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Social Innovation Nation

SiG Note: This article was originally published by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation in their June 2014 Newsletter.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

9c3906ff5c7a03c2fc161a81_280x216Recent events suggest that the field of social innovation is maturing to the point where it is possible to envisage adaptive, evolutionary shifts in our social, economic, and environmental systems.

Consider: May 26, MaRS Solutions Lab hosted Labs for Systems Change—the third and largest global gathering of practitioners leading this type of work. In her remarks to the gathering, Frances Westley— J.W. McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo—described how our understanding of psychology and group dynamics; design thinking; and complex adaptive systems theory—together with data analysis and computer modeling—affords us new ability to examine and improve institutional behaviour, and to generate testable solutions to wicked problems.

Meanwhile, May 26-30 was Social Innovation Week in Vancouver, produced by BC Partners for Social Impact and SiG. A public Ideas Jam and an academic conference were among several events surrounding the global Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Summer School, which Canada was hosting for the first time. SIX Vancouver 2014 was opened by BC’s Minister of Social Innovation—Canada’s first—who predicted that in five years every government will follow suit—crowdsourcing ideas, introducing hybrid corporate structures, employing new social finance measures, and supporting civic engagement in the search for solutions to our most pressing challenges.

With its recent announcement of a $1 billion endowment for social and cultural innovation, Alberta is also moving in this direction.

This is not just work for governments, corporations, philanthropic foundations, and community organizations. A recent blog by Joe Hsueh, of Foundation partner Second Muse, titled Why the Human Touch is Key to Unlocking Systems Change, quotes Peter Senge: “What is most systemic is most personal.” A reminder that change begins with ourselves—with shifts in our own habits, and our customary ways of seeing and dealing with others.

~ Stephen Huddart, President & CEO, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

Learn more about these social innovation events and policies:
Labs for Systems Change
Social Innovation Week Vancouver
Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Summer School Vancouver 2014 
Social Innovation Endowment (SIE) Alberta
Social Innovation Canada 2014

A Global Meeting of the Minds: The Road Ahead for PSI Labs


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SiG Note: This article was originally published by MaRS Solutions Lab on June 17, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.
 

“Who in this room thinks they’re a contrarian?”

IMG_7602-1024x454On May 26, at the Labs for Systems Change event at MaRS, Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, opened his keynote address by asking the audience this question. Many of the event’s attendees raised their hands, which fit the Labs for Systems Change mindset. Lab practitioners are required to look at complex societal problems from unconventional perspectives to produce creative and impactful solutions and, according to Geoff, “contrarians naturally disagree with things and [out of this] instinct, they are able to generate better ideas.”

Labs for Systems Change brought together many outside-the-box thinkers to discuss, debate and challenge the new field of labs. The event resulted in abundant discussion on topics including functional lab challenges, lab values, institutional structure and new ways to impact public policy.

“Contrarians naturally disagree with things and [out of this] instinct, they are able to generate better ideas.”

Global labs gathering

Labs for Systems Change is the public portion of this year’s Global Labs Gathering, a now annual gathering of public and social innovation lab (PSI labs) practitioners from around the world. The event was the third and largest gathering yet and was organized by the MaRS Solutions Lab, in partnership with Social Innovation Generation (the first meeting was held by MindLab in Denmark; the second by Kennisland in the Netherlands).

Labs for Systems Change brought together 50 international guests and 100 participants from across Canada. Designers, policy-makers, academics, consultants and lab practitioners all convened at MaRS to explore, expand and define the lab landscape. Distinguished members of the Canadian federal government and members of the Ontario Public Service were also among the attendees. The event was livestreamed in North America, Europe and Asia.

The notable lineup of guests included Frances Westley, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience; Jari Tuomala, Partner at The Bridgespan Group in New York City; Christian Bason, Director of Innovation at MindLab in Copenhagen; Beth Simone Noveck, Director of The Governance Lab at New York University; and Adam Kahane, Chairman of Reos Partners North America, among over 40 eminent international guests.

First Roundtable discussion on lab approaches

These guests participated as panelists and keynote speakers on three topics: the state of public and social innovation labs; design for public policy; and labs, governance and technology. Table discussions on lab approaches, the organization of the lab and the future of labs were also held throughout the day. These interrelated topics helped guide the event towards a productive conversation about the past, present and future of the labs field.

Current lab challenges

Although Geoff emphasized contrarianism as a quality that lab practitioners should have, it was not the only quality he spoke of. His more controversial point came from his understanding of Niccolò Machiavelli’s works on political strategy. Geoff suggested that guile—that is, “cunning in attaining a goal”—is another quality that lab practitioners should have. His remark garnered a good laugh, but it also piqued the interest of the attendees, as guile would certainly come in handy when embarking on the long journey toward public-sector intervention and policy change.

Geoff Mulgan reflection talk

Laughs aside, the need for new strategies for approaching systems change through policy interventions is very real; it is a need that was reflected by the large number of lab practitioners and public-sector innovators at the event. Labs for Systems Change created a platform for further developing the field of systems change labs by bringing together key players in the field to discuss the issues commonly faced by labs, as well as core concerns such as values, institutional structure and the future of this growing field. Moreover, many significant challenges were raised during the event, including prototyping, scaling, defining the metrics of success and change, creating a sustainable business model, and facilitating more networked ways of learning between labs to better share the key lessons learned along the way.

