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.

Changing the lens, the focus, everything

This post was originally published on the Strandberg Consulting Blog on February 6, 2015. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author — explore her website for more on CSR 4.0. 

For 25 years, I’ve developed CSR strategies. And now I see that CSR is becoming business as usual.

You’d think I’d be celebrating. But I’m not – because CSR has stalled.

This struck me in 2012 when I developed the Qualities of a Transformational Company for Canadian Business for Social Responsibility and started tracking corporate innovation in CSR (see 38 case studies of transformation in action at CBSR’s website). That’s when I saw where we needed to be.

As identified by KPMG, the World Economic Forum and others, CSR as practiced over the past decade has not realized the commercial or social benefits necessary to address the global mega-forces that will affect the ability of business and society to thrive in the medium to long-term.

Our pace is too slow. The change we are realizing is incremental when it needs to be transformational.

Leading businesses sense this limitation and are looking for a new type of CSR.  They want to go beyond what I call “CSR everydayism” to set their course on a path to social purpose.  They want to go beyond value protection to value creation – to set and pursue corporate goals that resonate with employees, customers and communities, and that realize growth opportunities for their firm.

To aid my clients and others on this journey, I have created a Social Purpose Continuum (1.0 Philanthropic — 2.0 Strategic — 3.0 Integrated — 4.0 Social Purpose).  I am using this tool in education and strategy sessions to help leaders redefine their sense of what is possible. For example, in strategy sessions, when faced with the options to pursue a philanthropic (1.0) or social purpose (4.0) approach, boards and executives prefer the more impactful, engaging and innovative social purpose vision (once in a strategy session I was even asked what it would take to become a 5.0 company!).

This tool helps companies move from one-off ad hoc (low impact) donations to the foodbank (for example) to building a social quest – such as inclusion – throughout their hiring, employee and community relations, procurement, investment, capital projects, products and operational practices.  Building their social purpose throughout their business model results in a more sustained and scaled impact – and is more likely to drive business benefits as well.

Social Purpose Continuum-TW

Feel free to use the tool – and provide your feedback. It will be updated with new insights as I test drive it with companies who aspire to transformational leadership.

As one of my clients said in reviewing the tool, “This changes the lens. This changes the focus. This changes everything.”

Let’s keep pushing for the change we need.

SiG Note: Download Coro’s Social Purpose Continuum here. For more on social purpose business, check out our Corporate Social Innovation section, as well as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing. 

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.

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

Curator’s note:
From 2015, I will be handing over the creation of the monthly Microtainers to Terrie of the MaRS Solutions Lab. Terrie is extremely plugged in to all things design x social innovation and a natural fit for this bloggette. It has been an absolute pleasure to curate these lists ~ thank you for your readership and recommendations!  — Warmly, Satsuko

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c/o Suzanne Antonelli

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 the desks of Terrie Chan (MaRS Solutions Lab) and Satsuko VanAntwerp (SiG) over the month of November 2014. In no particular order:

LABS

  1. SSIR blog post: “Four Social-Change Results That Innovation Labs Deliver,” by Amira Bliss (Rockefeller Foundation) and Nidhi Sahni (The Bridgespan Group), describes the four core unique deliverables that social innovation labs could provide.
  1. Webinar: “A New Approach to Tackle Systems Change: Social Innovation Labs,” by The Bridgespan Group, intends to build an understanding of what social innovation labs are and how they can be used to address complex social and environmental problems. The webinar shares research, expert insights, and perspectives on how these labs have helped funders and nonprofit organizations create environments conducive to innovation and experimentation.
    1. Blog post: “What Are Social (Innovation) Labs, and Why Should You Care?” by Zaid Hassan (co-founder of Reos Partners), does exactly as the title suggests. Zaid explains that social labs have three characteristics:
  • Social labs involve diverse stakeholders, including the people impacted. By contrast, a planning approach would bring together a small group of experts and develop a top-down, command-and-control solution.
  • They are experimental, relying on trial and error to create and manage a portfolio that guides investment decisions. A planning approach can put all its eggs in one basket.
  • They take a systems-based approach that addresses challenges at a root-cause level. A planning approach may address the symptoms, but not the cause, of a social problem.

