Provoking innovation through stories of social entrepreneurship

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…”

―  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (2003)

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

In 2015, the Trico Charitable Foundation published four extensive case studies on the 2013 Social EnterPrize winners. Each case study was developed in partnership with the winning social enterprise and a post-secondary institution, converging the rigor of frontline experiential learning with the rigor of a critical academic lens.

The result? “A series of social entrepreneurship case studies that, in terms of the breadth of the organizations studied and the depth of the analysis, is the first of its kind in Canada” (Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015). Together, each social enterprise and academic team revealed and codified key insights, challenges and lessons from these four thriving social enterprises.

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful forces in humanity. As a private foundation, we have learned that our work is better when we tell stories and when we listen to them.”

― Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015

It is clear that an appreciation of the power of stories spurred Trico’s interest in developing the case studies. Why are stories so powerful? An audacious question, but one that provokes serious consideration of the role of stories in our lives.

In the context of social innovation, the defining stories we tell each day reveal our core beliefs and the conditioning beliefs of our broader social system.They tell us something about what we value, who we value, and what purpose we believe our systems (and selves) exist to serve.

Photo via Trico Foundation

TurnAround Couriers. Photo via Trico Foundation

In sharing – in depth – the story of the four Social EnterPrize winners, Trico Charitable Foundation contributed to a narrative that values business as more than a vehicle for profit maximization. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ is a story of sustainable social processes leveraging market solutions to serve social purpose. It advances another, broader story about our economic system, one where the economy thrives as products, services, and experiences put the best of our capital (financial, human, knowledge) sustainably to work producing (and reproducing) positive social and ecological outcomes.

The story of a new economy

Each case study offers a window into how this new story is taking root and reshaping economic life. Each case exemplifies business models succeeding not in spite of their social process and purpose, but because of it. And, to explain this success, each case brings to light that the triple bottom line of social enterprise (or social purpose business) is more than people, planet and profit – it is also process, purpose and outcome.

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

This is the triumvirate of a new economy where, similar to the case studies in the recently released book Citizen-led Innovation for a New Economy, “organized citizens are forging innovation, prying open cracks in the prevailing economic system and seizing opportunities to redirect economic life” (From the book blurb - Purchase the book here or the PDF summaries of the cases).

Stories describe where we come from and why we exist. They define ‘the good life,’ our expected roles in the society or how we should relate to each other. Stories tell us what our essence is: good or evil or somewhere in between; independent or interdependent; fundamentally threatened or enriched by difference. Above all, stories reflect and influence our perception of the world and, in doing so, our actions.

“A fundamental sociological premise is Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matter.”

― Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed (2006)

embers-300x123

Each Social EnterPrize winner understood that “whether we think about things matters.” Whether we think about the potential of low-income folks living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (EMBERS); the common need for safety and comfort by travellers, students, women in crisis, families in transition or with medical issues, seniors and refugees (YWCA Hotel/Residence); the untapped work ethic of job-ready, at-risk youth (TurnAround Couriers); or the pedagogical opportunity to empower every student to be a math prodigy (JUMP), it is actually noticing and thinking about these things that shapes our understanding of the world, frames our actions and, through our actions, reimagines our communities.

How do we follow in these footsteps? Thankfully, the case studies not only exemplify how these social entrepreneurs advanced a different perception of the world – and in doing so, ignited cascading opportunities – each also reveals how that acute perception translated into tangible insights, challenges, solutions and outcomes. They lend evidence and advice to others seeking to leverage a new worldview and market opportunity to achieve sustainable, measurable social and ecological outcomes.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

Final takeaway

The ability to unlock market solutions that successfully redeploy capital to achieve transformational social and ecological impact often demands challenging the prevailing beliefs of our day. It butts up against the way so many people currently see or understand the world. The Social EnterPrize case studies remind us to know intimately the story we are telling through our actions and through our words…by whom, about whom, for whom, to what end. This story is our compass. As are these case studies which, with practical and inspirational insight, reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world

—     James Baldwin

Microtainer: lab resources (July 2015)

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015 on the MaRS Solutions Lab Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.
Launched August 2013, the Microtainer series was created and curated by Satsuko VanAntwerp of Social Innovation Generation. The MaRS Solutions Lab is excited to take on this legacy to spread information that will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. To access the whole archive of Microtainers, please visit the Microtainers series page.
Interesting resources that came across our desks in the month of June 2015 (in no particular order):

News: Thursday, July 9th, is the global labs gathering in London with LabWorks! Follow #LabWorks for this exciting conference and the latest learnings from 50 labs globally. 

1. WISIR’s Social Innovation Lab Guide is out!

This long-awaited lab guide presents a step-by-step process in designing and implementing your social innovation lab, with tips and advice on how to iterate and adjust design based on the context. We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with WISIR’s team, including Frances Westley and Sam Laban, and to share our learnings within the Prologue with Joeri’s “Testing a Lab Model”.