During the first panel, the institutional structure of labs (that is, whether labs should exist inside or outside of government) was a point of contention. Labs designing citizen-centred, bottom-up processes and using tools such as big data and social physics are able to gather data outside of government. However, when labs are looking for resources, governments seem to be the key stakeholders and funders. Increasing funding options through outside sources like venture capital might be a way forward for some labs. Nevertheless, other attendees suggested that being inside or outside of government shouldn’t matter, as long as labs were producing an impact.

Future lab challenges

Christian Bason talk

According to Christian Bason, Director of Innovation at MindLab, viewing policy as an impact instead of a strategy may “require having to change the entire policy.” This might be one of the unintended consequences, whether good or bad, of systems change. If governments are ready to be open about addressing their challenges, labs need to help them to “expand the range and types of tools that government can use and expand, or create new tools if [current] tools are ineffective,” he said. This ties into the idea of envisioning a new future for society through systems change lab experimentation and, as Christian explained, showing government how to “stop resisting change and [instead] embrace it.”

This need resonated among event attendees. Labs and practitioners should be more than neutral facilitators. They should have a concrete vision of their purpose and use it to guide their decisions. Whether that vision is like that of Gabriella Gómez-Mont, Director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, who views Mexico City’s citizens as being not “22 million mouths, [but] 22 million minds,” or whether it is like that of Adam Kahane, who believes in checking one’s biases at the door before getting involved in a project, having a concrete set of values or a manifesto can be beneficial to any organization or field. Having a vision provides a general foundation from which to grow.

If governments are ready to be open about addressing their challenges, labs need to help them to “expand the range and types of tools that government can use and expand, or create new tools if [current] tools are ineffective.”

Overall, Labs for Systems Change was an incredible learning experience. The event was a forum for lab practitioners, policy-makers, designers, academics and consultants to interact and share their experiences in a collaborative environment. With so much cross-pollination of lab processes and systems change ideas, the potential for positive outcomes is immense.

Moving forward, lab practitioners will need to address the key challenges facing labs, including defining metrics, scaling solutions and building sustainable business models. Moreover, labs as a field should create a repository of systems change interventions, in order to share information on what works and use these interventions as concrete examples of lab results. Both of these actions will do more to enhance the field than simply spreading lab processes, as more is not always better and even an unintentional decline in quality due to quantity could hinder rather than help this relatively new field.

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Belonging versus Change


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SiG Note: This article was originally published by In With Forward on April 15, 2014 as part of their Toronto Project: St. Chris Stories, in partnership with St. Christopher House Drop-in Centre. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Is too much community – too much belonging – a barrier to change?

That’s the question we’re posing. After spending time with 16 of the 200+ members of the Meeting Place Drop-in Centre. On the corner of Queen and Bathurst in downtown Toronto. Open from 11:30am to 4pm Monday to Sunday during the brutal winter months. And Monday to Friday during the milder summer months.

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Anna’s been coming to the corner for over 20 years. So too has Ozze. And Dwayne.

Telia is a relative newbie. She’s only been dropping by for 7 years. Ever since her methamphetamine addiction pushed her on the streets, and pushed her kids in care. Then came the heroin. And the crack. And the abusive boyfriend. And the death of her good friend, Greg. From an overdose. She found him. The stench was so bad. That’s when Telia decided she was going to stop putting all those street chemicals into her veins. Just the pure stuff – prescribed by her doctor – and used with supervision in the harm reduction clinic bathroom.

TammyforwebBut Telia walks by the Corner on her way to the Clinic. And it has a strong pull. Because Drop-in Centre members and staff have curated a strong community. That accepts and embraces you as you are.

“That’s the place where my friends are, where you’re not judged. But then again you are just surrounded by substance abuse and brought back in. If I stay at home, though, I’m totally bored. I start to think. And that’s no good either.”

Telia’s home is filled with remnants of her past life. Photos of her older daughter. Pictures before she was heavily using. A laundry basket full of markers and paints. Telia’s always had an artistic side. She used to be a school photographer. You know the ones who snapped cute kids with missing front teeth? Now her teeth are missing and not coming back. She’s got removable dentures.

Dentures are easy enough to remove. But removing yourself from the community that understands you isn’t easy. And once you leave the corner, and are out of sight, you’re also out of mind. Few of the 16 folks we spent time with could name anybody doing well. Even though many of the staff of the Drop-in Centre were former users, ostensibly doing well.

“I don’t know nobody doing well.” Mike

No change narrative

Indeed, after 12 days and more than a dozen Tim Horton’s double-doubles, we heard no shared ‘success’ narratives. No discourse about life after the Drop-in Centre. Instead, most conversations centered on survival. On where to find a bed, a meal, a cigarette, a decent spot for pan-handling.

A survival discourse

Staff were also caught in the same survival cycle. Filling out forms for emergency housing; calling around to find treatments for bedbugs; breaking-up fights; enforcing rules; calming down irate individuals; cleaning-up urine. Less than 10% of staff’s time was spent in longer or deeper conversations. What might be called therapeutic or developmental conversations. Where the focus was on prompting or supporting change.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-20_at_12.11.10_AM

Identity confusion

And some Drop-in Centre members were on the precipice of change. Including many of the members who unexpectedly passed away. Greg had been recently housed. Junior was signed-up for treatment and about to re-enter school. And yet the members preparing for something different seemed to be the most vulnerable. Caught between wanting a different identity and a social network that embraced their current identity. That implicitly advocated continuity.

