Recoding Our Innovation Systems

Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light at the End of the Tunnel

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

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

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

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.

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

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

- Banksy

– Banksy

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

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

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

c/o Randy Robertson

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

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

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

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

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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.15.42 AM

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

Facebook: a reality check

Facebook will not democratize society. They don’t claim they will and they don’t claim they can. “We know we don’t always change the world, but Facebook’s ability to connect people can have an impact. We believe in democracy,” says Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. I had the opportunity to hear Sandberg speak at the Empire Club of Canada on Tuesday this week, which was enjoyable if not particularly illuminating.

[Read more…]