A disruptive Conversation with Al Etmanski

“Impact – Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation”

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation and hosts a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Al Etmanski. Al is a serial social entrepreneur, and author of the book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation. In this podcast, Al shares many insights on his years of working to change the system of care for people with disabilities. Al proposed and led the campaign to establish the world’s only disability savings plan – the RDSP. He is an Ashoka Fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He has been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. In this podcast episode, he provides wonderful insights from his years of experience on how we disrupt sectors or systems.

Each week Keita interviews a disruptor: someone working to disrupt a sector or system. You can subscribe to his series in various ways and listen to more of his interviews here.

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Empathy – a key element for systems change

Several weeks ago, I joined SiG@MaRS as a summer intern. It’s been an enthralling ride, being ingrained in a radical environment that serves as a catalyst for both whole systems change and monumental social innovation.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Deepening Community for Collective Impact, presented by Paul Born– President of the Tamarack Institute and a senior Ashoka fellow.

At first, I wasn’t quite clear on how attempts at deepening community fit into the efficacious and potent world of systems change. It is abundantly clear that creating resilient, inclusive communities is a necessity in our global conversations…as fear is running rampart in our society, dictating our political and economic landscapes. However, I was still uncertain how these two topics fit together.

To me, community has a loose definition, that strikes a different image for everyone. Some define their community as a weekly hockey game with co-workers, while for others it is group of Ugandan farmers partnered together in microfinance loans, and some may derive their sense of community from gang associations. Paul does not believe that a common definition is effective for community, as the experience of engaging with communities is highly contextual, individualized and richly diverse. That said, there is a word that epitomizes any community…which is belonging.

“Community has the power to change everything. No amount of innovation, individual brilliance, or money can transform our broken society as effectively and sustainably as building community.”

– John Kania, Managing Director, FSG; founder of the Collective Impact Movement.

As the day progressed, we shared our stories and aspirations for what a strong community can be, and what it can bring. An appreciation was emerging as we were understanding the radical systematic shifts that could arise from not only creating, but deepening community.

community

Source: Pixabay

Creating community is about building inclusivity. It’s about hearing the voiceless, and ensuring that they are understood. The conversation can’t be monopolized by the strongest or most visible; everyone needs a chance to be heard. A community becomes truly resilient and innovative when it recognizes, understands and embraces the diversity and vulnerability of its population.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

– Jane Addams, Author; Nobel Peace Prize winner (1931)

Some may simplify deepening community to the golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In grand discussions of systems change and policy innovations, some may believe deepening community doesn’t belong in the same dialogue. If such is the case, perhaps we need to recognize a key outcome of deepening community is empathy. Can’t empathy be thought of as the fuel for the zealous efforts that change makers relentlessly exert when cultivating substantial policy changes and massive cross sector partnerships? Empathy gives us that deep understanding of the world beyond our peripherals, and enables and motivates us to build something better, together.

“The role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

– Arianna Huffington, Co-founder, the Huffington Post

Of course, empathy is not new to the toolkit of social change. Radical, transformative social change calls for collaborative action – which inherently requires empathy. Empathy as a tool has its own restrictions; it should not be our moral guide, but rather used to guide us towards respect and understanding. It enables us to engage one another with multiple truths, and move through our biases to combat complex issues together.

ashokaThe importance of empathy has been identified long ago and cultivating it has been a major endeavour – lead by the likes of Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon, and Ashoka.

Empathy fostered through deepening community can lead us to that inflection point, where faceless statistics become our neighbours, community members…and ultimately the very people who motivate and inspire us. Empathy is a choice we make to extend ourselves, and to understand the world at large.

“We need the skill of applied empathy – the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response – to succeed in teams, to solve problems to lead effectively, to drive change.”

– Ashoka

Learning to strengthen and create resilient communities is an integral part of our systems thinking discussion – especially with the prevalence of fear in our current world. Deepening communities enables us all to be advocates of change, and to understand our vulnerable populations. It shows us that we all have a role to play in community; sometimes as leaders, sometimes as followers, and always as someone who belongs.

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.