“You could say I am addicted to the place. Just like I’m addicted to beer. I’m sorry, but to be crude, it gives me a big hard-on being here. It’s really hilarious. It’s a big soap opera. Like Coronation Street or Jerry Springer. It’s the same shit, just a different day. I don’t need to watch TV, I can just come here.” Dwayne

What ifs…

What if the Drop-in Centre (and wider service system) distributed support based on members’ readiness to change? So that somebody like Telia – very much in the preparation stages of change – was supported to build a new social network, received validation & recognition for each step forward (and back), and had real opportunities to explore other parts of her identity (her painting, her photography, her mothering).

Using the Transtheoretical Model of Change, we began to re-sort the members of the Drop-in Centre. Those in the pre-contemplation stage. Content with their current situation. Those in the contemplation stage. Ambivalent about change. Those in the preparation stage. Getting ready to do something different, to learn about treatment options for Xanax addiction and things like that. Those in the acting stage. Doing something different. And those in the maintenance stage.

Here’s what our segmentation looked like:

Screen_Shot_2014-04-20_at_12.11.27_AMWhen you re-segment people based on motivations, rather than lump them into a non-differentiated group based on risks such as drug use & homelessness, new ideas for interventions rise to the surface.

Like identifying members cycling in and out of contemplation – and in the moments where they are interested in change, pulling them out of the same-old, same-old context. So they feel change might be feasible and desirable. When members come into the Centre for the day, they might choose a different coloured coffee mug based on how they are feeling. Enabling staff to have a different conversation and set them up with experiences happening outside of the Drop-in Centre building. Perhaps working as a chef for a few hours, or fixing bicycles down the street, or meeting a former user for a coffee. Staff might also be matched by stage of change – enabling the collection and application of specific know-how and strategies.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-20_at_12.16.55_AMThe most poignant moment of our time in Toronto came on the last day. As we were sharing our reflections back with the members themselves. We drew a line on the floor with green tape. And asked members to sort themselves based on the 5 stages of change. Bruce, one of the long-term members of the Centre, stumbled over. And told us we were missing a category. Removing 2 Listerine bottles from his shirt, he said, “What about the people who want to change but just can’t? Who have tried, but it’s not possible?”

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It’s true. We were missing that category.

We tried a number of different categories. Re-grouping members according to the stories they told themselves (their narratives) and according to their social networks (bridging, bonding, estranged, etc.). Based on the theory of story editing, along with research on the dangers of too much bonding social capital. Each grouping offered a few new ideas for re-thinking supports and services. Give us a shout if you’re interested in the full range of segmentations and ideas.

Of course, all of the ideas are untested. No doubt, many won’t work. That’s why they need to be prototyped and revised so we can learn what works, for whom, in which contexts. We’re currently sharing stories with funders and champions – and together with St. Chris House – preparing for change.

You can prepare too…

Learn from or work with In With Forward by exploring our new Learning Packages or get in touch.

 

The Scaling Imperative


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Today, it is quite common to come across promising social innovations that tackle important sustainability concerns. The excitement around them floods our newsfeeds, seeps into household conversations, and inspires new generations of social entrepreneurs. What is less common, however, is the wider adaptation and scaling of successful sustainability innovations.

C/O Nicolas Raymond

C/O Nicolas Raymond

As Christian Seelos says, “scaling is what creates value for innovation.” Cultivating for a single tree is very different from cultivating a forest. When we talk about systems change, we are talking about growing a forest and, therefore, require concerted scaling efforts.

Truly, we cannot miss the forest for the trees.

For instance, the Equiterre Community Support Agriculture (CSA) network has 20 years of experience fostering ecological agriculture, yet to date only supports 100 organic family farms. Despite their proven potential and local success, Equiterre’s limited scale by no means challenges the prevalent food system.

Similar niche socio-ecological innovations in local food, affordable housing, alternative transport, energy consumption and production, social care, and more can be found in different communities across Canada, addressing important challenges facing our societies, but focused at the local level, where they are taken up by a comparatively small group of individuals (early adopters).

Just as the household blue recycling box has become widely adopted by municipal and provincial governments, and a normal part of our day-to-day life, how do we “blue box” other proven innovations for sustainability?

Scaling Innovations for Sustainability

Today, the challenge of climate change demands a great transition, which calls for social innovations that are intelligently networked and will diffuse quickly, at remarkable scales. Scaling innovations – ‘tipping the scales’ – will require new ways of seeing:

  1. It is not about innovating for the sake of innovation. It is about bringing value to promising innovations and the strategic cultivation of the accompanying conditions, structures and practices needed for an innovation to take root and transform day-to-day life.
  2. It is not merely about replication or bringing a niche model to scale. Instead, it is about catalyzing waves of change that can transform current unsustainable socio-economic systems and practices and drive the shift to new sustainable and resilient forms of provision.
  3. Effective scaling involves taking a pilot project’s success and adapting it elsewhere. It involves translating the essence of socio-ecological innovations to new geographic contexts, levels of society, and political arenas through a process of adaptation or reinvention. We must adjust the innovation to the local and, at the same time, ready the specific local conditions to receive the innovation. Adaptation is a twofold process.
  4. Scaling is about impact, not the organization. We need to change our focus from scaling the size of the innovating organization to instead scaling the impact of the innovation itself. Increasing organizational size is not the primary goal and is not necessarily critical for bringing sustainability innovations to scale.
  5. Spreading innovations demands rethinking ‘scale’ itself. Typically, we see scale as a nested hierarchy of geographic locations: local, regional, national, international. Spreading an innovation in today’s networked and globalized world, demands seeing ‘scale’ in new ways: ie different scales of systems or networks.