Social Innovation Lab Guide

2. Kennisland’s Publication: “Lab Practice: creating spaces for social change“

How to organise and run a social lab? Lab Practice aims to share experiences from doing a social lab with elderly people in Amsteldorp by sharing methodologies and stories from both changemakers and social lab facilitators.

3. Participate in RSD4 Symposium on Systemic Design in Banff, September 1-3

The RSD series has advanced an agenda for a strong integration between systems thinking and design to take on the most important challenges facing our planet today. The theme of this year’s symposium is At the Frontiers of Systemic Design.

Confirmed 5 extraordinary keynote speakers over the three day event:

  • Mugendi M’Rithaa, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa
  • Don Norman, University of California, San Diego, US
  • Lia Patrício, University of Porto, Portugal
  • Ann Pendleton-Jullian, The Ohio State University and Georgetown University, US
  • Ursula Tischner, Agency for Sustainable Design, Cologne, Germany
4. Service Design Berlin’s “Prototyping Public Services” slidedeck:

A great slidedeck on the difference between prototyping and piloting and  3 approaches to prototyping in the public sector.

Service Design Berlin prototype

5. Thoughtwork’s blog on Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling adapted for UX:

As relevant for UX as for public + social innovation labs. Inspirational and interesting.

Microtainer UX

 6. Fast Co.Design’s “How Google Finally Got Design

A quick history to how design proliferated the DNA of Google. “Google has come so far, despite years of self-defeating battles over what constitutes good design. ‘When we brought up design at Google, people used to scoff,’ says John Wiley, a designer who, in nine years at Google, has seen the company transform. ‘It made it hard for us to hire great design talent because it didn’t seem like we had the full measure of respect for design.’ Here’s how an organization that once crowed about testing 42 shades of blue and called that design created a user-savvy organization that even Apple could learn from.”

7. Video: “Why Design Matters

A quick 3:42 minute video on why design matters, taking a historical approach on design through exploring politics and religion. Interesting!

Microtainer Why Design Matters

8. Business Insider’s “Art schools have minted more mega-unicorn startups than MIT”

“The most surprising finding in this list is that MIT has produced fewer mega-unicorns than two tiny art schools — the Rhode Island School of Design and The Art Center School of Design. […] Two of Xiaomi’s founders were design majors. RISD, an art school that isn’t even included in the U.S. News & World Reports rankings, educated two of Airbnb’s founders.”

9. News: “Google creates Sidewalk Labs to redesign city living with technology

…”Google CEO Larry Page says Google will focus on improving city living for everyone by developing new technologies to deal with urban issues like cost of living, transportation, and energy usage. The new company, based in New York, will be headed by headed by Dan Doctoroff, formerly New York Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Bloomberg CEO.”

10. Recap of last week’s Civic Design Camp via Storify

We hosted Canada’s first Civic Design Camp on June 26, with an audience of 120+ designers, programmers, and civil servants to design responses to 5 real-life challenges submitted by the Canadian government and research organizations alike.

What is the power of community knowledge? Reflections from #CKX

â„… @ammcelrone

â„… @ammcelrone

Starting Wednesday, November 19, 400+ community activists, leaders, partners, statisticians and artists descended on two iconic Toronto cultural spaces dedicated to storytelling for the inaugural Community Knowledge Exchange (#CKX) Summit – the CBC and TIFF Bell Lightbox:

….Whether it’s connecting them to this country, to their communities, or to each other as individuals with their own realities and interests, CBC/Radio-Canada will be there —for everyone, every way  
CBC 2015: Everyone, Every way
TIFF is a charitable cultural organization with a mission to transform the way people see the world, through film
TIFF Donate

As the Summit kicked-off, we were being held in spaces with a long legacy of engaging in the premise that had brought us together: What is the power of community knowledge?

Community Knowledge Exchange

Prior to the Summit, I thought this question was an epistemological one: what is the nature and power of community knowledge? Are we investigating a grand theory of community knowledge? (You can take the academic out of academia…)

I arrived thinking that the Summit would be about negotiating the tension between quantitative (the #s) and qualitative (stories & experiences) data and exploring different forms of ‘community knowledge’ that we could exchange, learn from and collectively act on.

While these topics did surface in sessions, it became increasingly clear as the Summit progressed that this gathering was actually born of an even stronger impetus to ‘leverage and unlock community knowledge to create social change.’

The real premise inspiring the Summit — co-created by Community Foundations Canada and the Ontario Trillium Foundation — was that we already cumulatively have the resources we need to tackle our most pressing issues. If we can develop new tools and norms to embolden knowledge exchange and coordinated/collaborative action, we can unleash our collective strength.

We’re building CKX to exchange ideas and knowledge to improve our communities
Lee Rose, CKX Sherpa

This was not about a grand theory then, but a grand narrative: collectively curating a common story around community knowledge to empower collaboration and impact at scale.