Don’t build a start-up, become a systems entrepreneur

560px-Morne_Seychellois_NP_footpath“Make sure you start the year on the right foot…”

…my grandmother always used to remind me. Given that I work at what is externally referred to as one of Canada’s main entrepreneurship centres (though I much prefer describing MaRS as an innovation hub), starting the year by writing a piece on why you should NOT build a startup probably wouldn’t meet her standard. But you have to put your job on the line at least once a year to make the ride worthwhile, right?

Whenever I am trying to solve a problem, whether it’s in my personal life, at work (first in management consulting and now in innovation) or in my relationships (where I get a lot of slack for treating problems like projects), I generally go through a three-stage process:

The why

How is success defined? How should it be defined? What is the North Star or goal post we’re going after?

The how

What are the options? What pathways can we imagine to get us there? Which one(s) should be chosen?

The what

Where do we start? What’s the first step? How do we track progress and learn?

There is also a big “who” question that runs through all three stages, but we will leave that for another time. For now, let’s consider the challenge proposed in the title of this article through these questions.

(Re)defining success: Why people build startups

When I consider the wide range of underlying motivations for why people decide to build startups, they generally fall into one of the following (non-comprehensive) categories:

  • Necessity: “This is my best chance at providing the basics of life for me and/or my family.”

If this is the case for you, you should absolutely take what you believe to be the best path forward. Nobody else understands your specific context better than you do. Just make sure that you understand the realities of the startup life and the risks associated with it, and also be sure to get access to the fast-growing range of public resources that can help support you along the way.

  • Achievement: “I am going to do this so that I can have more money/power/freedom/excitement/etc.”

While I have my own opinions about why these are the wrong settings on a personal compass, fortunately I can just defer to Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, who explains why you shouldn’t build a startup if these are your goals.

  • Impact: “I want to change or create a positive impact in the world!”

I’m lucky enough to meet a lot of people for whom impact is a primary motivation. Listening to them express their motivations makes my heart both melt and ache every time. It makes my heart melt because these are absolutely the kind of people we need much more of—those who seek meaning, are driven by purpose, and have a vision for the future. On the other hand, it makes my heart ache because I see so much of their amazing potential go to waste (or, at best, not go very far). This is due in part to their choosing the wrong “how,” even though they have the right “why” as their starting point.

Mission Big Change: Why building a startup isn’t the best path

Of those in that final category, almost everyone I speak to genuinely wants to create real, meaningful, positive, long-lasting, sustainable change—what we will call ‘big change.’

The next question is whether building a startup is the best way to get there (most people default to this option and only ask how to build the best startup.)

To answer that question, we can compare the most significant conditions necessary for big change with the most common pieces of advice given to the founders of new startups. As we can see in the chart below, for every one of the five key conditions, the common advice for startups is the exact opposite:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 4.43.19 PM

A whole article could be written analyzing each condition and piece of advice, their respective underlying logic and their stark contrast, but we will leave that to another time. For now, I will just share a quote from Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child fame (who has, with freakish accuracy, predicted the future over the last several decades), from his interview with Stewart Brand of The Long Now Foundation:

“Startup businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus’…they’re doing these startups and their venture funding tells them focus, focus and become cash-flow positive—which is a really stupid idea in a startup…keep the risk high, don’t become cash-flow positive.”

To be abundantly clear, no part of this is a criticism of entrepreneurial thinking or entrepreneurial spirit—both of which I love, with the former featuring prominently in our curriculum (led by our amazing faculty member Assaf Weisz) and the latter being a big part of our culture at Studio Y. Both are necessary ingredients to becoming a truly successful systems entrepreneur. The issue is that these really powerful, bold ideas and concepts have been corrupted in the way in which we’ve built our dominant startup ecosystems.

“But what about Elon Musk?” is an unavoidable counter to the arguments outlined above. Elon Musk, in this case, is exactly the exception that proves the rule. He thinks big, he gives away his intellectual property and he takes on big societal challenges that matter to our future. In fact, the fact that Elon Musk is celebrated for being such an outlier in how he goes about working on his ventures is what should concern us most.

Another great (and Toronto-based) example is Aled Edwards, director and CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium, who has championed the view that drug discovery advances would be made more rapidly within an open access research environment in which no patents are filed, and materials and ideas are exchanged without restriction on use.

C/O NASA

C/O NASA

So if not ‘launch a start-up!’ then what?