Geographer Doreen Massey’s “global sense of place” recasts what we mean by ‘the local,’ or community, beyond physical location to include our connections to international networks and flows of resources, information, collaborators, risks, and solidarities. Her thinking imagines exchanges of, for example, goods, knowledge, or finances, that are based on local-to-local connections of trust and common value, as examples of ‘local scale.’ Ethically motivated Fair Trade between local consumers and distant producers comes to mind as a type of ‘rescaling.’

6. There are different ways of scaling:

A. Scaling Out: Increases the impact of an innovation through diffusion by adaptation into new sectoral and geographical contexts. While the innovation may spread across geographic/sector boundaries, it typically remains at the “niche” level and is adopted by a small percentage of early adopters in each locale or sector.

Example: Community Land Trusts tackle affordable housing issues by separating the market price of the land from the price of the house. The CLT model takes land out of the real estate market and puts it in a community-partner-controlled trust. CLTs encourage partnerships with government and ensure that taxpayers do not have to increase housing subsidies simply to keep up with the real estate market. CLTs’ success in preserving housing affordability in the U.S. travelled from North America to the UK and beyond, a process captured by Lewis & Conaty, the authors of the Resilience Imperative.

The idea has circled back to Canada and is being explored in Prince George, Victoria, and Vancouver, where the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing brought together municipal staff, social partners, and VanCity Credit Union to pilot using a CLT for a large affordable housing project in Canada’s most expensive city.

B. Scaling Up: Escalates the impact of a particular innovation on the wider system in which it resides, in order to change that system and reach more people. The innovation scales beyond the niche level, overcoming overarching institutional regimes and pressures that limit the innovation’s spread and may have caused the sustainability problem in the first place. The innovation looks different at each new level of the system, in order to have impact on a different scale.

Example:  A local wind mill co-op that provides renewable electricity through community ownership is scaled up via a feed-in tariff that guarantees a price for energy produced that makes the investment sustainable. The FIT came about because of the lobbying work of organizations and intermediaries who built political coalitions in support of the feed-in tariff policy mechanism, which is designed to accelerate uptake of multiple-point energy production by municipalities, private firms, and individuals at provincial or national scales.

C.  Scaling Deep: Dedicates time and resources to improve the socialization of an innovation to achieve greater impact within a sector and, ultimately, transform systems. It is not a question of rolling out the innovation in different contexts, it is a question of evolving the innovation for uptake by different groups and system-levels.

This strategy recognizes that innovations and their new practices must be well-supported to achieve scale – there is an important, if mundane, everyday aspect to successful scaling [see Elizabeth Shove for more on Social Practice Theory].

Example: Climate Smart’s carbon accounting initiative for small and medium-sized businesses evolved into a user-friendly online software. This put control over feedback and analysis of improvements into the hands of the individual firms and allowed them to compare carbon and cost-saving performance against similar firms. Improvements in benchmarking, measuring accomplishment, and providing feedback on performance compared to others in their own sector, increased buy-in from managers and workers to alter workplace practices.

If we want to get serious about social innovation for systemic change, we must think about scale from the outset. Will an innovation build, or gain, momentum across and beyond its current scale to potentially topple unsustainable systems?

Catalytic social innovations demand a much more dynamic way of understanding and thinking about scale. By intelligently pursuing the scaling strategies that are most relevant to a particular innovation, we can begin to carve a pathway for transition and bring real value to our sustainability innovations.

SiG Note: One organization that learned through experience to focus on scaling innovation early was the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. SiG profiled the organization in our series on social innovation here.

Down the Rabbit Hole…three weeks of social innovation


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Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
 

Three weeks ago, I joined Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National as the Communications Intern. As the greenest bud on the tree of knowledge in the social innovation field, I began at the beginning: with the learning essential to working within a network committed to building a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

As a sociologist and community activist, I have long been interested in and actively pursuing systems-change, unaware that this work often flirted with the concepts and approaches used in social innovation. Immediately prior to SiG National, I was researching consumer responses to proliferating marketplace opportunities to shop ‘ethically.’ Would ‘ethical shopping’ practices ignite a wave of mainstream behaviour change? No, not yet. Not really.

In the past three weeks, it has become clear that my interest in transformative social change is an interest, a passion, for social innovation: systems-level change that has “durability, scale and transformative impact.” My current process of learning could not be more poignant, relevant, or powerful.

Social Innovation 101

Why systems-level change? Social innovations target the root causes of complex problems – problems that are simultaneously cultural, social, dynamic, evolving and seemingly intractable. This means taking on and challenging the whole system that created the problem in the first place, without knowing how the system will react. In this way, social innovation is a form of lived experimentation, where innovators act with deliberate intention in the face of complexity and uncertainty, pursuing positive impact with no guarantee of transformative change (1). 

