Experiencing the shock of the possible in uncertain times…

SiG Note: This article is cross-posted from MaRS Discovery District, with permission from the authors. 

Indeed these are uncertain times that we live in… — Stephen Huddart

Speaking to an over-200-person audience at MaRS Discovery District on November 24, Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, challenged the growing contemporary narrative that our future is bleak and looming ahead with daunting uncertainty.

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Reminding us of a long history of Canadian precedents for testing systems-level innovation, and of the new big experiments underway today, Stephen invited us to experience the shock of the possible (a term coined by Eric Young).

It’s a shock catalyzed by the deepening of strategic philanthropy, as the philanthropic sector reorganizes itself to collaboratively address the complex issues of today with new and unusual partnerships.

In particular, foundations are becoming leading participants in systems change efforts, accessing new tools and—in support of their grantees—exploring cross-sector partnerships that scaffold up the possibility of new systems.

In his MaRS Global Leadership and Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk, Stephen exemplified the sector’s new direction with key initiatives from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and beyond, elucidating the radical shift in how we do good that is fostering new possible futures for Canada.

Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

New tools enabling systems change

A new series of mindsets and tools is reframing how foundations approach their entire cycle of work, from funding to programming to endowment management, facilitating an accelerating shift toward systems change aspirations.

Stephen referred to this collection of tools as the “Social Five.” These rapidly developing new tools are enhancing our capacity to nurture social change at scale and transform the systems that, if left alone, are otherwise on track to dramatically underperform for communities and Canada.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.17.36 AMThe Social Five consist of:

While individually significant, the full potential of the Social Five lies in their integration as a web of interconnected action, cumulating in a vibrant ecosystem of mutually supportive markets that collectively enhance our capability to collaborate toward systems change.

MaRS was celebrated in Stephen’s talk as a strong institutional example of seeding and nourishing the integration of these tools to enhance the capacity of others. Starting with MaRS’ and Social Innovation Generation’s 2010 collaboration on the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, which advanced the field of social finance in Canada, MaRS has become a hub of convergent social innovation, with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing fostering the social finance and B Corp markets in Canada; SiG@MaRS nurturing social entrepreneurship in Ontario and beyond; and the MaRS Solutions Lab leading the uptake of social lab processes by a broad range of cross-sectoral stakeholders in Canada.

In other words, MaRS works to support the integration of the Social Five—including social technologies, pathways to scale and, broadly, social innovation—into a thriving ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change.

Philanthropy’s big experiments to solve complex problems

15698113727_a24108f35b_z‘An ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change’ broadly describes one approach influencing the philanthropic sector’s reorganization.

The theory of change is that collaboration is critical to solving our most entrenched social challenges and fostering new systems (via key platforms such as collective impact, shared outcomes or shared value).

In this spirit, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s initiatives depend on and involve hundreds of partners working together to enhance the resilience of communities and our national capacity for social innovation. For example:

  1. In partnership with over 150 organizations, Innoweave delivers webinars, workshops and mentorship around the Social Five to hundreds of participants, with the goal of enhancing the social sector’s capacity to innovate and scale social impact.
  2. Cities for People is a “collaborative experiment of urban leaders and thoughtful citizens innovating to raise expectations about how cities could be.”
  3. RECODE is a network of hubs within Canada’s higher education institutions designed to inspire, incubate and support students in creating social enterprises and becoming social entrepreneurs.

Broadly, each initiative highlights a radical shift in philanthropic programming—where the critical focus is collaboratively seeding and nourishing the Canada we envision into a real possibility.

Possible Canadas

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Quote by Khalil Z. Shariff, CEO, Aga Khan Foundation Canada

As foundations take new directions in their philanthropic work, multiple possible Canadas are unfolding and defying the dark stories of an uncertain, fearful future.

But for Stephen, the brightest and most significant possible Canada is one where all of our collaborative energy and new tools are focused on reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

We are living in an age of reconciliation in this country, and it represents an opportunity that, if taken, can change the course of our history for the better. But, if not, can lead to the perpetuation of terrible circumstances  — Stephen Huddart

Recently, several transformative initiatives launched and are starting to both immediately enhance community well-being and work at a generational scale toward reconciliation. These initiatives include:

To continue on a path of new partnerships, healing and systems change, Stephen emphasized that the first step is empathy. Empathy for each other. Empathy for communities unlike our own. Empathy as a pathway to both speak out and listen to new voices.

