Inclusive innovation policy struggles to connect the dots

By Karen Gomez

Note: This article was originally published on the Re$earch Money on January 18, 2017.  It has been cross-posted with permission. 

Over the past 20 years, the Canadian public’s understanding of a successful innovation ecosystem has evolved enormously to include social, technology, science, engineering, mathematics, arts and business innovation. From peacekeeping and palliative care to lacrosse and basketball, settler and Indigenous Canadians innovate from our unique cultures and contexts to solve problems or seize opportunities across sectors. We need look no further than the Governor General’s Innovation Awards to see the changing mindset about what constitutes innovation. As His Excellency told the Globe and Mail (June 9, 2015), besides technology innovation and business innovation, we need social innovation.

Read the summary report here.

Yet the 2016 public policy consultations on Canada’s Innovation Agenda struggled to make the vital connection between our unique innovation strengths, the urgent complexity of contemporary challenges facing Canadians, and the opportunity to define innovation as the integration of STEM, business, arts and social innovation.

In the ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) summary report, Innovation for a Better Canada: What You Told Us, there is a terse and high-level evaluation of the innovation ecosystem. It hews to the old mindset, with the important exception of making a strong link between innovation and a greener economy.

Citing a competitive global race for tech and digital growth, the report signalled a doubling down on the mindset of trickle-down economics. From Thomas Piketty to Anthony Atkinson to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett to Robert J. Gordon, we are hearing that this laissez-faire approach to innovation economics and social well-being is failing us.

Innovating innovation

We need to innovate our understanding of innovation. The report fails to recognize that Canadians are transforming the innovation economy into a collaborative culture of cross-sector innovation oriented towards durable solutions to complex challenges and new triple-bottom line market opportunities; where economic value is created from the pursuit of social and environmental value. With this mindset, Canadians are expanding the innovation marketplace and aligning innovation to solve social and environmental challenges.

To read about the incredible work of JumpMath see the case study prepared by Queen’s University and the Trico Charitable Foundation.

Take JUMP Math. “Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies” is an evidence-based numeracy program that challenges both teaching and societal norms by overcoming the assumption that there are natural hierarchies of ability. In 2011, a randomized controlled study led by SickKids Hospital determined that the math knowledge of students taught using JUMP Math grew at twice the rate of students using the incumbent mathematics program. Incorporated as a charity in Canada, in 2015 JUMP Math used multiple revenue streams totalling $4.8 million to cover its $3.99 million in expenses, with most revenue coming from royalty advances and teaching tool sales.

In other words, a charity is leveraging diverse revenue streams to advance a transformational education innovation with a social return on investment (SROI) of $16 for every $1 spent and dramatically improving a cornerstone skillset for innovation and life.

JUMP Math shows how a combination of mindset shift, business model innovation, education innovation, and government cost saving can foster a generation with greater capacity to thrive in daily life and as innovators. JUMP is an example of a social innovation — a durable, scalable and impactful innovation that solves the root cause of a complex social and environmental problem and, in turn, produces economic value. It is also an example of successful entrepreneurship leading to global scale, with program expansion into the US and Europe.

All sectors innovate

Similar social innovations are prolific across Canada, coming from charities, non-profits, businesses and government. In particular, the social sector is leveraging new processes, tools and technologies to develop impact-focused and evidence-based innovations, such as the Insite Safe Injection Site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or Housing First in Medicine Hat, AB.

Even North America’s largest urban innovation hub, the MaRS Discovery District, runs as a social enterprise with an integrated social innovation stream. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht noted in a recent speech at University of Toronto: “In reality, innovation is too often narrowcast. It is not about shiny gadgets and cool self-driving cars, it touches every aspect of our lives and every person in our society. We are all innovators. It is also, humanity’s toolbox — humanity’s only toolbox — for tackling wicked challenges.”

With the OECD reporting that Canada’s social spend exceeded $300 billion in 2015, there is a direct economic case for social innovations that tackle root causes of social problems and hit on economic savings aligned to social or environmental well-being or redirect capital flows to create much higher SROI.

Social innovation is a Canadian strength

Read the Economist Intelligence Report on Social Innovation.

The Economist Intelligence Unit identified Canada in 2016 as the third best country in the world for social innovation. The temptation may be to interpret this ranking as evidence that all is well and stay the course. But in fact, it is intentional cross-sector partnership, community innovation and signalling from the public sector that fuelled this success — and will be critical to scaling it.

While we may be third in the world overall, the world itself is in the early adopter phase of systemically integrating social innovation as a powerful innovation pathway for dealing with the complexity of 21st Century challenges and needs. Canada’s unique opportunity and competitive advantage is to take up the mantle of leadership and advance our social innovation strengths as a cornerstone of Canada’s Innovation Agenda.

Embed social impact in innovation policy

Many of the ingredients to winning the innovation race are in our own homegrown appreciation that innovation is driven by, and can directly lead, to greater social inclusion. Yet we are looking to other jurisdictions as bad role models.

The Munk School has a great newsletter on Innovation Policy in Ontario, register here. Image from the University of Toronto

As Munk Centre for Global Affairs professors Daniel Breznitz and Amos Zehavi note, successful innovation policy in Israel led the country to leap from one of the lowest levels of R&D intensity among developed countries in 1970s to a world leader in R&D intensity. Yet, “in parallel to this success, Israel changed from being the second-most-egalitarian Western society to the second most unequal.” In response, Breznitz and Zehavi call for innovation policies to intentionally address social impact as well as economic growth and competitiveness. This is the opportunity facing Canada now as we design our innovation agenda.