Dense waters

Social innovation is framed by a vast literature of theory, thoughts, insights and complex thinking. Diving into that literature has been the cornerstone of my acculturation at SiG. As I dove, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the more theoretical precepts of social innovation resonate with Alice’s experiences in Wonderland: could Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be used to illustrate some of the more elusive preliminary concepts of social innovation? Why not.

Having so recently begun at the beginning myself, here is the (brief) ‘Alice in Wonderland’ guide to key social innovation concepts, dedicated to all the other new buds on the tree of knowledge:

EMERGENCE
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“….for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Complex systems – like life – are unpredictable.  How could Alice have predicted a talking, formally-dressed rabbit? Yet Alice has strong opportunistic instincts for potentially transformative change: she responds quickly to a novel opportunity and jumps in head first into a completely uncertain and previously impossible reality.

A key precept of social innovation then is that systems change depends on both innovative action and emergent opportunities: the ability to seize potentially ambiguous opportunity in the pursuit of transformational possibilities previously unimaginable. How many are brave enough to see and follow the White Rabbit into uncertainty when the moment is right?

RESILIENCE

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

As the conditions of Wonderland require her to become a different height, Alice mobilizes the resources around her to find ways to adapt her size, experimenting with cakes, bottles, fans and mushrooms. She keeps experimenting with different options to get her size to the best height for the given, evolving circumstances, despite being both afraid and tired of the process.

Alice’s capacity to negotiate such dramatic change demonstrates resilience: our capacity as individuals and communities to creatively adapt, co-create, and respond effectively in the face of constantly changing conditions. Resilience serves as both a framework and desired outcome of social innovation: it as a way of identifying opportunities for transformation (i.e. build capacity) and of strengthening communities’ response to externally-imposed transformation (i.e. climate change).

THOMAS THEOREM

“And the moral of that is: Be what you would seem to be…”

In a debate with a Duchess, Alice points out that mustard doesn’t seem to be a vegetable, but it is a vegetable. The Duchess responds that you should really only ever be what you seem to be. Her comments speak to a poignant concept known as the Thomas Theorem: there are real consequences to how we think about, understand, and perceive the world.

It sounds simple, but it is truly a powerful concept. If a problem seems intractable to us, it will be; if social divisions seem set in stone, they will be. Social innovation involves thinking about and understanding the world in new ways that frame and ignite new actions; in other words, social innovation “holds thought and action in tension” because “whether we think about things matters;” thought inspires action and vice versa (2).

DISRUPTION
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

For Alice, her engagement with the broader social context of Wonderland has transformed her, ‘disrupting’ who she is so much that she cannot answer the simple question: “Who…are…you?”

Social innovation disrupts the system into which it is introduced, transforming both the system and the innovator themselves. Alice’s experience of transformation is analogous to scales of disruption: personal and system-wide. Both Alice and the society she interacts with have their routines, beliefs, and power systems disrupted by their interaction. While Alice is not ‘innovating’ (she’s dreaming), her experience of disruption points to an important lesson: as successful social innovations cross-scale, they ignite cascading changes that are disruptive at the individual, community, and systems level. While the original intention of social innovation is positive impact, that will not neutralize pushback from the system.

There may always be a Queen of Hearts and her army (system stasis) pushing back against any potential revolt of her kingdom; we must always try to consider all the players in the system when we’re thinking about social innovation.

————————————-
Note: All the italicized quotes are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll.

1 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada.

2 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada, pp.22.

 

[Read more…]

Sustainability-driven Collaboration, Part II: Value Creation and Vision as a Driving Force


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In the first post of this three-part series, Sustainability-driven Collaboration, I discussed the imperative for profound systems change to address sustainability challenges, which provoked the question: how we can provide a platform for sustainability-driven collaboration in which participants are able to embrace complexity and reframe ‘wicked problems’ as ‘wicked opportunities’?

TNSblog3At the level of individual organizations, there is a long history of studying the distinction between efforts leading to incremental change versus transformational change, in particular sustainability-driven change. Research and experience in this area have led to methodologies like the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, by which organizations can credibly aim for sustainability-driven transformational change.

Although multi-stakeholder collaboration differs from such methodologies in many ways and presents a host of unique challenges, it seems likely that at least some lessons from sustainability-driven organization-level change can apply, or be adapted to apply to the context of multi-stakeholder collaborative change efforts. Approaches that have been successful at the organization level may similarly improve the capacity of collaborative efforts to achieve transformational systems change towards sustainability.

1. Focus on value creation – For organization-level change initiatives to achieve transformational results, it is crucial that sustainability be seen as a driver of business value as opposed to a cost centre. Nowhere is the case for sustainability as a driver of business value better made than in the work of Bob Willard, whose “Seven Business Case Benefits of a Triple Bottom Line” continue to be used to build boardroom buy-in on sustainability initiatives around the world. At an organizational level, the seven benefits are as follows: Easier hiring of top talent, higher retention of top talent, higher productivity from employees, reduced expenses in manufacturing, reduced expenses at commercial sites, increased revenue, and reduced risk and easier financing.

While a focus on value creation is no less important in a collaborative context, the added complexity that stems from the need to align the various interests and value-drivers of diverse stakeholders can make finding mutual benefit a much more complicated task than at the organization level. A multi-stakeholder collaborative effort must be capable of achieving compelling value creation at both the collective and organization/individual levels. This is the key insight and opportunity in Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s popular Shared Value concept. Collective value acts as a centripetal force, lending cohesion to collaborative efforts, while value to the organization/individual dictates whether each party is willing to stay involved in a messy process with the sort of “emergent outcomes” typical of collaborative efforts.

