Recoding Our Innovation Systems

Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 as part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. It has been cross-posted with permission from Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).

The world is awash with innovation reports and indices comparing the innovation prowess of different countries, cities, and corporations. The two cornerstone assumptions underpinning these reports are that innovation is:

  • Anchored in technology, and
  • A driver of economic growth essential for societal success.

“Technological innovation,” says the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, “is the key to a competitive and growing economy, unlocking major productivity gains and allowing companies to move towards higher value-added activities.”

By contrast, social innovation remains a modestly growing separate domain, unconnected to most national mainstream innovation systems. By “mainstream,” I mean the combined technological and business innovation domain, often referred to as STEM or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, which is the beneficiary of generous government support across the OECD.

This gap between mainstream and social innovation is a problem if we are to collectively apply our ingenuity to tackling this century’s pressing global challenges. Those include climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and deepening social inequality, all of which are torqued by population growth now upwardly revised by the UN to reach 10.9 billion people by the year 2100.

In addition, social innovators’ own success requires that they reach beyond their important existing networks with other social innovators. UK academic Dominic Chalmers has identified a key insight for social innovators to succeed:

“If social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities. This myopic ‘local’ sourcing of knowledge within narrow domains is well documented in other industries and risks limiting the creative potential of social innovation.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

To be sure, there are important glimmers of change seen with governments. As well, some corporates are beginning to align their efforts with big challenges facing the world. The large US corporation DuPont has shifted its research agenda so that its “inclusive innovation” focuses on “applying science to great challenges.” Intel China is embracing the “power of corporate social innovation” noting that if  “the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives, we have to break down the boundaries between technology and social innovation.”

In Silicon Valley, the debate on its social role is beginning. As Michael S. Malone’s January 2015 article in MIT Technology Review, “The Purpose of Silicon Valley,” put the question: “Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?”

Here are three things the social innovation movement needs to do if it is to expand its societal role and shift how the mainstream operates:

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to participate in and shift their national innovation system to extend their impact. Achieving this involves strengthening the articulation of social innovation’s value, expanding its partnerships with other sectors, being more policy active, and ensuring that social innovation doesn’t exist only in its own silo (notwithstanding the on-going importance of social innovator peer networks).

Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a $240 million platform that is part of the global Grand Challenges network, has attempted to explain what it would mean to combine STEM, business and social innovation. They articulate an “integrated innovation” vision. “Integrated Innovation,” says GCC, “is the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach does not discount the singular benefits of each of these types of innovation, but rather highlights the powerful synergies that can be realized by aligning all three. Integrated Innovation recognizes that scientific/technological innovations have a greater chance of going to scale to achieve global impact and sustainability if they are developed from the outset in conjunction with appropriate social and business innovations.”

- Banksy

– Banksy

2. Advocate for social outcomes as a cornerstone metric for evaluating national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to be able to access more talent, technology and intellectual capital than currently possible on their own. With OECD countries’ social spending envelopes (health, education, employment insurance, pensions, etc) growing exponentially and unsustainably, this should not be difficult.

3. Develop and adopt an ethical framework to guide (social) innovation.
c/o Randy Robertson

c/o Randy Robertson

This is important because we always need to be actively thinking about our “north star,” ensuring that we re-engage the most vulnerable people and ecologies in society. Any useful technological or social innovation can be applied for malevolent purposes. And all innovations – social as well as technological – have unintended consequences or even a shadow side. A Declaration of Action from a July 2015 Canadian cross-sector retreat examining Social R&D called for an innovation system that “leads from a new ethical framework for R&D for public good.”

For example, will the sharing economy improve social good or fast-track growth of the new precariat? A growing number of people struggle to cope with the “slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work,” as many have observed, such as Derek Thompson in his troubling assessment “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic (July/August 2015).

The social innovation movement is well positioned to be the trim-tab, high leverage catalyst for bringing needed resources to bear on the innovation challenges our global community faces.

SiG Note: Email info@sigeneration.ca to sign-up for news and updates on the emergent Social R&D movement in Canada. 

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.