The road less traveled: The rise of systems entrepreneurs

To make the case for an alternative path, it is important to also consider how big change happens. Two distinguishing factors include adoption and success definition:

Let there be light.  

The fundamental transformations in our world come from large-scale adoption, not from the act of invention. For a number of reasons, including very innate human tendencies, we reward invention significantly more than we do adoption, despite adoption being an absolutely necessary condition for big change. In my research for this piece, I came across Dr. Marc Ventresca, an economic sociologist in strategy and innovation at Saïd Business School, who makes this point in a TEDx talk using a great example. He argues that it is large-scale power-grid systems (each unique to its particular context) that have changed the world, not simply the invention of electricity.

We need to grow.

This is the shared mantra of almost every organization across industries. Even in those organizations focused on growing impact (rather than profits), the problem is that the “we” is the organization; our dominant, if not exclusive, approach to success definition is at the organizational level. Just think about the mind-blowing amount of resources that go into setting up, growing and promoting individual organizations, or about how highly we regard leaders (again, across all sectors) who grow an organization’s budget, size, reach or, in the best case scenario, actual impact.

Yet, what we know to be unequivocally true is that our biggest issues are so complex and interdependent that no single organization or solution can alone achieve the level of fundamental systems change required. One of the biggest issues with the startup model is that it fundamentally defines success as organizational success (and how fast, big and far you can grow it) with zero accountability for system success.

So who, then, are systems entrepreneurs? The concept of systems entrepreneurs is not widely recognized, as can be seen by performing a Google search for  “systems entrepreneur” or “system entrepreneur,” which return 25,000 and 5,000 results respectively, almost all of which are related to information, communication and power systems.

Both Engineers Without Borders and our team at Studio Y have used the term “systems change leaders” as a frame over the past couple of years, in developing the people we work with.

In her paper, “How Actors Change Institutions: Towards a Theory of Institutional Entrepreneurship” (2009),  Julie Battilana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that while all systems entrepreneurs are change agents, to be considered a systems entrepreneur, two criteria must be met:

  • First, you must initiate divergent change (something that breaks with the status quo rather than simply improving or enhancing it).
  • Second, you must actively participate in the implementation of these changes, demonstrating an ability to marshal the resources required to implement change (speaking to the adoption point made earlier).

She and her colleagues then describe three sets of activities that systems entrepreneurs undertake:

  • Developing a vision — encompasses activities undertaken to make the case for change, including sharing the vision of the need for change with followers.
  • Mobilizing people — includes activities undertaken to gain others’ support for and acceptance of new routines.
  • Motivating others to achieve and sustain the vision — consists of activities undertaken to institutionalize change.

Note how none of these criteria and activities require building a startup. In fact, the dominant startup model limits one’s ability to truly focus on some of the most important elements of systems entrepreneurship.

More recently, Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline and a guru in systems thinking and organizational learning, co-authored a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled: The Dawn of Systems Leadership. In it, the authors offer the following advice for those interested in getting started on a journey of becoming a systems leader/entrepreneur.

  • Learn on the job.
  • Engage people across boundaries.
  • Let go of control.
  • Build your own toolkit.
  • Work with others on a similar journey.

A plea and a pledge

I may not have listened to that piece of advice from my grandmother about how to start a new year, but one thing I learned through her actions (rather than her words) was never to shy away from a healthy debate about the future.

So whatever your vision or passion for the future, consider this a plea to make the pledge to take the road less travelled by way of systems entrepreneurship because, as Robert Frost said, we will look back years from now and know “that has made all the difference.”

For more on systems change roles, thinking, mindsets and initiatives, explore Ecosystems for Systems Change.

Systems as people, not structures

SiG Note: This blog is the first response blog to the newly launched Building Ecosystems for Systems Change: How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change? A report and reflection, based on Session 22 of the Unusual Suspects Festival.

Further response blogs are welcome. Please email: kelsey@sigeneration.ca if you have written, or wish to write, a response or think-piece.

The best way to understand a system is to look at it from the point of view of people who want to subvert it” — Joseph Schumpeter

Provocative? Perhaps. But I think this is as good a place to start as any when we talk about building ecosystems for social change.  And of course we should ask: why do people try to subvert systems in the first place?

Building Ecosystems for Systems Change

Summary Graphic || How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change?