Also, check out this video that explains social labs and Reos’ approach.

  1. Report: “Evaluating New Housing Services,” by Parsons DESIS Lab, Public Policy Lab, and The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, details the findings from their ambitious partnership to design better services for New Yorkers seeking affordable housing.
  1. Blog post: “4 Key Challenges Facing Local Government Innovators,” by Nigel Jacob of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, reflects on a six-month selection process for the City Accelerator’s first cohort on embedding innovation in local government. The selection process surfaced four key tensions that our finalists, and many other cities, are struggling with in the work to make innovation course-of-business. These are:
  • Balancing incremental improvement and “disruptive” or “transformative” approaches to innovation;
  • Putting city residents at the center in a bureaucratic environment;
  • Nurturing innovation in city departments; and,
  • Developing and structuring innovation partnerships.
  1. Learnings and reflections pushing the boundaries of the lab practice (blog post): “A new kind of prototyping,” by Sarah Schulman of InWithForward, reflects and shares the team’s journey (including what’s working and isn’t working) on their Burnaby project.

After 10-weeks of on-the-ground research, and 12-weeks of negotiations, the team is working with three service delivery partners to prototype new roles, human resourcing practices, and regulatory frameworks within the existing system. And, they share that they may have fallen short in the past due to the wrong (1) business model, (2) resource base, and (3) growth strategy. With prototyping set to go for the next 6 months, this is a live project you will want to follow.

        1. Online magazine: This season’s issue of “The Long and Short,” by Nesta, is dedicated to labs of all kinds. Articles to check out, include:
        • “Hooked on Labs,” by innovation guru Charles Leadbeater (also see this great reaction blog post, “Talking and Testing – the instinct of innovation,” by Martin Stewart-Weeks); and,
        • An awesome case study, “Techs Mex,” about Gabriella Gómez-Mont’s journey as founder and director of Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad (Laboratory for the City), an innovation lab founded by Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera and the first of its kind in Latin America.

GENERAL / RELATED

              1. HBR article: “Look to Government—Yes, Government—for New Social Innovations,” by Christian Bason (Danish Design Centre) and Philip Colligan (Nesta), urges people in search of innovation to look to governments. Coined as i-teams, these public innovation teams are set up by national and city governments to pioneer a new form of experimental government.
              1. Interesting blog post, “Communication can be a sore subject… or is that sensitive?” by Participle, on the importance of language and how it can be understood very differently by those who use the terms (public servants, service providers, social workers…) and those who use the service.

On a separate, but related note: Participle has titled their blog site Relational Welfare, which is an important concept for public service innovation. The concept is described as “a truly responsive welfare state that builds the capabilities of all: services that value and build on relationships.” For more about this way of thinking and how public servants can adopt it, see their blog post, “First steps to thinking Relationally?” which builds on co-production and asset-based thinking.

      1. Truly excellent podcast episode, “Solving it – solving our broken systems,” by TED Radio Hour, about complex social problems and how people are going about solving, working around, and addressing them.

Episode info: “From politics, to healthcare, to law and the justice system — some things just don’t seem to work as they should. In this hour, TED speakers share some big ideas on how to solve the seemingly impossible. Attorney Philip K. Howard argues the U.S. has become a legal minefield and we need to simplify our laws. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig says corruption is at the heart of American politics and issues a bipartisan call for change. Health advocate Rebecca Onie describes how our healthcare system can be restructured to not just treat — but prevent — illness. Lawyer Bryan Stevenson explains how America’s criminal justice system works against the poor and people of color, and how we can address it” (hat tip Pamela Rounis).