When you introduce new energy into systems, the elements reorganize at a higher level of sophistication. A remarkable analogy for what we’re doing here. And I would say that if there is another word that would describe that, it’s not social innovation, or any of the tools, it’s empathy. Empathy is really a seven-letter word for love. That is what is powering the future that we want to build together — Stephen Huddart

More from the presentation:


Philanthropy for Uncertain Times – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District

On seeking, sharing and systems change

If there’s one sentiment I have expressed a number of times over the past 2 weeks, it is gratitude. SiG and our partners have been metaphorically swimming in inspiring stories told by Canadian indigenous leaders and stories told of social lab interventions that are positively transforming lives in different parts of the world, while building relationships with a host of change-makers that are in equal measure genius and humble. The only hard thing about all this goodness is choosing where to begin to make sense of all of the learning, translate the stories of successful change-making to a Canadian context, and offer some resources to adapt the best pieces of  work.

Thanks to the kickoff event of Social Innovation Canada 2014 featuring Dana Shen, Director of Family by Family from South Australia, I feel confident in offering a place to start. SiG has taken a look at Family by Family before — as early as 2011 — courtesy of the co-designer of the model, Sarah Schulman of InWithForward. Hearing about it again from Dana meant a deeper dive into the model and hearing about its impact and adaptation over time.

Here is a quick summary of what Family by Family does (I’ll leave it to Dana herself to explain it in full on video):

In 2010, The Australia Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) asked the South Australian government what they wanted to focus on in terms of better social service outcomes. The government asked for an intervention to bring down the high numbers of children in the formal protection system. TACSI, working with Sarah Schulman and Chris Vanstone, developed a peer-to-peer solution that looks astonishingly simple on the surface: families who have come through tough times mentor families experiencing tough times. Or in the words of Family by Family, sharing families mentor seeking families.

Watch Dana explain how getting to this solution was a learning experience in collaboration between unusual partners, in trust-building and in adaptation:

Family by Family: Australian social innovation in action – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Following this MaRS Global Leadership presentation, Dana joined SiG and 160+ participants at SIX Vancouver, May 27-29, where we were privileged to hear an opening discussion between Dr. Frances Westley and Tyze Founder, Vickie Cammack. The conversation focused on the effects of culture on our spirits, our organizations and our society. In many ways I feel the key to Family by Family’s success was in taking the time to understand the culture it was entering – that of families experiencing difficult times and why change was so difficult to achieve.

The result of TACSI engaging with community in the design and prototyping of Family by Family was an equally deep impact on the so-called experts charged with delivering the program. Dana spoke to the benefits of Family by Family for the culture inside the public sector in South Australia, those delivering the program at Family by Family and the broader TACSI design team. So profound has been the impact, that TACSI and the government are looking for ways to scale the model.

During Frances and Vickie’s discussion, the conversation turned to a desire to understand resilience and vulnerability more deeply. Being open to exploring our own vulnerability also opens up opportunities to see and understand others. As Frances reflected, if you can’t touch the vulnerability in yourself, you can’t touch it in others either. And the result is that our fear of the “other” increases. We don’t have to look far to see fear guiding many interactions across cultures in the world.

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Photo Credit: Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Following the discussion, Dana reflected on our shared journey — on the fact that we are all in this world together; that we all want similar things. As Allyson Hewitt said at the end of Dana’s MaRS presentation, we are always sharing and seeking change. And it’s not a one-way street.

The Family by Family program has seen sharing families — those willing to volunteer time to support those experiencing tough times — become seeking families themselves. These times of vulnerability are to be expected and need not be permanent. As a community acting together and understanding each other more deeply, we can become more resilient. Vickie Cammack may refer to this as a recognition of our interdependence. The Family by Family model is supporting a strengthening in community resilience. As seeking families achieve their goals, they increase their ability to share their experience and learning with others. At scale, the impact is a sea-change — this increased resilience enables the flow of resources, both personal and community, towards systemic change. We all seek support and understanding at different times in our lives. Being awake to this is not to be stuck, but to be open to others. In a second post about Social Innovation Canada 2014, I will explore what it means to know our own fears and desires better, as well as those of others with whom we experience conflict, thanks to the wonderful contribution of David Diamond at SIX Vancouver. The ability to understand others through understanding ourselves is the result of a deepening empathy. SiG is so pleased to be co-presenting a conversation with Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka, on June 19th at MaRS. Bill has turned his extensive experience towards supporting and promoting entrepreneurs fostering empathy in our world. You can see details on that event here.