Systems represent complex structures developed to carry out specific activities, perform particular duties, and at their best solve problems.  The bigger and more intricate they are, the more complex they tend to be.  Swirls of interrelated and interdependent elements, components, entities, factors, members, and parts immediately spring to mind.  The report’s assessment of the purpose in building ecosystems for systems change is very clear: encouraging collaboration to create a space that supports innovation.  You would be hard pressed to find many who disagreed this was a positive purpose to serve.

My personal apprehension derives from the very obvious challenges of how you go about actually building such an ecosystem.  As we all know (whether we live by it or not is another matter), diversity in people, perspectives, expertise, ideas, skills, and experience makes fertile ground for innovation.  So when the report asserts that ‘without diversity, the ecosystem collapses,’ I would go further and argue that without diversity, the ecosystem never really gets going.  And the dangers of acting on the urgency to do something, anything runs the risk of the ‘deliberate intentionality’ creating systems that happen to and for people rather than with them, as the report rightly warns against.

This is precisely why the conversation around how we identify, engage, and work alongside unusual suspects, has to drastically change gear.  We almost have to get back to basics and ask ourselves questions such as: “How can I identify everyone who may be affected by a particular problem and get them involved in solving it?”

Granted, this is easier said than done, but now more than ever is the time to craft new, creative, and engaging ways to connect different actors at varying scales, who can influence a range of external conditions (the report cites cultural, fiscal, political, temporal, and physical).  Our combined and connected influences then create enabling environments for innovation to take root as a first step towards systems change.

RAGE IS CRITICAL. IT SURE IS.

The other point I wanted to very briefly touch upon was this fantastic notion of rage as a driver for social change.  History suggests this couldn’t be truer.  In 1964, when Fanny Lou Hamer said: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” unknowing of the context, one could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that this was merely one woman’s trite expression of frustration at the mundane struggles of life as we all know it.  My point is that rage often comes from an uncomfortable place that shapes our motives and objectives for affecting change.  Jon Hugget’s estimation that “rage is what gets us to do good things (it can also get us to do bad things), but if the rage isn’t there, we aren’t getting anywhere” may be true, but it does beg the question: how do you direct rage for good rather than retribution, particularly when feelings of rage may stem from being unequal players within a system?

This is probably too big and complex a question to combat here – and definitely warrants its own blog piece! But the success of collaborating to innovate systems change will be strongly dependent on making meaningful attempts to understand the complex and challenging make-up of our coalition of actors and unusual suspects, in order to co-create the right spaces and platforms for new thinking, cultures, and practice.  And that is not a bad place to start at all.

Building Ecosystems For Systems Change [CoverPage]

Download the report

BUILDING ECOSYSTEMS FOR SYSTEMS CHANGE

How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change?

This report is a reflection on the Unusual Suspects Festival 2014: Session 22, a session co-hosted by Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National and Oxfam.

It was prepared by Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National on behalf of the collaboration.

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 12.39.00 PM

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

A cup of sugar

In a September Globe and Mail article, Doug Saunders compiled “Five schools of thought about where the world may be headed next.” It is a thoughtful and robust analysis that includes scenarios as dire as wholesale climate panic to the beginnings of a new Cold War. The focus is on power — emerging or declining, shifting allegiances, the possibility that we soon will have no world super-power — and seeing ourselves “rudderless,” but as likely as not to continue muddling through the decades to come.

None of Saunders’ possible futures imagine a sustainable global ecosystem led by the young leaders being educated today. Nor are any scenarios informed by the young people we come into contact with at SiG, or the dozens of agencies and organizations in our orbit. It also strikes me that none of Saunders’ scenarios imagined the announcement that came hot on the heels of his speculations.

Root of Empathy ℅ kidscanfly.ca

Root of Empathy ℅ kidscanfly.ca

In the same month, the heirs to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments. “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a statement published in The Guardian“We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

This obviously made the news because the Rockefeller fortune was made in oil and yet this increasingly progressive foundation sees no future in its further exploitation. And then, there was this: just last week, multiple news agencies reported that the U.S. and Chinese presidents have laid out ambitious new targets to cut pollution in a deal that negotiators hope will inspire similarly dramatic commitments from other countries.