Seize the moment

Integrated innovation is the leading edge of a market disruption that is creating more than economic value. Inclusive innovation is necessary for communities to thrive in the 21st century.

Canada and Canadians will succeed when we clearly align our innovation policies with the range of economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges we face and embrace all expressions of innovation leading on that challenge. We can take advantage of Canadians’ cultural affinities for collaborative working arrangements to bring very diverse innovators together to amplify their impact.

2017 is the moment to seize the assets and capabilities of all sectors, including Canada’s 160,000-strong charity and non-profit sector, as well as the power of passionate amateurs, to ensure innovation is a projet de société.

Why experiment, anyway?

A Year of Exploration

From Wikimedia Commons

December has been a month of reflection for many years – not because it’s close to year-end but because I moved to Canada as a preteen in December. I remember the start of my journey in this beautiful country. My earliest memories of Canada are snow, the holidays, and some of the more unique things we have put in place to care for one another as a society. Things like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), and a high-functioning public education system were foreign to me. My mother took English as a Second Language from an immigrant services organization that was supported by the local community foundation. The idea of a community foundation was foreign to me.

St. Elizabeth

Today, community and social assets, such as the ones I learned about when I first arrived, are all around us – many invisible. You could say they are in the air we breathe. Yet, once upon a time, they were novel. They were innovations. Some folks somewhere, decided to craft hypotheses, do research, run experiments, test assumptions, take risks, and scale what worked. No asset is designed to operate at its optimal forever, and in a fast-changing world, we often forget how fragile our community and social assets can be. How might they be ready for and evolve in a way that attends to tomorrow’s needs? How might the spark of experimentation that led to the creation of these assets be rekindled, sustained and embedded within these organizations? What conditions are necessary to make continuous innovation worthwhile?

Questions such as these led us to kick-start an exploration to strengthen community and capability, and seed more capital for social impact organizations practicing research and development, or as we are calling it for now, “Social R&D.” The exploration is incubated by SiG, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Community Foundations of Canada, Open North, MaRS, Skills Society, Engineers Without Borders Canada, WEST Neighbourhood House, York University, and many others.

The Social R&D exploration caught the wind this year, taking a multi-sector approach. There were policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, designers, and many others contributing to the journey.

We focused on four primary areas of enhancement to social and grant-making organizations:

Demystifying R&D and demonstrating R&D in action

Through Appreciative Inquiry principles, we researched and shared 50 inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector to demystify the practice, surface resonating language, and identify ways for grant-makers and social mission organizations to better activate, empower and build R&D capacity, capability, community and capital. We packaged the practices in a first-of-its kind report in Canada – called ‘Getting to Moonshot’ with a Foreword by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta.

CommuniTEA

Catalyzing a community

We hosted gatherings, had one-on-one meetings and phone calls, and engaged over 100 people practicing R&D within their organizations. Through this exploration, more Social R&D practitioners found each other. Peer relationships began to deepen and grow, across geographies, sectors and disciplines. This community has its roots in a Social R&D Declaration of Action that was co-created and jointly signed in late-2015.

Advancing practice

We designed and hosted two unique gatherings this year to cross-pollinate, advance, and increase the adoption of R&D practices. In August, we convened approximately 20 practitioners from across Canada to connect with one another and with funders to learn, share insights, exchange methods, and find ways to strengthen their organizational R&D craft. In October, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we led an inaugural study tour to Silicon Valley to learn about R&D practices, emerging technologies, and innovations in the world’s leading lean R&D ecosystem. We also contributed to the development of a new labs and experimentation learning module hosted by Innoweave. The module kicks-off in January.

Grantbook

Influencing policy

Social R&D can lead to better policy development. We also believe that Canada can drive inclusive growth by strengthening R&D in the not-for-profit and charitable sector. However, this sector remains one of the least supported in terms of access to federal R&D infrastructure, advisory support, capacity and capital. We helped to convene a cross-sector policy gathering with Public Policy Forum in June; participated in policy meetings and consultations, including the pan-Canadian innovation policy consultation, and; submitted a policy brief to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development focused on enhancing federal R&D support for Canada’s social sector.

We have just begun this journey. Not everything worked as planned, there were failures along the way – there always will be (more on the failures in January). We are thrilled to advance each of the above four areas in 2017 and have you join this exploration as a partner, champion or practitioner.

The funny thing with mainstreaming experimentation is that we will not know what approaches will work best in advance. Only through experimentation, fast learning, and showing how it’s improving lives will they materialize.

2016 – Looking back, Looking Forward

2016 was resource rich for SiG. As we approach a new year, we thought we’d compile a short list for you to ease the burden on your digital bookmarks. 

– In 2016, we published three reports!

– We orchestrated a Canadian tour for Carolyn Curtis and Ingrid Burkett of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Along with SiG colleague, Geraldine Cahill they visited Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto. You can read about the tour and download some TACSI resources here

– As part of the TACSI Tour, we co-hosted a public event with MaRS Solutions Lab and the Centre for Social Innovation titled: The culture, passion and how of social innovation.

The Culture, Passion and How of Social Innovation from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo.