    1. Blog post: “Mental models of change – the co-creative mindset,” by John Baxter, reflects on complex systems and on how difficult it is to create top-down change.
    1. Link to sign up for updates on Al Etmanski’s new book, coming soon. For a sample of his disruptive, bridging, and receptive innovator theory that he expands on in his book, see the transcript from his talk at SEWF (I may be biased as Al is one of SiG’s directors, but I found this talk to be incredibly moving and powerful // not to miss!).
    1. Super interesting paper: “Nudging: A Very Short Guide” by Cass R. Sunstein (Behaviour Economics guru / co-author of “Nudge” among many other books).

From the abstract: “The essay offers a general introduction to the idea of nudging, along with a list of ten of the most important ‘nudges.’ It also provides a short discussion of whether to create some kind of separate ‘behavioral insights unit,’ capable of conducting its own research, or instead to rely on existing institutions.”

The ten most important nudges listed in the paper are:

    • Default rules/ Ex: automatic enrollment in programs, including education, health and savings.
    • Simplification/ The benefits of important programs (involving education, health, finance, poverty, and employment) are greatly reduced because of undue complexity.
    • Use of social norms/ emphasizing what most people do. Ex: “most people plan to vote” or “nine out of ten hotel guests reuse their towels.”
    • Increases in ease and convenience/ Ex: making low-cost options or healthy food more visible.
    • Disclosure/ Ex: the economic or environmental costs associated with energy use, or the full cost of certain credit cards — or large amounts of data, Ex: data.gov & Open Government Partnership.
    • Warnings, graphics or otherwise/ Ex: as for cigarettes.
    • Precommitment strategies/ by which people commit to a certain course of action.
    • Reminders/ Ex: by email or text message, as for overdue bills and coming obligations or appointments.
    • Eliciting implementation intentions/ Ex: “do you plan to vote?”
    • Informing people of the nature and consequences of their own past choices/ “smart disclosure” in the US and the “midata project” in the UK.
    1. Website: Gov2020, by Deloitte, explores the future of government in the year 2020 by looking at Drivers of change (39 factors that change the context in which government operates) and Trends (194 government shifts that result from the drivers of change). Gov2020 aims to be updated on a regular basis based on reader input and changing circumstances in the world. So far, the website has some pretty neat infographics, including this one on the circular economy (or cradle to cradle).
    1. Excellent workbook, “Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems” by Bob Williams and Sjon van ’t Hof, on systems concepts (inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries). The workbook aims to help readers:
    • Assess wicked situations;
    • Unpick the tangle of issues that need addressing;
    • Design suitable ways of tackling those issues and dealing with some tricky aspects of working in wicked situations; and,
    • Find more information about systems methods and managing interventions systemically (hat tip Cindy Banyai).
    1. The much anticipated book, “Design for Policy” by Christian Bason, provides a rich, detailed analysis of design as a tool for addressing public problems and capturing opportunities for achieving better and more efficient societal outcomes. The book suggests that design may offer a fundamental reinvention of the art and craft of policy making for the twenty-first century. From challenging current problem spaces to driving the creative quest for new solutions and shaping the physical and virtual artefacts of policy implementation, design holds significant, yet largely unexplored, potential.

The book includes contributions from lab heavy hitters: Scott Brown and Eduardo Staszowski (Parsons DESIS Lab), Banny Banerjee (Stanford d.school), Laura Bunt (formerly of Nesta), Jesper Christiansen and Kit Lykketoft (MindLab), Ezio Manzini (Politecnico di Milano & the DESIS Network), Andrea Siodmok (UK Policy Lab), Marco Steinberg (formerly Sitra & Helsinki Design Lab), Stéphane Vincent (La 27e Région) and many more! Microtainer readers can use discount code G14iPT35 to receive 35% off!