A Bold Goal for Children in the North End of Winnipeg

Do an Internet search of the ‘North End of Winnipeg’ and you will see ‘poverty’ and ‘violence’ come up the quickest and the most often.

North End To someone who is not familiar with the North End, or doesn’t frequent this community, it can mistakenly come across as a hotbed of crime and broken families – a place you either avoid altogether or drive through to get elsewhere, with your windows up and your car doors locked.

Those of us who live and work here, however, know it as a community unlike any other – full of culture, spirit, and generosity. That’s why we’re here and that’s why we love this community.

The North End portrayed in the media is merely an illusion, one that has been created through the glamourization of negative events.

DL-022In actuality, it is a neighbourhood where you can walk down the street during the daytime and be greeted by a “hello!” from passersby. You’ll inevitably run into someone you know who’s a friend of your friend from that thing you were at that one time. When you frequent a restaurant or a shop in the North End, the owner will remember your name and if you wander into a resource centre, you’ll often be greeted with a warm cup of coffee.

This is not to say that the North End is without flaws — like any other neighbourhood, it has its challenges. A look at the statistics around the North End — also known as Point Douglas — will tell you that this neighbourhood is among the most impoverished in Canada. You’ll also see that 40% of kids who are born in Point Douglas are not academically or socially school-ready by the age of 5.

What you won’t see emphasized, however, is that along with the 40% of kids that are not school-ready, there is another 60% who are school-ready and are going on to achieve success in school and throughout their lives. 

The Winnipeg Boldness Project

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This is where The Winnipeg Boldness Project will focus: not only on the challenges facing the North End, but on the ongoing successes. What are the things already happening in the neighbourhood that are creating the conditions for some kids to succeed and how can we replicate them in a large way?

Through a one-year Boldness ‘Collaboratory’ process, the project intends to pinpoint just that.

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The Winnipeg Boldness Project is embarking upon a research process that will mobilize the community narratives and knowledge base that already exist within this unique neighbourhood. We are certain that a community-based solution to the challenges around Early Childhood Development (ECD) can be uncovered.

The Winnipeg Boldness Project is taking the time to live the questions and truly understand what the answers are in a deep and meaningful way.

What’s crystal clear to us is that this is a community that has been consulted to the extreme and that much of the information and knowledge we’re looking for has already been collected. Our job now is fourfold:

  1. Take that raw data and distill it into key ideas that we believe should be at the core of this powerful paradigm.
  2. Create a strength-based narrative that properly conveys a message of the community, for the community.
  3. Explore these ideas to develop several theories around change and then rapidly test (prototype) these theories to determine their validity and efficacy.
  4. Develop and implement an intervention strategy, based on the findings, to ultimately achieve our Bold Goal: to dramatically transform the well-being of young children in Point Douglas.

When I use the word transformation, let me be perfectly clear that this is not meant to imply that the North End in any way needs to be “fixed.” This neighbourhood is loved in a strong and unwavering way and certainly does not need to adjust to the system, but rather the system needs to adapt to it and support its residents.

DL-093With this mindset, we anticipate the rate of school-ready kids at the age of five in Point Douglas will jump from 60% to 80% by the year 2020. Some might say this is a lofty goal that’s near impossible. We say that with the right amount of boldness anything is possible and we know that the North End has the knowledge and the heart to drive this change.

Preparing for Surprise: Social Innovation Week Vancouver

THE WEAVE: LOCAL, NATIONAL and INTERNATIONAL 

“It’s a coming together of local and global social innovators, and an invitation to Vancouverites and visitors to join in exploring solutions for a better world. It’s a series of gatherings and conversations that aim to inspire the changemaker in all of us” – The Tyee Presents

Social Innovation Week is a coming together — a weaving together of the momentum and energies around social innovation and social enterprise in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally.

SIW-Partners-Vertical-140507-300dpiIt is the cornerstone of Social Innovation Canada, a national movement of events, collaboration and connection across five cities during May and June.