– Vinod Rajasekaran came on board as a SiG Fellow to work on Social R&D. He has since authored “Getting to Moonshot” and co-authored “How Can Integrated Innovation Advance Well-being and Inclusive Growth?”

Earlier this year Vinod lead a learning tour for a Canadian Delegation to Silicon Valley with Community Foundations Canada (CFC). Participants visited Singularity University, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Y Combinator, IDEO, and more!

– ABSI Connect celebrated its first anniversary! SiG acts as administrator, champion and advisor for the ABSI Connect program in Alberta. We are honoured to play a small role in this inspiring program. Read their report: The Future of Social Innovation Alberta 2016.

– As the Federal Government extended invitations to submit ideas on innovation and creativity in various ministries, SiG was ready with some policy recommendations. See the full submissions on our policy page and review SiG’s take on policy’s role in social innovation.

– In the waning summer days, we began to map the Social Innovation Ecosystem in Canada (last updated on November 2016). We heard from many of you about more and different organizations to include, so we are currently working on an open redesign model for this map. If you would like to be included, get in touch.

What was on our bookshelves this year?

The Silo Effect“, “Building the Future“, “Sharing Cities“, “The Rainforest“, “Linked“, “LEAP Dialogues, Networks“, “The Art of Leading Collectively“, “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene“, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!“, “Public Good by Private Means“, “The Practices of Global Ethics“, and “Uberworked and Underpaid“.

And what was on our desks?

 “Canada Next: Learning for Youth Leadership and Innovation”, “Push & Pull”, “Licence to Innovate: How government can reward risk”, “The Future of Social Innovation in Alberta”, “Shifting Perspective: Redesigning Regulations for the Sharing Economy”, “Where to Begin: How Social Innovation is emerging across Canadian Campuses”, “Discussion Paper – Charities, Sustainable Funding, and Smart Growth”, “Pilot Lessons: How to design a basic income pilot project for Ontario”, “Unpacking Impact: Exploring impact Measurement for Social Enterprises in Ontario”, “From Here to There in Five Bento Boxes”, “The Architecture of Innovation: Institutionalizing Innovation in Federal Policy Making”, and “Insights & Observations at the Intersection of Higher Education, Indigenous Communities and Local Economic Development”.

Who we’ll be watching in 2017?

ABSI Connect – this emerging fellowship we have been super proud to support continues to evolve. Read their latest blog.

Allyson Hewitt – this year Allyson has dedicated her time to exploring the creation of a pro bono marketplace in Canada. We are excited about where that will go. Want to get involved? Feel free to reach out to Allyson!

Canada – 2017 is a big year for the nation and an opportunity to think boldly about our future. Many efforts are underway to pursue the possibilities, and we are excited to see these projects come to life. In particular the 4Rs Youth Movement will be hosting regional and national gatherings from coast to coast to coast, engaging approximately 5,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in face-to-face dialogue that highlights the contributions of Indigenous peoples over the last 150 years and allows for authentic relationship building that furthers reconciliation.

Indigenous Innovation Summit  2017 will host the 3rd Indigenous Innovation Summit. As we celebrate our sesquicentennial we will also take the time to recognize and celebrate indigenous innovation.

Happy Holidays,

SiG Team

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Reconciling Myself for Reconciliation in Canada

Photo by Miriam Espacio

Just before daybreak, on a September morning, I stand in a small circle of people around a sacred fire on Ambleside Beach in Vancouver. As the light creeps into the eastern sky, I hold hands with the stranger next to me, while listening to the calls of the ravens and gulls overhead. Reconciliation Canada has gathered us for this Sunrise Ceremony to call our ancestors, those who have passed from this earthly existence, to ask for their guidance as we move into more active reconciliation conversations and actions.

I stand here, a settler, feeling very unsettled.

I’m unsettled as our country prepares for a year celebrating the birth of a nation that was founded at such great, hurtful expense for the First Nations of this land. To be honest, as a non-indigenous Canadian on the threshold of 2017, I feel guilt and uncertainty – and I worry. The more I find myself in spaces and conversations about reconciliation in Canada, the more I worry that there is so much that I don’t yet know.

I worry that I don’t know for sure what my place is or should be in all of this. I worry that I don’t know what to do. I worry that if I step forward, I will make mistakes that may cause more hurt –  which might be unforgivable. But what I truly worry about most is that all these worries will mean that I do nothing. And that would be, for me, the most unforgivable thing.

The fire ceremony comes to a close and I let go of the stranger’s hand. A little later, at a community breakfast, he approaches me to introduce himself and to tease me that I had gripped his hand so hard that it hurt! I wince – and tell him immediately that I’m so sorry. But he just laughs and takes my hand again for a moment, holds it gently, smiles, tells me he is glad that I was there, and then moves on to speak with others.

In that moment, right there, that kind stranger taught me something about how to make my own way forward towards action for reconciliation. I realized that I need to both let go and go deep; that any contribution I can make to the reconciliation movement will flow, from these same vulnerabilities that worry me.

Image from Reconciliation Canada

It is a realization that I continued to explore through a workshop developed by Reconciliation Canada called Leadership Learning for Reconciliation, which posed a central question; “What does reconciliation mean for YOU?” Through the workshop, I began to understand that the greatest courage required for this work may be to genuinely look within and to get to know the weak, frightened, thoughtless parts of my own self and life  – to own my shadow sides that make me cringe and that I fight to ignore rather than to acknowledge and heal.