Change Lab and Transformative Scenario Planning pioneer Adam Kahane, speaking at the 2013 Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability conference, summed up the importance of value creation, saying that: “The key to people choosing to stay at the table is understanding that they cannot get where they want to go otherwise.”

2. Use vision as the driving force – In order to move beyond incremental changes that still feel like costs to the kinds of breakthroughs where real value lies, organizations must be clear about what sustainability requires and therefore get ambitious about goal-setting. If one thing has been learned through work at the organization level, it is that vision-driven change efforts consistently lead to more profoundly transformational results, which tend to accrue the most value.

MIT Sloan Management Review

MIT Sloan Management Review

Peter Senge uses the metaphor of an elastic band being stretched between two hands – one representing current reality and the other representing the desired future. This metaphor describes the innovation and motivation that can be generated through creative tension. This tension is most powerful and most useful to drive innovation and change when:

a)     The vision remains ambitious;
b)     The accounting of current reality is rigorous and honest; and
c)     The gap between the two can be clearly and simply expressed as key transitions (i.e. we need to move from a system with X characteristics to a system with Y characteristics).

The power of vision as a driver of change in organizations seeking breakthrough outcomes has been demonstrated again and again by businesses such as Interface, Nike, and The Co-operators.

The need for a shared sense of success will be no less important for participants engaged in collaborative efforts. That said, it may not be advisable to rush towards a detailed shared vision in a multi-stakeholder context. In collaborations involving diverse stakeholder groups with widely different interests, the pressure to get agreement on a unifying vision risks generating something very high-level and abstract.  As the director of the Sustainable Food Lab, Hal Hamilton, said at a Breakthrough Capitalism event in Toronto in November 2013: “We don’t believe in a common vision. Oxfam and Walmart will never share the same vision.” Getting to a shared vision that is detailed enough to actually provide direction risks consuming a great deal of precious time and threatens participation levels, particularly among groups where there is a strong orientation to immediate action.

Although a single, detailed vision may not be possible or helpful when dealing with systems as complex as those targeted by collaborative systems change initiatives, it is difficult to be strategic in the determination of key priorities, or to maintain energy and momentum, without the tension provided by some shared understanding of success. However, success need not only be defined as a vision statement; it can also be articulated using principles.

The Natural Step

The Natural Step

Fortunately, scientists and thought leaders have done some helpful heavy lifting for us in this regard. Natural and social science can tell us the system conditions for sustainability, beyond which ecological systems will be eroded and social well-being will deteriorate below minimum levels, leading to divisiveness, instability, or breakdown. These system conditions address the root causes of our unsustainable path and use them to describe a principle-based articulation of a future sustainable state.

With reference to the elastic band metaphor, these science-based system conditions can serve as tacks on either end of the band, helping maintain the creative tension. They help ensure that the visions we create remain descriptive of a sustainable future state; in our analysis of the current system, they help us make sure we are rigorous so we don’t “lie to ourselves” about the current situation.

While they do not describe a specific sustainable future, the system conditions provide the boundary conditions within which society and systems can operate indefinitely and within which any sustainable future must exist. As such, system conditions serve as design constraints and can act as a compass for ongoing, adaptive change efforts. This is an approach referred to by The Natural Step as backcasting from principles.  It has been used by hundreds of leading organizations in the sustainable business and sustainable community fields.

In the context of multi-stakeholder collaborations, backcasting from system conditions for sustainability can help address the dilemma presented by the need for compelling, ambitious goals versus the difficulty of developing meaningful shared visions amongst diverse stakeholders. For example, we can collectively agree that we need to design a transportation system that doesn’t contribute to climate change and then each actor at the table can find ways to describe their organization’s role within that broader context – the organization’s vision will be specific, while success for the broader collaborative effort will be expressed on a principle level, but with no less ambition.

In the third and final entry of this three-part series, I will discuss three more lessons learned from organization-level change efforts that can be adapted for multi-stakeholder collaboration: simplicity without reduction, authentic leadership, and the importance of process design.

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. As an Endorsing Partner of Accelerate, members and friends of the SiG community are encouraged to use the Exclusive Partner Discount Code SIG10 to automatically save 10% when registering. Learn more and register today!

 

Sustainability-driven Collaboration: A platform for turning wicked problems into wicked opportunities


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This series of posts, entitled Sustainability-driven Collaboration builds on lessons learned over years of sustainability-driven transformational change efforts at the organization level and explores the value they can bring to multi-stakeholder collaboration.

STL Circle1In their March 2013 post to the Harvard Business Review Blog, Paul Ellingstad and Charmian Love pointedly asked the question, Is Collaboration the new Greenwashing? This attention-grabbing title resonates strongly because of the ubiquitous use of the term collaboration in the past few years, particularly with the rise of concepts such as “Shared Value” in the business community and “Collective Impact” in the not-for-profit world. Those of us who have worked in the sustainability and social change space for some time are well aware of how easily means can be confused for ends, how often talk has been confused for action, and the difficulty of achieving transformational rather than incremental improvements.

But as Ellingstad and Love’s article points out, “to solve the big challenges in the world today we need to aim for nothing less than breakthrough levels of innovation.” At Brainstorm Green 2013, Nike’s Hanna Jones echoed this sentiment in an oft-retweeted statement: “If we don’t achieve system change, we might as well go home.” It is clear that none of us alone, working isolated in our own organizations on our own problems, can affect this change.

