions Lab Announces $3 Million Competition to Tackle Consumer Financial Security

“The Financial Solutions Lab at the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) with founding partner JPMorgan Chase & Co. today announced a $3 million competition for technology innovators working to address consumer financial challenges.”

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Microtainer: lab resources (January 2015)

SiG Note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2015 on the MaRS Solutions Lab Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Launched August 2013, the Microtainer series was created and curated by Satsuko VanAntwerp of Social Innovation Generation. The MaRS Solutions Lab is excited to take on this legacy to spread information that will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. To access the whole archive of Microtainers, please visit the Microtainers series page.

Interesting resources that came across our desks in the month of January 2015 (in no particular order):

 

  1. Nesta’s annual predictions “10 predictions for 2015″ (podcast)

    “This year, we’re predicting that a new online political party will emerge in the UK, there will be new ways to interact with our national museums and galleries, and there will be a surge in young people expressing their creativity using new digital tools.”

  2. Medium blogChile’s new public laboratory and its many waters”

    Read more about Chile’s upcoming new public sector lab, the GobLab.

  3. MindLab’s blog “Design Games That Play”

    “A design game is an effective and inspiring playground, where you can practise before ideas turn into reality. Get good advice and navigate around the most common pitfalls, if you are faced with rethinking or developing new services for your users.

    C/O MindLab

    C/O MindLab

  4. Government Technology’s news article “Google Reveals its Innovation Lab for Government”

    “Google plans to institutionalize innovation through a mobile innovation lab that combines its suite of apps with motivated government innovators.”

  5. Wired Magazine’s article “Serious Games Go Offline: Bringing the Board Game to the Board Room”

    “Instead of e-learning, apps or social media, [companies] use physical simulations inspired by board games to accelerate the organization’s ability to learn and adapt to change.”

    C/O Wired Magazine

    C/O Wired Magazine

  6. Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “The Dawn of System Leadership”

    “The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader—the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.”

  7. The Social Labs Fieldbook 

    Download the first section of the Social Labs Fieldbook. “This is a practical and interactive ebook that will guide you in creating and sustaining an effective social lab with passion, precision and purpose.”Social Labs Fieldbook

In case you’ve missed it:

 

  1. The Long + Short’s blog “Hooked on Labs: The experimental life is being created all around us”

    “Labs are places where people conduct experiments to test out theories. The new labs proliferating outside the hard sciences are a symptom of the spread of experimentalism as an ideology for how we should shape the future.”

  2. Nesta’s guide “Innovation teams and labs: a practice guide”

    “This practice guide shows what innovation teams and labs do, and provides a practical introduction to establishing and running a new team or lab.”

  3. Deloitte’s Gov 2020 

    Explore trends and drivers for the future of government in year 2020. A resource accumulated by Deloitte.

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

C/O Archivo Diario

C/O Archivo Diario

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 June 2014. In no particular order:

  1. Recognizing that the physical environments we work in affect our levels of creativity and imagination, Nesta is commissioning a study and paper on “Innovative Spaces” that will explore how the design of our work spaces affects innovation (Also on the topic of how to design spaces to encourage creativity: “Make Space,” a book by Stanford’s D.School ).
  1. The “Systems Changers” website, a project led by The Point People, is full of excellent resources and thought pieces. Of particular interest is their piece on the Character Traits of System Changers, which include: 1. Not being afraid to think big – really big; 2. Comfortable with change and uncertainty – more than that, they embrace it wholeheartedly; 3. Do not have the personal/professional divide that has underpinned industrial models of working life.

  1. Blog post about a seminar — “Redesigning public services: cases, methods, challenges” — that Christian Bason (Director of MindLab in Denmark) conducted in Bilbao, Spain. The author shares his insights and personal takeaways.

  1. Lab to watch: London-based “Civic Systems Lab,” a part incubator/part accelerator working to alleviate & systemically prevent poverty and its many side effects. Led and run by a group of seasoned social innovators, the project launched a set of prototypes that are testing the conditions, tactics, tools and wider platforms needed for supporting civic change and seeding local civic economy (And, they are/were hiring! Applications closed mid-May).

  1. Short write-up, 1-hour video, and slides from the presentation, “New governance models for effective public service delivery in the 21st century,” by MindLab’s Christian Bason to the UNDP’s Knowledge, Innovation & Capacity Group. Christian discusses: the future of governance, emerging governance models, the nuts and bolts of design approaches, and important points on leadership for public managers.