I imagine that many of us have relationships in our lives that need reconciliation – I know for sure that I do.  I’m beginning to understand that the way I think about them, the way I have or have not tried to address my damaged and hurting personal relationships, is my starting point to learn how to become better prepared, able and ready to work for broader reconciliation efforts in society. Maybe we need to reconcile what we each know as ‘mine’ before we can effectively connect together to heal histories, hurts, and troubling issues that are ‘ours’.

Photo from the inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit, Raven Lacerte and Paul Lacerte, who started The Moose Hide Campaign, honour Justice Sinclair by presenting him with a drum. (Photo by the NAFC)

I believe we have to find a way to come to terms with our own worries about what we will each do for reconciliation. We need to reconcile ourselves, with all the grace we can muster, to the unavoidable challenges that are part of reconciliation efforts. We need to accept that we are bound to make mistakes in this new part of our shared journey in Canada. We cannot be sure of every step, but we need to show up anyway.

We will need courage and humility to be called on errors and to experience some pain and remorse at our own failings. We need to trust that we can ask for forgiveness and be generous in offering forgiveness to others. We need to focus on holding empathy for each other, learning from each other, trying together to find the way forward. Trying again. And again.

We won’t be able to do this alone and we will need help along the way. The most inspiring support that I’ve encountered is the immense generosity of some amazing indigenous leaders in Canada. Particularly at the two Indigenous Innovation Summits that I’ve had the privilege to attend, I’ve witnessed the authentic, generous words and actions of people like Paul Lacerte, Karen Joseph, Jessica Bolduc and Melanie Goodchild, to name just a few. They are choosing to bravely speak truths, positive and negative, and to do so with love and faith.

Truths about what has been and what now needs to be.

Love for all who try to think, speak and act differently.

Faith that we can do this thing called reconciliation.

They encourage me in very profound ways that lessen my worries and help me to step forward into the work ahead.

Is our playbook out of date?

A photo by Greg Rakozy. unsplash.com/photos/oMpAz-DN-9I

Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges — ranging from mental health, Indigenous communities’ access to quality education, and a lack of affordable housing — demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimental and replicating approaches so people can access the best possible services, supports and solutions, no matter where they live in Canada. This is where R&D comes in.

Canada’s not-for-profit, charitable, B Corp, and social enterprise organizations have built strong capabilities in volunteer management, donor stewardship, and program delivery, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that social change in the 21st century requires an additional strong capacity and capability in research and development, or R&D.  

Just as R&D in the business world drives new and improved products and services, R&D can also help social mission organizations generate significant and rapid advancements in services and solutions that change lives. However, currently only a small proportion of social mission organizations repeatedly incorporate a wide range of new knowledge (like insights into how the brain works and how positive behaviours can be encouraged) or new technologies (like machine learning) or new processes (like human centred design).  

R&D is not yet well understood, funded or widely practiced by the social impact sector and thus is not yet adopted as a core organizational practice. It is a new field with a small body of codified knowledge and practice.

The “Social R&D” exploration aims to catalyze a change. The exploration is incubated by SiG, seeded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Open North, Community Foundations of Canada, MaRS, Engineers Without Borders Canada, among many others.

The new report, Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector authored by SiG Fellow Vinod Rajasekaran, with a Foreword by Nesta’s Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan, highlights 50 compelling R&D practices from 14 organizations across Canada, including: Saint Elizabeth’s field visits with frontline staff, GrantBook’s digital simulations, Skills Society’s neighbourhood prototyping and The MATCH International Women’s Fund’s 15% staff time for experimentation. The report illustrates that pursuing R&D helps organizations minimize costs in program growth, track improvements and learning more effectively, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for and with the people they serve. The intention in the future is to move beyond the report and host an online collection of practices with open access.

There are wonderful elements of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector and this report is an attempt to make a small portion of them visible to demonstrate that investment in R&D is a critical success factor in seeing measurable gains in social wellbeing. Against a backdrop of increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, together we can transform how social mission organizations enhance lives for the 21st century.

SiG invites grantmakers, philanthropists, governments, and practitioners to join the movement to boost Social R&D capacity, capability, infrastructure and capital in communities across Canada.

Pro Bono in Canada

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Toronto+Acumen blog.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

October 23-29 was Global Pro Bono Week! The week is a global campaign that celebrates the thousands of professionals who volunteer their skills and professional expertise to support non-profits all around the world. The global pro bono movement has long been ignited and attracts new international partners every year.

Source: http://www.probonoweek.org/

What exactly is Pro Bono?

As defined by the Taproot Foundation (a global expert in pro bono), pro bono is “using a volunteer’s core professional skills to provide free professional expertise to organizations serving the public good’.

Pro bono is a subset of skilled volunteering that gives non-profits access to business and legal skills and experience as needed, , such as developing and implementing new business strategies or improving organizational infrastructure.

For example, volunteering  one’s management consulting experience to increase donations for a food bank would be a pro bono service. Volunteering at a local food bank’s kitchen to collect or distribute food would be what the Taproot Foundation describes as hands-on volunteerism.

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 9.44.52 AM

Source: Taproot Foundation

What is being done around the world?

In 2015, there were 50 events hosted in 19 countries by 27 organizations during Global Pro Bono Week. Examples of events include seminars, information sessions, pro bono ‘speed dating’ and pro bono ‘marathons’ (similar in structure to tech hackathons).