    1. Report: “How can public organisations better create, improve and adapt?“ by Geoff Mulgan, draws on past reports and makes linkages across Nesta’s recent practical and research work on how the public sector can become a more effective innovator. Geoff sets out Nesta’s approach to combining greater creativity with more attention to evidence and impact. The report aims to show:
  • Why innovation in the public sector matters more than ever at a time of austerity.
  • How innovation in the public sector is best managed at every stage, from the origins of an idea to large–scale impact.
  • How new tools – ranging from open data to crowdsourcing – can accelerate innovation in public organisations.
        1. And, another by Geoff Mulgan, an essay: “Policies to support social innovation: Where they are and where they may be heading” — on page 4 of the newsletter for the Bureau of Economic Policy Advisers (BEPA) — explores government responses to the need for social innovation and ways for governments to make more progress. Government responses include:
  • Funding for innovative projects in society — sometimes emphasising new ideas, and at other times emphasising formal experiments and ‘scaling.’
  • Policies that adapt more traditional technology support.
  • Addressing the conditions for innovation. Ex: new legal forms to make it easier to combine financial and social goals; new reliefs for social investment; new asset classes, such as social impact bonds.
  • Places, such as hubs, incubators, accelerators and zones. Ex: Bilbao pioneered a social innovation park.
  • Teams and structures — labs and innovation teams — often within or on the edge of government.
    1. Report: “Delivering Public Service For the Future: How Europe Can Lead Public-Sector Transformation” is a collection of essays on the opportunity and challenge of public service in the digital age. It includes one from Christian Bason on P.15, “Redesigning Public Institutions: Towards Democracy as Collaborative Problem Solving,” which illustrates the need for the public sector to shift towards co-production.

“Co-design between politicians, policymakers and citizens not only leads to more effective outcomes; it also redistributes the power dynamic by handing ordinary citizens a share of the influence, and a sense of empowerment, ownership and collective responsibility in governance drawn from their everyday experience.”

                                1. SSIR blog post: “The Tactics of Collaboration,” by Steve Wright, makes the case for participatory methods and collaboration, as well as for the “stages of moral development, where we learn to weigh personal benefit against collective benefit.” These stages are:
                                • Stage 1: Commitment/ the first stage of any collaborative effort is to create a context for membership.
                                • Stage 2: Partnership/ give and take defines the partnership stage—each party gives something of value and takes away something of value.
                                • Stage 3: Vulnerability/ vulnerability requires that we let go of control.
                                • Stage 4: Emergence/ doesn’t prescribe explicit outputs or milestones, but instead focuses on increasing the likelihood that an unforeseen solution will emerge.
What have we missed?
What lab-related links have you been following this past month?

About Satsuko VanAntwerp

Satsuko VanAntwerp berlin squareSatsuko is a manager at Social Innovation Generation’s national office. Satsuko supports social innovation lab practitioners and government innovators through writing, research, facilitation and community building.

 

About Terrie Chan

headshot-Terrie-Chan.ver2-250x250Terrie is the Associate for the MaRS Solutions Lab. Terrie is passionate about designing interventions that encourage creative and collaborative behaviour. Fascinated by how spatial and communications design can affect group problem-solving capacity, Terrie invests her creativity and energy to make the Lab’s space design, communication assets, and collaborative tools stand out.

Experiencing the shock of the possible in uncertain times…

SiG Note: This article is cross-posted from MaRS Discovery District, with permission from the authors. 

Indeed these are uncertain times that we live in… — Stephen Huddart

Speaking to an over-200-person audience at MaRS Discovery District on November 24, Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, challenged the growing contemporary narrative that our future is bleak and looming ahead with daunting uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.15.42 AM

Reminding us of a long history of Canadian precedents for testing systems-level innovation, and of the new big experiments underway today, Stephen invited us to experience the shock of the possible (a term coined by Eric Young).

It’s a shock catalyzed by the deepening of strategic philanthropy, as the philanthropic sector reorganizes itself to collaboratively address the complex issues of today with new and unusual partnerships.

In particular, foundations are becoming leading participants in systems change efforts, accessing new tools and—in support of their grantees—exploring cross-sector partnerships that scaffold up the possibility of new systems.