The need for collaboration to enable systems change is so evident and compelling that collaboration itself has become a buzzword and risks being confused for an end unto itself. How do we avoid this?

This is the real question, which Ellingstad and Love began to address in their article. How can collaboration not be the new greenwashing? How can collaborative efforts achieve breakthrough results?

Systems Change & Collaboration

The answer requires us to understand how complex systems work and how they change. Here we turn to Donella Meadows’ classic article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System and her book Thinking in Systems, which describe 12 leverage points as the most effective places to intervene in systems. Volans’ Breakthrough Business Leaders, Market Revolutions Report, released in March 2013, takes the original list of twelve and groups them into six, but generally follows Meadows’ model.

The list of system leverage points, or places to intervene in a system are as follows, in order of ascending influence:

  1. Changing the numbers: subsidies, taxes and standards
  2. Changing buffers, stocks, flows, delays and feedback loops
  3. Changing information flows
  4. Changing the rules
  5. Changing the system’s genetic code (or changing the purpose/goal of the system)
  6. Changing paradigms

Changes to higher order items on the list – rules that govern a system, the purpose that drives the system, and the paradigms making up its foundation – offer the most far-reaching and fundamental transformational change. Still, the most common methods of attempting to influence complex systems – changing numbers via subsidies, taxes and standards – while noble pursuits, unfortunately target the least effective points of leverage to affect change.

This isn’t surprising. How does one organization change the rules of a system or the system’s goals? Imagine, for example, trying to shift the rules of the transportation system of a large metropolitan area. It’s simply not something within reach of a single organization. Getting at such higher yield leverage points requires collaboration among organizations.

In their book The Necessary Revolution: How Organizations are Collaborating to Change the World, authors Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley recount a number of examples of successful collaboration resulting in real change. One of the most powerful examples is the story of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, where a collaborative effort among a range of stakeholders resulted in a de facto industry standard that has managed to influence building construction by causing change to the rules of that system.

The Necessary Revolution describes organizations that were able to find common ground, putting the issue in the centre of their efforts, and creating real and lasting change in a wide range of ways. However, as Senge and his co-authors point out, “successful collaboration is easier to espouse than achieve, and many of these efforts have struggled to realize their founders’ goals.” As anyone who has been involved in such a venture knows, collaboration is often unsuccessful, and won’t necessarily lead to systems change. Some of the most common obstacles to effective collaboration involve challenges related to trust, competing interests, power dynamics, ego, time, resources, leadership and collaborative capacity.

circlesitting

In recent years we’ve witnessed the rise of numerous approaches to multi-stakeholder collaboration, including some that target these key obstacles directly. Social innovation labs, including Change Labs, Design Labs, Solutions Labs and other such processes, are an important example. How can more collaborative initiatives be designed to change systems in profound, “breakthrough” ways that alter the paradigms, goals, and rules in a system and that endure over time, instead of just becoming new venues for incrementalism or distractions from deep innovation? How do we provide a platform for sustainability-driven collaboration in which participants are able to embrace complexity, and reframe ‘wicked problems’ as ‘wicked opportunities’?

In the second entry of this three-part series I will explore how lessons learned (by The Natural Step and others) from sustainability-driven change at the level of organizations may apply to the context of multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts. These lessons have underpinned the development of The Natural Step’s Sustainability Transition Lab approach.

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. As an Endorsing Partner of Accelerate, members and friends of the SiG community are encouraged to use the Exclusive Partner Discount Code SIG10 to automatically save 10% when registering. Learn more and register today!

 

The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Realizing the Ultimate Impact of Community-based Innovations


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Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

Early in my career I worked in international development in Central America supporting the pioneering community development efforts of organizations like a country’s first ever women’s movement, campesino co-operatives, and adult education NGOs.  As strong as any individual organization’s efforts were, they were effectively undone by the worsening human rights backdrop of authoritarian governments and military dictatorships. Within 4 years I found my focus had shifted to working in Canada to support peace efforts through what later became called “citizen track diplomacy.” These were informal efforts by non-state actors like NGOs who convened off-the-radar meetings that connected belligerents and international stakeholders in facilitated processes that helped build relationships, new thinking and thereby overcome barriers to more formal peace efforts. In other words, events forced me to appropriate systems thinking to first seek to understand and then try to create ways to influence the larger forces and dynamics destructively dominating the region.

Have you ever put a lot of hard work into achieving your big idea or successfully creating a reform only to realize there are many related issues that need to be addressed? And realize your achievement may stand alone, an orphan in danger of erosion if you don’t address them? Welcome to the world of systems.

c/o Artinaid

c/o Artinaid

 

“Systems loom large in our lives”, says Charlie Leadbeater, a leading writer on social innovation. Our planet of 7 billion inhabitants depends daily on a myriad of interlocking systems for clothing, food, and shelter as well as meeting health care and other needs.

 

 

Our primary man-made systems were born – or matured – in the immediate post-World War II era when the planet was far less populated and its needs less complex. Unfortunately, many of those systems are now reaching – or have passed – their “best by” date.

Which systems do you experience as wearing thin: Social welfare? Education? Food? Health? Democratic engagement? Global finance? Environmental protection? Management of the global commons?

Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, and Charlie Leadbeater have co-published a pair of excellent articles in Systems Innovation, including Mulgan’s Joined–Up innovation: What is Systemic Innovation and How Can it be Done Effectively? and Leadbeater’s The Systems Innovator: Why Successful Innovation Goes Beyond Products. They explain what systems are, why they are so important, and how they should be a focus for change by people involved in building and scaling social innovations.

Systemic innovation is defined as “an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.” As Leadbeater predicts, “systems innovation will become the most important focus for companies and governments, cities and entire societies. In the last decade there has been a growing focus on innovation in products and services as a source of competitive advantage. In the next decades the focus will shift towards the innovation of new kinds of systems.”

As I wrote in Shifting From Scale to Reach, individual social innovators are making enormous strides in building valuable innovations that generate meaningful social change. However, in order for those individual initiatives to scale up to achieve deep, broad and durable impact, we need to shift gears to collaborate with others operating in the related system. In most cases individual social innovators begin their changemaker careers focused on specific symptoms of systemic malaise. As they engage their system, they deepen their knowledge of it and often shift, as Pathways to Education’s David Hughes would say, from an-organizationally-centred strategy of ameliorating symptoms to an issue-centred strategy of altering systems. For example, many social innovators in the environmental movement started their careers focused on local issues like pollution or local conservation. Their experience with the underlining forces that produce negative local impacts provided them with the insights to re-think their goals and strategies in a more systemic fashion. This description reminds me of the work of Nicole Rycroft, who cut her teeth as a passionate campaigner for the protection of Clayquot Sound.  Today she is an Ashoka Fellow who leads Canopy, working with the forest industry’s biggest customers to protect the world’s forest, species and climate by shifting markets.

Nicole Rycroft Ashoka Fellow

Federal Conservative Minister John Baird & Canopy’s Nicole Rycroft

In recent decades the world has seen the rise of numerous valuable fellowships supporting individual social entrepreneurs like Ashoka, Schwab Foundation Fellows, and Echoing Green. Their field building work, and that of their fellows, has helped to crystalize today’s extraordinarily exciting new era of entrepreneurship, experimentalism and innovation. Today however, we are preparing to enter the phase of connecting up the approach of individual innovations with the emerging systems innovation approach.

Core Elements of Systems Thinking

SiG’s Knowledge Hub, which has a section on Systems Thinking, lays out the following Principles in its resource Introduction to Systems Thinking:

  • Systems are a way of thinking about the world
  • Systems behave as a whole
  • Systems understanding is observer or perspective dependent
  • A systems approach requires multiple perspectives
  • Where WE draw systems boundaries affects the system
  • We need to be aware of what is going on inside the system but also outside
  • Systems are ‘nested’ – we should always think about the system we’re looking at as being made up of smaller systems and being part of larger systems

Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three stages to employ in order to look at a problem using the lens of systems thinking:

1.    Frame the Situation – Begin by generating a systems description or map of what is involved and the important relationships that define the system
2.    Describe the Dynamics – Develop an understanding and description of the dynamics of the situation
3.    Synthesize the Understanding –Capture what was learned from the first two phases of analysis into narratives about how the situation might or could unfold in the future

How does system thinking inform the strategy of social innovation?  Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three ways:

  • It’s critical to consider the purpose, function, goal, objective for examining a system
  • You cannot talk about a system without considering who is looking at it and why
  • Understanding how elements within a system are connected allows you to identify places for intervention and transformation

Social Innovation Europe (SIE) has written a useful introduction to the topic, entitled Systemic Innovation, which outlines some of the key elements for taking a systems approach:

  • Openings appear following a crisis or period of upheaval
  • New ideas, concepts and paradigms
  • New laws and/or regulations across a broad area
  • Coalitions for change of many actors and/or across more than one sector or scale
  • Changed market metrics or measurement tools
  • Changed power relationships and new types of power structures
  • Widespread diffusion of technology and technology development
  • New skills or roles across many actors
  • New institutions
  • Widespread changes in behaviour, structures and/or processes

SIE points out that complex challenges “cut across different policy domains, sectors and political and administrative jurisdictions. Coherent responses to these kinds of challenges cannot be driven by single institutions but will be reliant on numerous people, organisations, institutions and stakeholders working in a coordinated way. And as these social challenges become more pressing, a systemic approach becomes necessary. Individual social innovations may deliver certain benefits in a piecemeal way. But if we really want to address a major social challenge, we will need to look at problems in a holistic way.”

They highlight that systems change requires a whole series of complementary innovations – often introduced simultaneously – that will rely on all sectors: business, government, community as well as unorganized households. “In many cases,” they argue, “systemic innovation results from a confluence of forces: social movements, the creation of new markets, public policy (such as new rights or new legal, fiscal and regulatory frameworks) and behavioural change. While some systemic innovations are more challenging to effect than others (because of their scale, scope or complexity), systemic innovation in general is difficult to orchestrate or support (through the creation of enabling conditions, for example) and certainly more challenging than innovation at the level of a new project or a new venture.”

A timely opportunity to learn more about systems thinking in action is at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary this October 2 – 4. Hear from systems thinkers like Charmian Love of Volans (also speaking for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series next week), Ros Tennyson of Partnership Brokers, and Vickie Cammack of Tyze Networks. Each of these individuals is currently collaborating with many partners to shift systems in new directions.

Part II — The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change


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