Examples of events from this year’s Global Pro Bono Week include:

France – Intercompany Pro Bono Marathon, hosted by Pro Bono Lab

Pro Bono Lab organised a large Pro Bono Marathon, teaming employees from 10 companies to support 10 non-profit organisations with capacity building services (such as consultancy in finance, strategy, management, marketing, communication, law or web).

India – Online tools to Work smarter – get your answers now!

This session highlighted online tools that help non-profits optimize their time and resources. The session focused on free tools for project management –  tools that help create and capture data/reports and present them in a creative manner.

Canada – Canadian Pro Bono Tweet Up

On Monday, October 24th, there was a virtual discussion of pro bono giving in Canada with corporate and social profit leaders from across the country.

Check out more tweets from this national conversation here!

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 9.48.21 AM
Why should you get involved?

It is becoming abundantly clear that pro bono work benefits all involved. For professional service companies, there are endless reports depicting the value that pro bono opportunities have on attracting, retaining and engaging talented workforces (especially millennials), as well as enhancing brand and public relations. The following report details a strong business case for pro bono services, as well as case studies). Moreover:

 

Pro bono can also be immensely useful for developing  business innovations. Innovation has been described as “the application of knowledge in a novel way”. As pro bono engagements are an opportunity for employees to apply their skills in a different environment, it can be thought of as a catalyst for innovative thinking.

“Our fellows not only provide value for society at large, but also gain global perspectives, new ideas, and skill sets that ultimately inform business innovation.” – Robert L. Mallett. Previously President of the Pfizer Foundation.

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 12.02.22 PM

Source: Business Value of Pro Bono Source: Taproot Foundation

What is next?

Many leading Canadian organizations are convening together to spark a pro bono movement that can grow and scale throughout Canada. While there a strong volunteerism culture in Canada, there still exists an immense opportunity to deliver high-quality, high-impact pro bono services to social change organizations.

“Volunteering continues to be fundamental to Canadian society with more than 13 million volunteers contributing more than 2.1 billion volunteer hours annually (equivalent to 1.1 million jobs).” – Statscan

There are a plethora of ways one can develop and engage with the pro bono marketplace in Canada. One can work with their organizational leaders in implementing a company wide pro bono program, work individually on pro bono engagements, or help with advocacy efforts.

Within Toronto, Endeavour is a fantastic resource for those wishing to engage in pro bono projects. We also encourage you to visit Taproot’s website to learn more about pro bono. We are also seeking champions to help grow the pro bono movement and marketplace on a national scale (contributing to a variety of initiatives, including needs assessment, corporate & non-profit engagement, awareness building).

If you are interested in this, please feel free to contact Allyson Hewitt (‎Senior Fellow, Social Innovation – ‎MaRS Discovery District), at ahewitt@marsdd.com. You can also follow her on twitter @AllysonHewitt and #ProBonoCDN for more updates on Canadian pro bono.

Making Indigenous histories and futures visible

The YVR Art Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1993 by the Vancouver Airport Authority to foster the development and enhancement of BC First Nations art and artists. The First Nations of British Columbia have artistic traditions that have been part of their fabric of life for millennia. While these traditions are not unique to BC, the Vancouver Airport is one of the only public authorities that has decided to dedicate space and championship to the celebration of local Indigenous art and craftsmanship. 

jade canoe

Bill Reid -The Jade Canoe at Vancouver International Airport 

Last week, some 4,000km away at Toronto’s YWCA, dedicating and creating intentional space to celebrate Indigenous culture was the heart of a public discussion convened by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam about Truth and Reconciliation in an urban context.

The panelists included Susan Blight, an artist and activist; Sam Kloetstra, Youth Coordinator, Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle; Sarah Midanik, Executive Director, Native Women’s Resource Centre; and Andre Morriseau, Director, Awards and Stakeholder Relations, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB). 

One of the most cited critiques of Toronto’s city planning during the discussion was the lack of intentional place-making for Indigenous peoples. Many suggestions were offered: renaming streets and waters, a multi-functional space/community centre to re/learn culture, a centre for Indigenous Social Innovation, a dedicated district – akin to Chinatown, Little India etc, and an Office of Indigenous Affairs within City Hall.

Sam Kloetstra recently moved to Toronto and Kristyn accidentally introduced him as having just moved to Canada. As Sam pointed out, what’s interesting about the mistake is that, “Not every Indigenous person identifies as being Canadian, but every Indigenous person I’ve met identifies as being Torontonian.” This knowledge is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto. So, how to step up its game?

North American Indigenous Games

North American Indigenous Games

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) will come to Toronto in 2017 – the same year the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, which Prince Harry announced last year with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wynne in attendance. In contrast, few people have heard about the North American Indigenous Games, which have been held since 1990. These kinds of events can help raise the profile of Indigenous leadership. Similarly, Andre Morriseau spoke of a missed opportunity to build on the success of the Toronto-based 2015 Pan Am Games by creating a living asset of Indigenous experience, athleticism and culture in Toronto. Amplifying the profile of the NAIG’s is a very achievable way to learn from that missed opportunity.

Still, there are some inspiring rogue and entrepreneurial examples of place-making and place-keeping out there that others can build on. Susan Blight and Hayden King took to the streets a few years back, making stickers with Ojibway translations of Toronto street names that they plastered over the English signs, beginning with Queen Street, or Ogimaa Mikana. What began as a political action became a full scale billboard project.