I like Doug Saunders’ writing very much, but I don’t think it need be naive to suggest a brighter future is at least worthy of consideration.

We see evidence that positive change is occurring and that younger generations are engaged with co-designing plausible alternatives.​ The world needn’t be so bleak and power-led — a tug-of-war between old enemies. 

Of the sectors engaging in positive futures, the philanthropic sector appears very interested in leading the way. Foundations are getting out in front of the curve. Unconstrained by policy or profit margins, they have been re-imagining their role both in our uncertain present and our possible future.

While Rockefeller may be jumping ahead south of the border, in Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is leading and creating the conditions for the exploration of social innovation acceleration and the amplification we need to get in front of our shared social and environmental challenges.

℅ RECODE (@letsrecode)

℅ RECODE (@letsrecode)

At the 2014 Social Finance Forum, McConnell’s Stephen Huddart launched RECODE, inspiring social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives led by young people in higher education institutions. This is one of dozens of initiatives being designed to build capacity for the next generation of leaders to see the possibilities, not the barriers in the systems around us.

Recently, I was very fortunate to hear Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak to a small circle of people about Re-imagining Philanthropy. He described the sea-change coming with the growth in young indigenous populations in Canada and how getting to change will necessarily mean integrating all parts of our national systems with aboriginal teachings and practice.

℅ The Daily Mail

℅ The Daily Mail

Nothing could be more exciting and more overdue. I see a convergence of challenges, certainly, but not hopelessness in our shared future. Atleo described philanthropy as being aboriginal in nature — like the give and the take of a neighbourly cup of sugar, the exchange is one of friendship.

On November 24th, Stephen Huddart will speak at MaRS about Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change. And if I may be so bold, I don’t think he would disagree with me: the times are uncertain, but we have more than just the best of bad choices to make. Informed by history, indigenous practice and contemporary systems approaches, together we can work towards a more resilient, sustainable future.

Register for Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change — November 24, 2014 at MaRS Discovery District, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM (EST)

Renewing Growth: Building Commons on Open Ground

The resource/manufacturing economy that has sustained Western society for the past two centuries is showing signs of rust. While the champions of weathered industries like print news, traditional manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction are applying fresh coats of paint and working double-time to undermine their opponents, global leaders are looking for a new way forward.

On October 27th/28th, the International Economic Forum of the Americas will be hosting its annual Toronto Global Forum, with a theme of Rethinking Growth. The theory is that if you put the world’s most successful, influential people in a room, they can collectively figure out big-picture solutions that can be fed down the pipe to everyone else. Or build new partnerships and land new deals, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

There are other big names working at the problem of rethinking economic growth and governance at the global level. Don Tapscott and the Martin Prosperity Institute are undertaking a landmark study of how global, web-based networks can be part of the solution to our collective structural woes.

To summarize – recognizing that the model of capitalism we’ve relied on for ages is maladapted to the challenges of our time, the world’s powerful people are either internalizing solution-development or outsourcing it to usual suspects.

Here’s what’s wrong with this model.

The basic decision-making processes these leaders are using differ none at all from the ones they’re theoretically recognizing as ill-adapted to the times.  They’re looking at policy as a product that gets crafted by specialists and then sold to the masses.  In this model, those who aren’t among the world-leader crowd are either seen as resource-providers, front-line implementers or consumers.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” said Einstein – but that’s exactly what the world’s power-brokers are trying to do.  It can’t work.  Fortunately, it’s not just the world’s power brokers looking for innovative solutions to our structural problems.

While we traditionally associate grassroots activism as being anti-system and anti-government, there is an emerging trend of community-focused social innovators who see themselves as part of the solution, not problem-fighters.  The rallying cry of engagement is shifting from “we can’t let them” to “how might we?”

The most prominent example of this shift in activism from opposition to collaboration is in the expanding world of Open Government.

Open Government is a global movement of public servants, private sector partners and engaged citizens committed to opening the process of government and empowering people to be part of the policy-making process.  In just three years, the global Open Government Partnership has grown from 8 participating countries to 65, with more than 2,000 initiatives on the go.

These initiatives are evolving from one-day hackathons and well-meaning but structurally exclusive panel discussions into more dynamic, engaging and sustained event series and projects.  My personal favourite is #OGT14 – Open Government on the Open Road, a civic-engagement-as-art project conceived and led by Richard Pietro, funded by Make Web Not War, but implemented by communities across the country.