Hosted by BC Partners for Social Impact, in collaboration with over 20 organizations from across sectors and continents, Social Innovation Week Vancouver (#SIweekVan) is curated to inspire and explore the humanity of social innovation: culture, community, care, creativity.

The week (May 26-30) is a celebration of both place and space — a convergence around British Columbia’s social change and innovation drive and a convergence of global innovators and activists in Vancouver.

B.C. has always prided ourselves on our ability to tackle challenges. The whole rise of social enterprise over the last 20 years had a really serious impetus here on the West Coast, particularly in Vancouver” – Al Etmanski, BC Partners for Social Impact [The Tyee Presents: Social Innovation Week]

THE WEFT

“We are responsible, of course, for ourselves. But, as Emmanuel Levinas insists, if we are to claim a full and proper humanity, we must claim responsibility for the other” — Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis

The common thread bringing Social Innovation Week together – the soul of the week – is reflection and introspection on culture, culture shift, and narratives of care. As a curated series, the Week will be an immersive, reflexive, and learning experience, inviting each of us to consider the human spirit of social innovation — and our own roles as changemakers, community members, supporters, allies…people.

These themes are at the heart of the international conference, taking place in North America for the first time, in the middle of #SIweekVan: SIX Summer School 2014. An annual event, SIX (#SIXvan14) brings together leading social innovation thinkers and practitioners, grassroots activists, and policy makers from around the world to explore some of the key issues facing the social innovation field. This year, SIX will explore: How can we increase our impact? Shifting cultures, changing systems and preparing for surprise. 

THE WARF

I hope the average British Columbian would appreciate the ingenuity and creativity that has existed in this province for thousands of years — that has never gone away” — Al Etmanski [The Tyee Presents: Social Innovation Week]

The ideas that will enliven the experience and thinking of Social Innovation Week touch on our connectedness — to each other, to our communities, to ourselves, to the present and to the past — such as…

humility & generosity • vulnerability & resilience • assumptions & beliefs • power of narrative • collaboration • cross-generational dialogue  • love & power • hospitality • inspiration & engagement • belonging & tradition • creativity • performance • community

…and the tensions, resonance and dynamics between them.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Bill Reid

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid.   Collection of the Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR), Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Tony Hisgett

“Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come…”

- The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid. Collection of the Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR), Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Tony Hisgett

SI-Week-Banner-140423 (1)

THE FABRIC:

SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS

The Week culminates on Friday May 30th with Connect Vancouver, a day of free, family-friendly fun featuring an Ideas Jam and Urban Outdoor Festival. The Ideas Jam will be a space for Vancouverites and visitors to work through tough questions in order to re-imagine:

  • business
  • sustainability
  • schools
  • belonging
  • sharing
  • arts
  • policy
  • generational equality

The capstone of the week will be the Urban Outdoor Festival, presented by Gen Why Media and CityStudio – an evening celebrating the integration of culture, creativity, ingenuity and social innovation, where we reimagine social connectedness in an outdoor evening of conversation, celebration, public art, an urban fire and music in Vanier Park.

Check out the full event listing for #SIweekVan + The Tyee Presents Feature.
May 26-30, 2014
Join the learning and celebration. Come together!

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. 

 

Down the Rabbit Hole…three weeks of social innovation

Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
 

Three weeks ago, I joined Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National as the Communications Intern. As the greenest bud on the tree of knowledge in the social innovation field, I began at the beginning: with the learning essential to working within a network committed to building a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

As a sociologist and community activist, I have long been interested in and actively pursuing systems-change, unaware that this work often flirted with the concepts and approaches used in social innovation. Immediately prior to SiG National, I was researching consumer responses to proliferating marketplace opportunities to shop ‘ethically.’ Would ‘ethical shopping’ practices ignite a wave of mainstream behaviour change? No, not yet. Not really.

In the past three weeks, it has become clear that my interest in transformative social change is an interest, a passion, for social innovation: systems-level change that has “durability, scale and transformative impact.” My current process of learning could not be more poignant, relevant, or powerful.

Social Innovation 101

Why systems-level change? Social innovations target the root causes of complex problems – problems that are simultaneously cultural, social, dynamic, evolving and seemingly intractable. This means taking on and challenging the whole system that created the problem in the first place, without knowing how the system will react. In this way, social innovation is a form of lived experimentation, where innovators act with deliberate intention in the face of complexity and uncertainty, pursuing positive impact with no guarantee of transformative change (1). 