In his MaRS Global Leadership and Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk, Stephen exemplified the sector’s new direction with key initiatives from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and beyond, elucidating the radical shift in how we do good that is fostering new possible futures for Canada.

Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

New tools enabling systems change

A new series of mindsets and tools is reframing how foundations approach their entire cycle of work, from funding to programming to endowment management, facilitating an accelerating shift toward systems change aspirations.

Stephen referred to this collection of tools as the “Social Five.” These rapidly developing new tools are enhancing our capacity to nurture social change at scale and transform the systems that, if left alone, are otherwise on track to dramatically underperform for communities and Canada.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.17.36 AMThe Social Five consist of:

While individually significant, the full potential of the Social Five lies in their integration as a web of interconnected action, cumulating in a vibrant ecosystem of mutually supportive markets that collectively enhance our capability to collaborate toward systems change.

MaRS was celebrated in Stephen’s talk as a strong institutional example of seeding and nourishing the integration of these tools to enhance the capacity of others. Starting with MaRS’ and Social Innovation Generation’s 2010 collaboration on the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, which advanced the field of social finance in Canada, MaRS has become a hub of convergent social innovation, with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing fostering the social finance and B Corp markets in Canada; SiG@MaRS nurturing social entrepreneurship in Ontario and beyond; and the MaRS Solutions Lab leading the uptake of social lab processes by a broad range of cross-sectoral stakeholders in Canada.

In other words, MaRS works to support the integration of the Social Five—including social technologies, pathways to scale and, broadly, social innovation—into a thriving ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change.

Philanthropy’s big experiments to solve complex problems

15698113727_a24108f35b_z‘An ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change’ broadly describes one approach influencing the philanthropic sector’s reorganization.

The theory of change is that collaboration is critical to solving our most entrenched social challenges and fostering new systems (via key platforms such as collective impact, shared outcomes or shared value).

In this spirit, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s initiatives depend on and involve hundreds of partners working together to enhance the resilience of communities and our national capacity for social innovation. For example:

  1. In partnership with over 150 organizations, Innoweave delivers webinars, workshops and mentorship around the Social Five to hundreds of participants, with the goal of enhancing the social sector’s capacity to innovate and scale social impact.
  2. Cities for People is a “collaborative experiment of urban leaders and thoughtful citizens innovating to raise expectations about how cities could be.”
  3. RECODE is a network of hubs within Canada’s higher education institutions designed to inspire, incubate and support students in creating social enterprises and becoming social entrepreneurs.

Broadly, each initiative highlights a radical shift in philanthropic programming—where the critical focus is collaboratively seeding and nourishing the Canada we envision into a real possibility.

Possible Canadas

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Quote by Khalil Z. Shariff, CEO, Aga Khan Foundation Canada

As foundations take new directions in their philanthropic work, multiple possible Canadas are unfolding and defying the dark stories of an uncertain, fearful future.

But for Stephen, the brightest and most significant possible Canada is one where all of our collaborative energy and new tools are focused on reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

We are living in an age of reconciliation in this country, and it represents an opportunity that, if taken, can change the course of our history for the better. But, if not, can lead to the perpetuation of terrible circumstances  — Stephen Huddart

Recently, several transformative initiatives launched and are starting to both immediately enhance community well-being and work at a generational scale toward reconciliation. These initiatives include:

To continue on a path of new partnerships, healing and systems change, Stephen emphasized that the first step is empathy. Empathy for each other. Empathy for communities unlike our own. Empathy as a pathway to both speak out and listen to new voices.

When you introduce new energy into systems, the elements reorganize at a higher level of sophistication. A remarkable analogy for what we’re doing here. And I would say that if there is another word that would describe that, it’s not social innovation, or any of the tools, it’s empathy. Empathy is really a seven-letter word for love. That is what is powering the future that we want to build together — Stephen Huddart

More from the presentation:


Philanthropy for Uncertain Times – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District

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.