Also noteworthy is Pakathon, a unique experiment in crowdsourcing.  Pakathon is a movement that seeks to reverse Pakistan’s brain-drain and engage its social entrepreneur community.  It does this by supporting community-led hackathons around the world that empower diverse groups of entrepreneurs, researchers and technologists to rethink growth in Pakistan from the grassroots up.

The sorts of solutions emerging from discussions like Pakathon are as much about realistic economic opportunity and community empowerment as they are about policy change.  It turns out that if you bring a cross-section of people and talent together in one space (in person or online) and challenge them to collectively figure out local problems, they will come up with some incredible ideas that can potentially be scaled up for global application.

Which leaves us with an interesting conundrum – the world’s power-brokers are convening in old-school forums to rethink growth on the people’s behalf (with an eye towards new partnerships) at the same time as global communities of engagement are catalyzing new growth from the grassroots up (and also looking for partnerships to fund implementation and support growth).

This is the challenge of our times: how might we bridge the gap between the world’s power-brokers rethinking top-down growth for tomorrow and grassroots social innovators planting seeds today?

Instead of reinventing the wheel, we need to be thinking outside the box.  Post-industrial growth won’t be about what can be extracted by one group and sold to another, but what can be built collaboratively on common ground.

REGISTER TODAY!

The Toronto Grassroots Innovation Forum:

Tuesday, October 28th at CSI Regent Park.

 

The Game Has Changed: The Empathy Keystone

For the past six weeks, our team and our SIX Summer School Vancouver 2014 partners – Social Innovation Exchange and BC Partners for Social Impact – have been sifting through, sorting and curating the wealth of content captured during the summit. The breadth and richness of the knowledge exchange at SIX is undoubtedly enough to write a book on the State of Social Innovation in 2014. Amidst this richness, however, is exquisite simplicity; for a field dedicated to working in complexity, two ‘simple’ (even primordial) practices surfaced again and again as essential for leveraging that complexity: collaboration and empathy.

Of course, engaging in collaboration or practicing empathy is neither simple nor easy; they have been the purview of faith and philosophical teachings for 1,000s of years and the centrepiece of kindergarten teachings, workshops, trainings, retreats, literature, and research in the past century. Moreover, they are interlinked actions: collaboration is a process enabled by empathy. Given this precondition of empathy for collaboration, the collective wisdom of the SIX Summer School pointed to empathy as a keystone of social innovation.

As this became increasingly clear in curating the learnings from SIX, further connections began to unfold, linking these emergent insights from an international network of social innovators more broadly to the global community of social change practice. Close on the heels of SIX, the SiG June IASI event — in partnership with Ashoka Canada and MaRS Discovery District — was In Conversation with Bill Drayton, the founder and CEO of Ashoka; the dialogue was moderated by MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht. A champion and pioneer of social entrepreneurship, Drayton’s current message and mission is that the movement of the 21st century must be to nurture, teach and train empathy — especially in children.

Between the SIX Summer School, In Conversation with Bill Drayton, the ongoing work of both the SIX and Ashoka networks, and many more initiatives, it is clear that a mix of cross-pollination, simultaneous discovery, and knowledge exchange is nourishing a common valuation of empathy as the bedrock of the 21st century. A powerful mindset shift is underway.

In Conversation with Bill Drayton

For Drayton, the shift will be towards empathy-based ethics, replacing the current ethics ‘rulebook’ with a constellation of principles rooted in empathy (such as compassion, hospitality, initiative, intuition, contribution, and empowerment). Why? Because the rigidity of our current rulebook — and the rules themselves — apply less and less in an exponentially changing world. We are dragging the values, mindsets, and legal/financial structures of a Fordist, pre-digital, pre-networked system into the global, interconnected, interdependent and omnidirectional relationships of the present. The game has changed. Empathy is essential to understanding this new world and our humanity in it.