Dense waters

Social innovation is framed by a vast literature of theory, thoughts, insights and complex thinking. Diving into that literature has been the cornerstone of my acculturation at SiG. As I dove, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the more theoretical precepts of social innovation resonate with Alice’s experiences in Wonderland: could Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be used to illustrate some of the more elusive preliminary concepts of social innovation? Why not.

Having so recently begun at the beginning myself, here is the (brief) ‘Alice in Wonderland’ guide to key social innovation concepts, dedicated to all the other new buds on the tree of knowledge:

EMERGENCE
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“….for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Complex systems – like life – are unpredictable.  How could Alice have predicted a talking, formally-dressed rabbit? Yet Alice has strong opportunistic instincts for potentially transformative change: she responds quickly to a novel opportunity and jumps in head first into a completely uncertain and previously impossible reality.

A key precept of social innovation then is that systems change depends on both innovative action and emergent opportunities: the ability to seize potentially ambiguous opportunity in the pursuit of transformational possibilities previously unimaginable. How many are brave enough to see and follow the White Rabbit into uncertainty when the moment is right?

RESILIENCE

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

As the conditions of Wonderland require her to become a different height, Alice mobilizes the resources around her to find ways to adapt her size, experimenting with cakes, bottles, fans and mushrooms. She keeps experimenting with different options to get her size to the best height for the given, evolving circumstances, despite being both afraid and tired of the process.

Alice’s capacity to negotiate such dramatic change demonstrates resilience: our capacity as individuals and communities to creatively adapt, co-create, and respond effectively in the face of constantly changing conditions. Resilience serves as both a framework and desired outcome of social innovation: it as a way of identifying opportunities for transformation (i.e. build capacity) and of strengthening communities’ response to externally-imposed transformation (i.e. climate change).

THOMAS THEOREM

“And the moral of that is: Be what you would seem to be…”

In a debate with a Duchess, Alice points out that mustard doesn’t seem to be a vegetable, but it is a vegetable. The Duchess responds that you should really only ever be what you seem to be. Her comments speak to a poignant concept known as the Thomas Theorem: there are real consequences to how we think about, understand, and perceive the world.

It sounds simple, but it is truly a powerful concept. If a problem seems intractable to us, it will be; if social divisions seem set in stone, they will be. Social innovation involves thinking about and understanding the world in new ways that frame and ignite new actions; in other words, social innovation “holds thought and action in tension” because “whether we think about things matters;” thought inspires action and vice versa (2).

DISRUPTION
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

For Alice, her engagement with the broader social context of Wonderland has transformed her, ‘disrupting’ who she is so much that she cannot answer the simple question: “Who…are…you?”

Social innovation disrupts the system into which it is introduced, transforming both the system and the innovator themselves. Alice’s experience of transformation is analogous to scales of disruption: personal and system-wide. Both Alice and the society she interacts with have their routines, beliefs, and power systems disrupted by their interaction. While Alice is not ‘innovating’ (she’s dreaming), her experience of disruption points to an important lesson: as successful social innovations cross-scale, they ignite cascading changes that are disruptive at the individual, community, and systems level. While the original intention of social innovation is positive impact, that will not neutralize pushback from the system.

There may always be a Queen of Hearts and her army (system stasis) pushing back against any potential revolt of her kingdom; we must always try to consider all the players in the system when we’re thinking about social innovation.

————————————-
Note: All the italicized quotes are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll.

1 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada.

2 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada, pp.22.

 

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The importance of being mindful

“As leaders, we are increasingly called to create spaces where inspired thinking, deep learning, and bold emergent action can take hold, wherever we are.” – ALIA Institute

Social innovators are motivated by a variety of people and experiences: they may be driven by a desire to make life better for those who are most vulnerable; they may be inspired by people close to them who they know they will lose one day; and even more personally, social innovators may be motivated by a desire to make life better for themselves. However, having a desire to help and being motivated to change things doesn’t necessarily mean we will be very good at it. I believe until we learn how to take care of ourselves, and learn to be ‘mindful’ and reflective, we will not realize our true potential to innovate for others.

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