First Story app

First Story app

There’s also the work of First Story. Since 1995,  First Story Toronto, (formerly The Toronto Native Community History Project), within the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been engaged in researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto with the goal of building awareness of and pride in the long Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. They have created a handy mobile phone app (via itunes and google) and you can take self-guided tours of the city, learning about Indigenous heritage and communities in Toronto.

Naturally, in addition to place-making efforts, citizens themselves need a culture shift. Education systems can play a role in this and many are making strides to introduce new curricula. But on the streets and in our every day, how do we foster better relationships with each other? I think it was Andre that remarked, “If you don’t have a dog, do you talk to anyone in the park?”

While making things visible may be the easier first step, actually allowing oneself to be uncomfortable in not knowing how to demonstrate your willingness, to work on Reconciliation is the harder part. Chad Lubelsky from McConnell’s RECODE project wrote recently:

A key challenge therefore is to not rush into solutions, but to live with the tension that resetting relationships will require everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to change, and to change together. Change happens in concert and takes time; perhaps more time than we’d like…These tensions will create discomfort, and increasing our discomfort might be an indicator that we are making progress. It’s hard work that will only get harder.

There is so much more for us to talk about and action together – in urban environments and in rural communities. There is much that people don’t know. For the participants in last week’s discussion, all seemed to agree that a physical and official commitment by the City of Toronto to reflect Indigenous life is important. Yet all would also agree that we can’t stop there. As a Globe and Mail article published just yesterday outlines: “There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life.”

The City can move forward with many of the suggestions raised during the discussion, but while they work through official channels, we must all continue our own journey along this difficult but hopeful path.

Remaking a Living: A shared journey of social innovation

This blog can only do so much to share the inspiring journey of the Remaking a Living Project. If you would like to learn more about their journey, process, and  recommendations, please visit the Remaking a Living website and the project blog. All images were provided by the Remaking a Living Project unless indicated otherwise.

Our world is filled with complexity that cannot be grasped merely by way of numbers or facts.

A prime example is the unemployment rate – a widely cited statistic that fails to tell the whole story of those who find themselves not currently working; it only counts those who have looked for work in the past four weeks.

So where do the rest get counted? Statistics Canada refers to people who want to be working but have given up, over the short term or the long term, as ‘discouraged workers’ and considers them outside the work force, rather than ‘unemployed.’ These are the people that the Remaking a Living project sought to understand. They wanted to hear from the people who aren’t in the news and don’t make it to, or find success at, the employment centre. Mostly, they wanted to know:

How can we best assist those who have been marginalized in the labour force, so they can participate in the economy on their own terms?
Natalie Napier hard at work. Image provided by the Remaking a Living project.

Natalie Napier hard at work during the summer.

The process began last summer in Peterborough, which often ranks as the municipality with the highest unemployment rate in Canada. Natalie Napier, from the Community Opportunity & Innovation Network (COIN), led a small team to explore this question with coaching from InWithForward (IWF), an organization that works all over the world to re-design social services from the perspective of the people who use them, and financial support from the Atkinson FoundationUnited Way of Peterborough, and the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Natalie Napier to chat about Remaking a Living:

KG: How did you become involved in this project and what were you doing at COIN prior to this?

NN: I have been at COIN for five years – it all started with an internship. These days my title is Lead Specialist in Innovation Projects. I was getting exposure to the innovation lab model, and I liked the idea of people from all parts of a system coming together to develop more holistic solutions, but in practice the innovation lab seemed to be geared to more privileged members of systems and the last thing I wanted was to carry out a project in which we learn about people experiencing a problem from other people.

KG: This kind of work is – for many- a completely new approach. What inspired the project?

NN: We were inspired by the Atkinson Foundation’s Decent Work Fund that asked, “What is decent work?”. COIN works with people who are marginalized from the workforce, sometimes people who have never had a job. I wanted to explore this question, but I didn’t want to get a grant and have none of the funding reach the very people I was hoping to help. Atkinson put us in touch with IWF.

KG: How did IWF become involved as a coach? I believe this is the first time they coached someone within an organization to conduct the work alone.

NN: The great thing about IWF is that they are always willing to think “How can this be done differently?”. COIN was excited about the potential, but as a small organization – even with our incredible partners – we were not in the position to hire IWF the usual way and they had other projects still in progress. Eventually we came to a solution: I would manage the project with a team and IWF would coach me, mostly remotely.

KG: I understand that Remaking a Living staged various interactions, which I was fascinated by. How did you come up with unique ways to approach people?

Watermelon Trading Post. Image provided by the Remaking a Living Project.

Watermelon Trading Post.

NN: IWF taught us to think of each interaction as a design brief. In one of the interactions, we wanted to get out of the city and talk to people who could tell us first hand about the experience of rural long term unemployment. A contact suggested a food cupboard based out of a church and the organizers of this food cupboard gave us some parametres, mostly to reduce any sense of stigma users might feel. We had to be inside the Church at the back of the room in which people wait to be able to access food and supplies; people had to choose to go out of their way to talk to us. Our goal was to stand out, to be family-friendly, to offer something of value, and to make people feel comfortable enough to tell us their stories.

Throughout the summer the project staged various interactions to explore this question, like a makeshift sneaker cleaning station outside a shelter to understand the impact of peer networks. Image  was provided by the Remaking a Living Project.