With a deepening understanding and appreciation of the Summit’s direction, the answer to “What is the power of community knowledge?” came into focus: the power of community knowledge is that collectively there is knowledge — as stories, data, experiences, failures, success — enough to collaboratively improve our communities.

The Summit was an exercise in civic intelligence.

Get your LEGO ready: CKX Summit from Community Knowledge Exchange on Vimeo.

Community | Knowledge | Exchange

CKX was not just about an exchange of ‘community knowledge,’ but about community + knowledge + exchange and the relationship between them. With an eye toward building a community of exchange around knowledge (and know-how) that is valuable for driving social change together, the Summit was a starting point for collaborative action by serving not only as a networking hub, but also as impetus to share and improve actionable practices emerging from new knowledge frameworks, such as: open data, collective impact, and shared measurement.

My enthusiasm about the discussions we were having around shared action and measurement was overshadowed only by an apprehension that the open data and data platform discourses would dominate the list of what and how the community sector should move forward together.

This apprehension was born only of an awareness of how easy it is to slip from data as information that facilitates evaluation or shapes knowledge to data as knowledge or a causal force of social change. It was an uneasiness that was largely unnecessary given the depth of thought and critical reflection the Summit curators had put into the schedule, including sessions on the dark side of data and responsible data (H/T to the curators).

Yet we did slip and in a rather compelling and powerful way — via the moving, tributary keynote by Don Tapscott, whose stirring presentation introduced several inspiring stories of open data accelerating broader social change. Although each story offered significant additional learning to the broader knowledge exchange at the Summit, the evangelizing wave of such a strong presentation carried the argument too far, equating open data to engaged citizens.

While the availability of the resource (data) is important, it is social capital, networks of action, and cultures of engagement, inclusion, passion and rage that foster citizen engagement. The potential of open data is that it can empower engaged citizens to further empower themselves and others.

It was a brief slip, as this latter approach to data — the utility of data as a key tool, rather than a silver bullet — was truly the undercurrent energy of the Summit, but it raised to the forefront an important bit of know-how best summarized to me by a fellow participant: data is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.

To leverage our collective knowledge is social

The ‘nature of community knowledge’ was not the focus of the Summit (the actual premise was much more potent and inclusive), but to indulge in that subject for a moment, what was so powerful about the lived experience of the Summit was that it embodied how community knowledge is developed: “It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound.”

The Summit was social, certainly goal-driven for each participant, and culturally-bound by the curation of the schedule and experience: we were co-creating a community knowledge of collective action in the process of analyzing how we can act together around our collective knowledge.

The stories that we tell
Wise Crowd 1 â„… @CKXdotorg

â„… @CKXdotorg

Nowhere was this most evident than in session with three leading funders. The focus of the session, “Wise Crowd: Unpacking the opportunities and challenges of collectively measuring our impact” — featuring Toronto Foundation CEO, Rahul K. Bhardwaj, Ontario Trillium Foundation CEO, Andrea Cohen Barrack,  J.W. McConnell Family Foundation President & CEO, Stephen Huddart, and SiG@MaRS Director/MaRS Senior Fellow in Social Innovation, Allyson Hewitt (moderator) — was on how we demonstrate and show that we have done good: What do outcomes look like? How do we know? How do we communicate them? How do we know we have done good together?

Data was deservedly championed during this session as a form of information that plays an important role in helping to deepen our understanding of the nature of problems, as well as inspiring new frameworks to evaluate and measure our impact, but the funders spoke most eloquently about the need to shift our knowing process toward collaborative knowledge and evaluation — or as Allyson Hewitt later summarized: to focus on “exercising our collective muscle.”

Each funder celebrated how new data platforms — such as Vital Signs and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing — have powerfully reimagined how we can identify key issues facing Canadians and coordinate to address them. But to get to vibrant communities, what Rahul, Andrea and Stephen cumulatively knew was:

  • It’s important to have a narrative that speaks to collaborative outcomes and impact

  • Change happens when a new set of people are invited to participate and lead

  • Measurement may have to be innovative/creative to honour emergent process, community vision, new voices, and/or self-determined outcomes, i.e. Development Evaluation

  • It isn’t what gets measured that gets done, it is what gets funded that gets done

  • We cannot abandon important things just because they are hard to measure

  • Collaboration is key to achieve the impact needed

In the other words, the complex work of nurturing vibrant communities goes beyond sharing our knowledge to knowing each other, knowing how to collaborate, knowing our common values, knowing a common language (or discourse), knowing how to include people and cast the net farther, knowing how to live with vulnerability, knowing how to see and hold what is hard to measure, knowing that we won’t always get it right, and knowing that our collective impact will be greater than our individual efforts and that it is worth it to try, even when uncertainty clouds the way.

This is the power of community knowledge: our lived experience of learning, listening, trying, succeeding, failing and opening up emboldens us to work together. This is the story that the three funders wove together. This is what CKX was all about.