 

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

C/O Clare Shields

C/O Clare Shields

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 May 2014. In no particular order:

1. A useful framework by Nesta on “Generating convincing evidence of impact.” No matter how intuitive and sensible your idea, or how well it has been received, at some point you will be asked for evidence that it actually makes a positive difference. Generating convincing evidence of your actual or potential impact will strengthen your case for potential investors, but deciding on an impact evaluation approach can be difficult and daunting — there is simply no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Nesta’s recently developed Standards of Evidence might be a helpful place to start.

2. Failure Report (or Lessons Learned report) by McGill University’s Sustainability Department. If there’s one thing McGill doesn’t do, it’s fail. McGill is consistently ranked one of the best universities in the world and “excellence” is an important part of the McGill identity. It is so easy to make the mental shift from “we value excellence” to “we value success” to “we frown on failure.” Equating excellence with perfection, however, discourages risk-taking and stifles innovation and learning.

3. Inspiring pleasure reading: Behavioural Design Lab put together this excellent design x public policy book list (added “Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science” to my wish list!).

4. The US Government Accountability Office evaluates the Lab at OPM (Office of Personnel Management) and provides recommendations. Also, interesting info about the financials of running the OPM lab.

5. Rethinked: Neat blog and year long experiment (rethinked*annex) for us to perform on ourselves. The annex aims to improve our own abilities in design thinking, integrative thinking and positive psychology (good book recommendations too).

6. The Systemic Design Symposium at Oslo School of Architecture and Design (Oct 15-17) will explore emerging contexts for systems perspectives in design. The symposium aims to strengthen the links between these two fields.

7. Mixing abstract philosophical thinking with business school teachings: WSJ article talks about how more and more schools are teaching students that there is more than one right answer. Operating in uncertainty is a reality and there is much to learn from the arts, reading fiction, and meditation.

8. Stanford study finds walking improves creativity. Stanford researchers found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined the creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat and determined that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking. More grounds for the walking meeting!

9. Excellent article in the Financial Times – Big data: are we making a big mistake? Tim Harford explores the limits of big data in this engaging and interesting article: “Big data has arrived, but big insights have not. The challenge now is to solve new problems and gain new answers – without making the same old statistical mistakes on a grander scale than ever.” 

Labcraft! (Image C/O @hendrikjt)

10. Labcraft is a book — co-authored by many of the world’s leading labs — that dives into the latest thinking from their practice. Out in July!

11. Excellent blog post by Cognitive Edge’s Dave Snowden – 7 principles of intervening in complex systems distills Dave’s thinking into just that. Dave is also responsible for the useful Cynefin sense-making framework for operating in complexity (H/T Giulio Quaggiotto).

12. Labs for Systems Change Conference bits, tweet aggregators and feeds: Epilogger, Storify (also, this graphic harvest by livestream participant Scott MacAfee) and this Hackpad thread from the different discussions happening at various tables during the conference.

13. GovLab started an open global lab discussion around: “How Do We Together Become Smarter About How We Make Decisions and Solve Problems.”

14. Neat initiative in Boston: City Hall To Go. Featured in FastCoExist — “This Government On Wheels Brings City Services To The People” — City Hall To Go is a mobile office that travels around Boston, letting citizens interact with their government without having to trek to City Hall. For more Boston-based civic innovation, check out New Urban Mechanics, out of the Mayor of Boston’s office.

15. Great quick read: InWithForward blog post, “New Public Goods,” on reflections and questions following a lab gathering at Parsons New School two weeks ago. Sarah Schulman explores how her own practice relates to questions around “making ‘better’ cities, making ‘better’ public services, making more ‘creative’ public servants, reducing human suffering, and increasing human flourishing.”

16. Great capacity building opportunities for Torontonians via The Moment’s Innovation Academy. The Toronto-based innovation studio now offers trainings in Design Thinking (Fundamentals, Advanced, and Facilitation) and Innovation Culture.