“Every child must master empathy-based ethics because the rules are changing; the less they apply the less learning them has positive impact” — Bill Drayton 

Arguably, empathy and collaboration have always mattered to the integrity of a society, but the argument now is that empathy is the essential skill to thrive socially, ecologically and economically in the present day. In a world defined by exponential rates of change across all systems, Drayton’s position is that everyone can and must be a changemaker, because change is the new game; it is not a question of whether we should nurture an ‘everyone is a changemaker world,’ it is imperative that we do so. Enabling and empowering this new norm of empathic agency is what Drayton calls a ‘teams of teams’ model; a model of collaborative co-leadership by and within teams.

A teams of teams model was similarly championed at the SIX Summer School as participants discussed the power and possibility of Public and Social Innovation Labs (PSI Labs), community-led development, co-production, co-working spaces, nested innovation hubs, cross-sector networks, and ecosystem building. The common call is that the operational norms of our relationships — working, personal, institutional, civic, and community — are shifting, and must shift, toward the principles of collaboration; a practical and mindset shift that is not only an essential driver of positive systems change, but is a form of transformative systems change itself.

“If everyone is a changemaker, there’s no way a problem can outrun a solution” — Bill Drayton

There is a convergence happening as both social entrepreneurs — which Drayton describes as entrepreneurs with big pattern-change ideas for the good of all — and communities establish a new precedent: the wellbeing of all supports the sustainable wealth of all. At the same time, system pressures are driving commerce, institutions and innovation in the same direction.  “All the evidence shows companies committed to values internally, do better financially,” says Drayton. An ethical and ecological imperative for empathy is now also an economic imperative.

“This is the most thrilling moment in human history, we are leaving an unequal, unfair world” — Bill Drayton
Practicing Empathy: Active Listening Exercise

This simple sounding exercise can be deeply challenging.  It takes one step:

(1) When listening to another person, turn off your inner monologue; silence the inner voice in your head that is reflecting, judging, observing, cataloguing, analyzing and preparing what to say next. Quiet that voice. Listen completely to the other person.

Try this with one person. Then another. Then another. Do you recall his or her name? Are you hearing more, and remembering more, about what that person is saying? Feeling?

          

In conversation with Bill Drayton from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo

Further Resources:

Start empathy

Ashoka

Bill Drayton sees a world where ‘everyone is a changemaker’ — Christian Science Monitor

Leading With Authenticity — 2014 Skoll World Forum

Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (June 2014)

C/O Archivo Diario

C/O Archivo Diario

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of June 2014. In no particular order:

  1. Recognizing that the physical environments we work in affect our levels of creativity and imagination, Nesta is commissioning a study and paper on “Innovative Spaces” that will explore how the design of our work spaces affects innovation (Also on the topic of how to design spaces to encourage creativity: Make Space,” a book by Stanford’s D.School ).
  1. The “Systems Changerswebsite, a project led by The Point People, is full of excellent resources and thought pieces. Of particular interest is their piece on the Character Traits of System Changers, which include: 1. Not being afraid to think big – really big; 2. Comfortable with change and uncertainty – more than that, they embrace it wholeheartedly; 3. Do not have the personal/professional divide that has underpinned industrial models of working life.

  1. Blog post about a seminar — “Redesigning public services: cases, methods, challenges” — that Christian Bason (Director of MindLab in Denmark) conducted in Bilbao, Spain. The author shares his insights and personal takeaways.

  1. Lab to watch: London-based “Civic Systems Lab,” a part incubator/part accelerator working to alleviate & systemically prevent poverty and its many side effects. Led and run by a group of seasoned social innovators, the project launched a set of prototypes that are testing the conditions, tactics, tools and wider platforms needed for supporting civic change and seeding local civic economy (And, they are/were hiring! Applications closed mid-May).

  1. Short write-up, 1-hour video, and slides from the presentation, “New governance models for effective public service delivery in the 21st century,” by MindLab’s Christian Bason to the UNDP’s Knowledge, Innovation & Capacity Group. Christian discusses: the future of governance, emerging governance models, the nuts and bolts of design approaches, and important points on leadership for public managers.

  1. Blog post by Forum for Social Innovation Sweden, “France is modernizing the public sector with design and social innovation,” explores a new program in France — “Réacteur Public” — led by Paris-based social innovation lab, La 27e Région. Over four years (until the end of 2017), the program aims to scale-up methods, processes and approaches that have been developed over six years, in previous projects across the country, with a particular focus on: Education, Community, Future of Public Administration, Publications.