Another interaction was a makeshift sneaker cleaning station outside of a community dinner to understand the impact of peer networks.

The staff also mentioned that fresh fruit wasn’t usually available so when watermelons went on sale, we recognized them as the great big, juicy props they are and came up with the Watermelon Trading Post. A central value behind this project has been reciprocity, so we always had something to offer.

KG: How did you adapt to going from working inside an office to interacting with people all the time?

NN: For me, this project was about designing programs outside of boardrooms and I saw getting ‘out there’ as part of the process. IWF’s coaching had prepared me for it, and I am outgoing, but it wasn’t always easy. The people who we were trying to approach are often under-stimulated and isolated since they don’t have workplace interactions or spending money for activities. We found that as long as we struck the right note, and had something to offer (a laugh, watermelon etc), people were happy to chat.

KG: What were the obstacles you encountered?

NN: This was an incredible learning experience, but when you are processing so much yourself, it can be hard to share it with others. I found it really challenging to describe this project and its potential outcome to our funders. We also had to adapt IWF’s process to our non-profit: for example, our board wondered whether our adventures into people’s homes would be covered under our insurance and health and safety policy.

The finished web product of the Remaking a Living project, with their prototyped solutions.

The finished website of the Remaking a Living project, with their proposed solutions.

KG: What lesson did you take away from this process?

NN: I took two lessons away from this process. The first is the incredible challenge of communicating the value of this work with any degree of complexity to anyone, including and especially to those within my own organization. This was one reason the website was so important to me. We worked really hard not just to explain, but to show what our work was about. I had many important conversations in which I wasn’t able to get the point across; words utterly failed me.

Anyone working in the social sector knows this work is challenging; we all get frustrated with the results of our work and admit that we need new approaches, but we all still have an investment in some of the status quo. When someone comes along and transmits a message about a different way of doing things, we can surprise ourselves by getting our backs up. I learned that I needed to connect emotionally, not just intellectually. I needed to invite more people on the journey with me, rather than just focusing on finding the right words.

The second lesson I learned was that organizational learning and change takes time. IWF is designed to move at the speed of light: to analyze and reinvent. It was exciting and invigorating to work with an organization that has that kind of energy. My organization, while small and relatively agile, is designed to provide the stability of inclusive, flexible programming to people who are marginalized. Those are two very different machines. I wanted to import some of that IWF magic to my own organization, but I met resistance. At the time, it felt like a brick wall that I could not get through, but I can see now that I was just pushing too hard. Opportunities to incorporate aspects of IWF’s Grounded Change approach seem to abound now.

We don’t recognize patience as a virtue in innovation nearly enough.

KG: Would you say there is an interest in trying new things within Peterborough’s philanthropic landscape?

Last November our Executive Director spoke at the Philanthropy Forum in Peterborough about Social Innovation - the appetite is there.

Last November, SiG ED, Tim Draimin, spoke at the Philanthropy Forum in Peterborough about social innovation – the appetite is there. Photo provided by the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

NN: The very fact that all these partners within Peterborough’s social and philanthropic landscape funded our project, and that so many local organizations allowed us to come into their spaces, is evidence that there is an appetite for new things. There are several really great grassroots projects and programs cropping up in Peterborough. Smaller organizations are often able to innovate with a nimbleness and boldness that larger institutions lack until there is more evidence available.

 KG: Do you think you’ll try this approach again?

NN: While the Remaking a Living Project has not found traction with its proposed solution ideas, it is still early. There is a lot of interest in exploring different issues using a similar process. I am currently crafting another project with this approach, including all the lessons learned from our first go – particularly the need to incorporate partners into the process.

I can’t imagine that anything I do in the future won’t owe something to IWF’s work. I am an evangelist. I think everybody deserves to be a force in the definition of ‘problems’ and creation of solutions that are about their lives. I don’t think there are many situations in which we should work any other way. I can’t go back.

Debriefers

IWF suggested that the project assemble a team of people who would be sympathetic to the project, but not afraid to ask tough questions and make us see things from different angles. They assembled the debriefers from different sectors who would look at what they were doing, asked questions, offer practical advice, and barrier-bust.

 

What I Learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

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It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

Alberta has a rich tradition of social innovation. It is the province of the Famous Five, who secured women legal recognition as ‘persons’ in Canada, leading to a radical shift in our social relationships and in Canadian jurisprudence. It is the only province where the Métis have a legislated land base, with the goals “to secure a Métis land base for future generations, local autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency” (Source: Alberta Indigenous Relations). And it was the first province to develop a formal interface for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues directly with government officials – the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative.

Alberta has consistently been the home of key justice and equality movements, from the United Farmers of Alberta to the Pembina Institute.

What is common to all of these milestones? Each transforms a critical relationship, introducing a new status quo that advances, in some way, inclusion, openness and deeper collaboration.

Author Thomas King (and a former professor of Native Studies at University of Lethbridge) writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories, 2003). The stories we tell about ourselves matter; they inform how we see, show up and act in our daily lives. The Fellows amplified Alberta’s story as a leader in doing what it takes for community well being and equality, shedding light on an inspiring legacy of operating at the radical edge of innovation.

It is time to raise a barn together.

