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.

 

Labs in Place: Weaving Networks to Achieve Systemic Change

Designed by Karen Gomez, background image from LEDlab.

In 2015, Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU partnered to initiate a social innovation lab to design, test, and scale solutions for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city.

In the consultation phase, the team analyzed current literature on social innovation labs to develop a presentation of how a lab process might work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We then took this presentation to DTES community organizers and change leaders, where we quickly learned that adaptation, flexibility and continual iteration needed to become our mantra. A centralized, process-driven approach was not welcome in this particular community, and had the dangerous potential to entrench problematic dynamics already at play.  

This early lesson started the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) on a path of iterating a social innovation lab model with the added characteristic of place. Our hypothesis is: when embedded in a community context, labs need to be respectful of preexisting relationships, networks, and change initiatives – and must adapt their role from process designers to network weavers, working in service of systemic change.     

Principles of Place-based Labs

Zaid Hassan (2015) describes social labs as multi-stakeholder change processes that are social, systemic, and experimental.1  The Social Innovation Lab Guide (2015) defines a Social Innovation Lab as a three-step process involving (1) Initiation, (2) Research and Preparation, and (3) the Workshops.2 While LEDlab embodies many lab-characteristics – such as problem identification, co-creation of solutions, rapid prototyping and continual learning – we felt compelled to re-imagine a lab model without highly structured workshop settings, where the inflow and outflow of participants could be more fluid.  

Below we share the principles of what we are now calling LEDlab’s place-based lab approach. These are our lessons learned from reconciling a more expert-driven social innovation lab process with our experience of working on the ground in the DTES community to create systemic change.

Please note: The principles below were gleaned from working in the DTES, which is a very rich and resilient community with a long history of activism and a difficult relationship with the research community. There are many people, places, and systems that may be open to more structured innovation processes, or which may present a different set of conditions, opportunities and constraints. The principles outlined below speak only to our current experience.

Daniel, past intern at the LEDlab, worked with the Downtown Eastside Market. The Market supports hundreds of vendors by providing a safe space to conduct business and allows them to earn extra income to supplement their income assistance. Image from LEDlab.

We embed ourselves in existing community networks and processes

Many labs seek to pull people out of their work in order to challenge assumptions and co-design new solutions. Our experience in the DTES suggests that in a neighbourhood and community context you can’t/shouldn’t pull people out of their work because it is EXACTLY their work and the ability to prototype within it that holds the substance and opportunity for solution-building. Convening of any kind is inherently exclusive – there are always people that are ‘in’ the group or the process and others who are not. In a community setting, the creation of any ‘exclusive group’, even when the group is convened for the good of the whole, can quickly become political and may cause real harm to relationships that exist between neighbours, friends, and colleagues.  

In a place-based lab model, we have learned instead to leave the community where they are and to embed ourselves into existing community networks and processes to identify high-impact ideas. We fundamentally think of innovation happening in and with the community, not about innovation happening in our lab.  

We build trust in service of systems change

We consistently ask ourselves: How can we add value? The answer is often surprising. Something as simple as sending a personal invitation to a meeting, calling a colleague to celebrate a win, or transitioning a network’s membership list to a listserv can offer tremendous value to a network. We often don’t place enough emphasis on the small acts of service that can build the trust within a network. The quality of relationships between people matter, and are so foundational to affecting systemic change.

We work at multiple scales, convening the ‘whole system’ in a responsive and emergent way

Interested in the incredible work of the LEDlab? They are hiring! Deadline to apply to their internship program is June 13, the internship is open to grad students only. Image from LEDlab

As ideas surface and gain momentum from various community members and stakeholder groups, the lab is able to responsively convene from across the system around a specific project idea or strategic initiative.  In this way, co-design is first grounded in community insights and felt needs. Second, we ask: who isn’t at the table, and bring together people with resources and mutual interest to develop out and test community-driven innovation.  

In the LEDlab model, there isn’t just one group of lab participants, but rather the lab is embedded in a multi-hub network, working on multiple solutions, where we play a bridging role across multiple networks, sectors, and scales. 

The Tapestry of Systems Change

Taken together, these principles inform a  lab model that sees itself as a platform for systemic change, willing and ready to respond to the emerging needs of the system in which it is embedded.

Recognizing that the DTES community is fertile ground for innovation, LEDlab’s work is two-fold:

  1. To keep our eye on, and give voice to, emerging ideas with the potential to contribute to the overall objective of creating an inclusive and vibrant local economy; and.
  2. To responsively convene new human groupings with the dynamic potential to create and implement innovative solutions. 

LEDlab is continuously creating and supporting social infrastructures to achieve new results. For this reason, our lab staff might more accurately be described as “systems entrepreneurs” – weaving their way across and through complex systems and networks, stitching together a vision and strategy for collective action. The approach is showing promising results in Vancouver’s inner city.

We welcome feedback from other practitioners, community members and academics. We look forward to adding to these principles and documenting the methodology in more detail as it evolves.

The author would like to thank Brenda Kuecks for her thought partnership and contributions to this blog.

1 Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. California, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
2 Westley, F., Laban, S. (2015). Social Innovation Lab Guide. Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/sites/ca.waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/files/uploads/files/10_silabguide_final.pdf