  1. New book Towards a Civic Innovation Lab,” by Delhi-based Centre for Knowledge Societies, is jam-packed with rich content, including: civic innovation case studies from around India; essays on public and social innovation labs by Christian Bason (MindLab) and Giulio Quaggiotto (UN Global Pulse Lab); transcripts of keynote addresses and panel discussions from a public sector design symposium; and other thought pieces on public sector innovation.

  1. Insider scoop on public service design: in the blog post, “Inspiration for Service Design,” Runa Sabroe of Mindlab lays out the process, 10 cases (with lessons learned and hiccups along the way), and top tips from the Danish cross-ministry innovation unit and how it is using service design to improve how citizens and business experience, and interact with, public services.

  1. Crowdsourced google map of the social lab landscape across the globe. The map is still being populated, so please contribute! Zaid Hassan of Reos Partners (and author of the Social Labs Revolution) invites us to add suggestions for any missing public innovation labs and social innovation labs in the comments section.

  1. Blog post by the Knight Foundation’s Carol Coletta about their Civic Studios series: May 12 -14, the Knight Foundation hosted 100 civic innovators at a Civic Innovation in Action Studio in Miami to explore ways to harness talent, advance opportunity, and promote robust engagement.

  1. Blog post by DesignGov’s Alex Roberts — “Innovation and Design Insights – Visit by Christian Bason” — reflects on and pulls out insights from a visit by Christian Bason with Australian public servants (this is a couple of years old, but just came across it and there’s some good stuff in there).

  1. DO NOT MISS: Nesta launched an informative new report — “i-teams” — with a round up of the innovation-teams embedded in (municipal, regional and national) governments around the world. The report includes an overview of 20 public innovation labs across 6 continents, key lessons learned, and how to create a lab in your own city, province, or country. The team will continue to add i-team case studies and news as the project continues.

  1. There is still a lot of buzz from The Labs for Systems Change Conference that took place at MaRS DD in Toronto this May, including: a blog post reflection on some of the big ideas discussed during the day by MaRS Solutions Lab’s Fariha Husain; a video discussion reflection by Delhi-based Centre for Knowledge Societies’ Namrata Mehta and Aditya Dev Sood; a tweet aggregation + reflections/notes by government innovator Meghan Hellstern; a two-part blog post (partie 1 et partie 2, ecrit en français) with video interviews of lab practitioners (videos in English) from La 27e Région’s Stéphane Vincent; and these two reflection memos from Re-public’s Hiroshi Tamura (one and two) in Japanese and some English (日本語と英語で書いています). Also, the live-stream videos are now viewable and downloadable here!

  1. The next international gathering for lab practitioners will take place in Singapore on Oct 7-10, 2014, with a focus on Asia-based labs. Social iCon 2014, hosted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is the Lien Centre’s flagship event, designed to feature thought-provoking developments and best practices in the social innovation space. The gathering will convene a pan-Asian group of social innovation practitioners and intermediaries that are engaging in Social Innovation Labs.

  1. Blog of an interview with Nesta’s Philip Colligan, head of the Nesta Innovation Lab, about why local government is well-placed to solve today’s challenges. Philip talks about the Creative Councils initiative, a program to support local authorities to be more innovative.

  1. Article about how the new Social Service Offices in Singapore utilize Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) tools and focus on enabling public servants and service providers to have more exposure to on-the-ground realities (and assets) within communities. For example, a team of officers from the Kreta Ayer Social Service Office walk through the neighbourhood several times a day, as a way for the officers to learn more about the local residents – and how they could better help them.

  1. New practice guide by Nesta’s Perrie Ballantyne and the Centre for Challenge Prizes about developing competitions or challenge prizes to stimulate idea generation. Also, Deloitte created this useful reportThe Craft of the Incentive Prize Design,” with lessons learned from the US public sector.

  1. And finally, a new report that we at SiG have been drooling all over — “Speaking to the Innovation Population” — by Nesta. The report explores the public’s views on new ideas and technologies and makes recommendations for how policymakers can better communicate with voters on these issues. It is excellent for anyone trying to communicate about innovation and particularly useful for people engaged in public sector innovation.

What have we missed? What lab-related links have you been following this past month?