While there is this rich history of social innovation in Alberta, one contemporary pattern the Fellows surfaced was in the opposite direction. Today, the social impact ecosystem celebrates and rewards individualism over collective action. There has been a shift toward communities of heroes, rather than heroic communities. Short time horizons for results and a focus on individual agency undercuts an otherwise deep interest in collaborative action and isolates successful initiatives embodying this approach.

Listen to speak.

When the Fellows began their journey last summer, social innovation was a vexed concept in Alberta, specifically in Calgary and Edmonton, where their efforts were concentrated. Some folks considered it a critical new process to advance long sought social change, others considered it an empty fad, others still saw evidence of neoliberalism in the approach, and yet others felt it was either a useful or obnoxious term to describe the kind of breakthrough work they had already been dedicated to for years.

The Fellows started from a place of deep listening, inviting each person they spoke with to share what they thought the value, definition, and possibility of social innovation is. In doing so, the Fellows killed two birds with one stone: they discovered that there is a common direction that people want to walk together  (toward solving root causes) and, by listening and resourcing, they empowered the work of a diverse array of actors in both their current work and towards that common direction.

The Fellows learned that it absolutely matters to have a shared story, but that story must be accessible, inclusive, inspiring and democratic. Here is how I heard it: our common ground is in our deep dedication to aligning our social change efforts with our fundamental intent. If the goal is to solve something, then we focus on solving it. If the goal is to change the status quo, then we reimagine it. There is a growing movement of processes, models, approaches and shared learning that will help us align intent with action, whether we must invent, innovate, adapt, adopt or collaborate to get there.

Social innovation is the stuff of culture.

With little or no preconceptions of what they would be sharing back with community at the end of their term, the patterns and opportunities the Fellows identified through emergent learning all relate to the cultural elements shaping how and why we seek to forge solutions to our most complex challenges.

What they heard and learned strikes at the heart of how we think about, enact and vision impactful social change. What we call it matters less than identifying the systemic patterns shaping how we go about it and working to break the patterns holding us from our core intent.

Like any journey without a map – and solving complex social and ecological problems is as far from having a map as possible – we must constantly check-in on our direction and our path, referencing the changing landscape, the local know-how, resonant examples, our experiences, the experiences and stories of others, and our own courage to try a path untested. With an appreciation that we alone do not have the answers, but the answers are out there, we can make a concerted effort to contribute to their collective creation.

Thank you to the Fellows for leading and inspiring a unique inquiry, learning journey and community. Thank you all – especially the funding partnershostsadvisors and contributors – for your time, contribution, support, insights and partnership. The journey continues with the Fellows’ insights offering pathways forward and a true shock of the possible.

Nesting Social Innovation

“What does social innovation mean?”
“Is my work called social innovation?”
“Is that social innovation?”

These types of questions are asked all the time, showing that definitions for promising ideas can be very useful, but also alienating. Too often, they come across as a value judgment, privileging some ideas and actions over others. But what if it’s not really a competition? More than any one individual piece of work, it might be even more important to consider the relationships between them. There is something about the interconnections between intention, involvement, invention and innovation that are central to social innovation.

Intention: it’s sparked by a moment in time when people become more consciously aware of a problem in a way that there’s no turning back from. They are changed and, as individuals, they now genuinely care about something that is broken in the world. They develop a deep intention; they care – and they sincerely want change to happen.

That intention often leads to new levels of engagement; their growing awareness and emotional connection wants to be translated into action and they feel compelled to DO something. Doing can take a lot of forms – learning more, giving money, volunteering, working in the problem domain. Whatever first (and next) steps mean to them, they move into involvement; they are actively helping change to happen.

To some extent, they are now part of the field, part of working for change, and some will get involved enough to develop more knowledge and experience in this realm. This allows them to creatively experiment with new ways of addressing problems. They are excited by invention; they can now imagine and act on radically different ideas for change.

Eventually, a number of these creative, adaptive entrepreneurs, either individuals or organizations, come to realize that even with some success, the fundamental brokenness that caught their attention in the first place, still lingers – the problem has barely changed at all. It becomes clear that their work is critically important, but alone, it is not enough. And, if possible, they turn their attention to whatever bigger picture elements appear to be keeping problems so frustratingly stuck. They, with others, begin to work for innovation; they step into new spaces to engage with strategies for getting at the root causes of these very complex problems.

Babushka Dolls of SI copy

Babushka Dolls of Social Innovation – image graphic provided by Karen Gomez

I’ve come to understand the necessity and the interdependence of each of these four different. but related, uniquely powerful parts of change-making.  I think of them like the Russian babushka dolls; nested pieces, one inside the other. While each individual piece can stand alone, the full impact is really only possible when they are together.  Social innovation nesting looks something like this; real, lasting innovation at a systems level cannot happen without enough creative invention to demonstrate and prepare the new possibilities. This rarely happens without significant involvement to gain deep understanding in the issue area, which itself will never occur without sparking individuals’ intention, their desire to be part of making change happen. When this interconnectedness is present, the energy of a whole field works for impact – and that can make all the difference.

So I’m really drawn to think about the whole – and, therefore, to holistic questions that unite rather than divide our change efforts; ones that point to the relationships between initiatives and to ‘nesting’ one piece of change work within another.  Rather than questions about what is or is not social innovation, let’s explore if and how this kind of initiative and that type of activity fits within, supports, leverages, communicates with, and connects to a whole web-like strategy, every single piece of which has a role to play in achieving real and lasting change.