Dear Universities, Show us what you’ve got!

Note: This blog was originally published on RECODE and was reposted with permission of the author.

Photo from York University

We live in a volatile, uncertain and complex world. With threats of climate change, rising income inequality, social unrest, resource scarcity and ecological degradation predicted to affect society’s progress, leaders and the institutions they run must play new roles to realize a sustainable future.

Breakthrough innovation is essential, requiring paradigm shifts and pivots in how we operate and function as a society.

Advanced education institutions – universities, colleges and polytechnic institutes – are ideally positioned to accelerate and scale the transition to a just and sustainable world. They already significantly contribute through their traditional teaching and research functions. Now we need them to intensify their efforts to tackle global challenges by going beyond teaching and research. Institutions must embed their social mandates into everything they do including within their administrative roles, capital projects, physical assets, and relationships.

Fortunately, community engagement is a burgeoning area of practice within advanced education. Myriad departments, centres and projects are involved in this nascent field of practice, with individual professors and institutes working with community partners on critical issues.

Problem:

Despite a plethora of activities and pockets of great practice, a strong and strategic institutional commitment is often lacking. There is an absence of a narrative or framework that recognizes their importance, and that motivates, accelerates and scales social innovation – and celebrates its social impact.

Solution:

Mobilizing institutions to contribute more holistically and consistently to social innovation and the communities they support starts by taking a community lens to an institution’s assets. These assets, or instruments, can be multi-purposed to achieve greater community impacts than their conventional counterparts. Investment for financial impact? Great. Investment for social and financial impact? Better. Procurement that achieves price, quality and convenience goals? Necessary. Social procurement? Better. And on, and on.

This is already happening.

SFU and McConnell Foundation commissioned me to write this report on “Maximizing the Capacities of Advanced Education Institutions to Build Social Infrastructure for Canadian Communities” to understand the state of play in which institutions harness non-traditional assets (including but beyond teaching and research) to contribute to social well-being. As shown in this diagram, institutions are starting to embed their social objectives into their financial, physical and relational roles alongside their traditional research and education objectives.

This paper identifies no less than thirty such opportunities available to institutions. There are likely more. Check out this one-pager for the preliminary list.

To use the examples above, note these investment, procurement and hiring initiatives within BC institutions:

  • Social Investment: Simon Fraser University set goals to reduce the carbon footprint of its investment portfolios by 30 percent by 2030 – in line with Canada’s national climate commitment. UBC’s investments include $265 million in social housing and another $117 million in greenhouse gas emission reduction projects.
  • Social Hiring: University of Victoria has an Employment Equity Plan with a goal to improve the participation of members of designated groups such as Indigenous Peoples, Visible Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in all jobs and at all levels where they are under-represented.
  • Social Procurement: The grounds and gardens at Vancouver Community College are maintained by Mission Possible, a maintenance company that employs inner-city residents and assists those with employment barriers to reach their full potential.

Academic institutions are also developing solutions-generating social infrastructure such as social innovation labs like Radius and thought leadership platforms like Clean Energy Canada. These innovation hubs are mobilizing talent, resources and relationships to ideate, test and scale essential societal solutions.

Notably, the private sector has much to offer the post-secondary sector on its social innovation journey. This guide for companies on social hiring, social procurement, living wages and social innovation can be easily tailored to advanced ed. Equally, companies seeking to embed their social purpose throughout their operations will be fast on the heels of educational institutions, learning and scaling their successes within their for-profit business models.

The public and private sectors have much to learn from each other. All post-secondary institutions are inherent drivers of social progress: the time is now ripe for a community pivot. The complexities of this era call for advanced education institutions to reconceive conventional assets and instruments to serve an even higher purpose.

We have no time to lose. Universities: show us what you’ve got!

For more insights on maximizing the capacity of advanced education to build social infrastructure, read this paper.

 

LabWISE on Trust and why it matters in a Social Innovation Lab Process

 SiG Note: This article was originally published on the RECODE Blog.  It has been cross-posted with permission. 

LabWISE is priming collaborative groups to create big changes to major challenges across the country. Launched in mid October, the LabWISE program is a partnership with the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR), and is designed to train community-based teams in the WISIR social innovation lab process. It provides ongoing coaching to support Canadian organizations in leading a social innovation lab to tackle intractable social and/or environmental challenges.

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)