  1. Blog post by Forum for Social Innovation Sweden, “France is modernizing the public sector with design and social innovation,” explores a new program in France — “Réacteur Public” — led by Paris-based social innovation lab, La 27e Région. Over four years (until the end of 2017), the program aims to scale-up methods, processes and approaches that have been developed over six years, in previous projects across the country, with a particular focus on: Education, Community, Future of Public Administration, Publications.

  1. New book Towards a Civic Innovation Lab,” by Delhi-based Centre for Knowledge Societies, is jam-packed with rich content, including: civic innovation case studies from around India; essays on public and social innovation labs by Christian Bason (MindLab) and Giulio Quaggiotto (UN Global Pulse Lab); transcripts of keynote addresses and panel discussions from a public sector design symposium; and other thought pieces on public sector innovation.

  1. Insider scoop on public service design: in the blog post, “Inspiration for Service Design,” Runa Sabroe of Mindlab lays out the process, 10 cases (with lessons learned and hiccups along the way), and top tips from the Danish cross-ministry innovation unit and how it is using service design to improve how citizens and business experience, and interact with, public services.

  1. Crowdsourced google map of the social lab landscape across the globe. The map is still being populated, so please contribute! Zaid Hassan of Reos Partners (and author of the Social Labs Revolution) invites us to add suggestions for any missing public innovation labs and social innovation labs in the comments section.

  1. Blog post by the Knight Foundation’s Carol Coletta about their Civic Studios series: May 12 -14, the Knight Foundation hosted 100 civic innovators at a Civic Innovation in Action Studio in Miami to explore ways to harness talent, advance opportunity, and promote robust engagement.

  1. Blog post by DesignGov’s Alex Roberts — “Innovation and Design Insights – Visit by Christian Bason” – reflects on and pulls out insights from a visit by Christian Bason with Australian public servants (this is a couple of years old, but just came across it and there’s some good stuff in there).

  1. DO NOT MISS: Nesta launched an informative new report — “i-teams” — with a round up of the innovation-teams embedded in (municipal, regional and national) governments around the world. The report includes an overview of 20 public innovation labs across 6 continents, key lessons learned, and how to create a lab in your own city, province, or country. The team will continue to add i-team case studies and news as the project continues.

  1. There is still a lot of buzz from The Labs for Systems Change Conference that took place at MaRS DD in Toronto this May, including: a blog post reflection on some of the big ideas discussed during the day by MaRS Solutions Lab’s Fariha Husain; a video discussion reflection by Delhi-based Centre for Knowledge Societies’ Namrata Mehta and Aditya Dev Sood; a tweet aggregation + reflections/notes by government innovator Meghan Hellstern; a two-part blog post (partie 1 et partie 2, ecrit en français) with video interviews of lab practitioners (videos in English) from La 27e Région’s Stéphane Vincent; and these two reflection memos from Re-public’s Hiroshi Tamura (one and two) in Japanese and some English (日本語と英語で書いています). Also, the live-stream videos are now viewable and downloadable here!

  1. The next international gathering for lab practitioners will take place in Singapore on Oct 7-10, 2014, with a focus on Asia-based labs. Social iCon 2014, hosted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is the Lien Centre’s flagship event, designed to feature thought-provoking developments and best practices in the social innovation space. The gathering will convene a pan-Asian group of social innovation practitioners and intermediaries that are engaging in Social Innovation Labs.

  1. Blog of an interview with Nesta’s Philip Colligan, head of the Nesta Innovation Lab, about why local government is well-placed to solve today’s challenges. Philip talks about the Creative Councils initiative, a program to support local authorities to be more innovative.

  1. Article about how the new Social Service Offices in Singapore utilize Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) tools and focus on enabling public servants and service providers to have more exposure to on-the-ground realities (and assets) within communities. For example, a team of officers from the Kreta Ayer Social Service Office walk through the neighbourhood several times a day, as a way for the officers to learn more about the local residents – and how they could better help them.

  1. New practice guide by Nesta’s Perrie Ballantyne and the Centre for Challenge Prizes about developing competitions or challenge prizes to stimulate idea generation. Also, Deloitte created this useful report, “The Craft of the Incentive Prize Design,” with lessons learned from the US public sector.

  1. And finally, a new report that we at SiG have been drooling all over – “Speaking to the Innovation Population” – by Nesta. The report explores the public’s views on new ideas and technologies and makes recommendations for how policymakers can better communicate with voters on these issues. It is excellent for anyone trying to communicate about innovation and particularly useful for people engaged in public sector innovation.

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