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

Reframing the Local Food Dilemma

A Global Perspective

Getting a handle on complex issues – like food systems – sometimes means looking at the topic from a new perspective. For me, getting a new perspective meant getting out of Canada.

For a year, I lived and worked in northern Ghana, where I witnessed first hand the influence of ‘commodity dumping:’ when a country sells a commodity to a foreign market for much less than what it would sell within its domestic market. In many developing countries, this practice creates a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.

C/O Adam Jones

C/O Adam Jones

Northern Ghana has enormous capacity to produce rice locally, and it is a staple part of the local diet, yet rice farmers can buy foreign rice cheaper than they can produce their own crop. That is because many foreign sources of rice  are highly subsidized and when that cheap rice is sold in Ghana, smallholder farmers can’t compete – undermining the possibility of a competitive and thriving local economy.

The Ghanaian rice dilemma is labelled a food dumping issue. In Canada, the same issue has largely been framed as a local food issue. If we set the obvious differences of extreme poverty aside (which I do not want to under-represent), there are common themes between the equity of food production in Ghana and in Canada. Namely, our farmers are also subjected to a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.

Back to Canada

Let me tell a story that exemplifies this. When I returned home to Canada from Ghana, I went into a community grocery store in Edmonton and did what I had always done before living abroad: I grabbed a hand basket and started to hunt for the first item on my list.  Suddenly, I stopped and looked around – the grocery store had enough food variety to satisfy almost any whim I had.

Grocery stores have 60-100 thousand individual products with different tastes, prices, brands, coupons, sales, and marketing. Who makes all that food? Which companies craft those recipes and brand stories? Standing in the grocery store, there is no way of knowing the answers or understanding that part of our food system.

Yet the majority of food in grocery stores comes from fewer than a hundred companies. There is an illusion of abundant choice, but when we track our purchases back to who we are giving our money to, that choice diminishes.

In this way, we are very like the Ghanaian rice farmer who buys foreign rice because that rice is, temporarily, the best option at hand.

We lack the information, and thus the impetus, to invest in our own communities through our purchases. We are habituated to not knowing, and not looking to know, who makes our food, how it was made, where it was made, and who we are giving our money to. This situation is called ‘information asymmetry:’ the disparity between what consumers know about the lifecycle of their food products and the information there is to know.

What about the power of information and informed choice?

Can’t we develop a way for consumers to have access to the full context of their food?

The answer is that we can.

In a world where we are constantly connected to the internet of everything via new technologies, we, as consumers, can expect to see the barriers of information fall away, giving us the power to choose and purchase based on our own values. And as the information asymmetry diminishes, the power to build a more resilient food system emerges.

Localize-Badge_The-Story-of-Your-Food_185x185 (1)Localize Your Food

The public discourse on food issues has been growing for years, but, according to people who apply for food stamps in texas an opportunity has been missed by not including grocers in the dialogue or the exploration of solutions that could be mobilized within the retail grocery world.

Systemically, grocery stores have enormous power to effect change in how we eat and from whom we buy our food. As I have built Localize for the last two and a half years, one of the most gratifying and hopeful signs of change has been the willingness of grocers to be part of a solution. They are increasingly becoming the power brokers between consumers and food producers, creating opportunities for both of these players to align with a common vision. They are searching for the same solutions as their customers: economically viable ways to respond to and resolve issues that consumers care about.

At Localize, our major success has been aligning the values of grocers, consumers, and food businesses. Consumers want informed choice and transparency; producers need to be able to compete fairly and gain access to retail space; and grocers need to be able to market and communicate innovative approaches in a way that serves their brand and their operating budgets.

How have we done this? We work to create systems that enable the rapid flow of information between and to all of these stakeholders. Our concept isn’t all that complicated: We aggregate information about food – who produced it, where, the narrative behind where and how they sourced ingredients – and then connect with grocers to make that information available along with the price of a product: aka the point of sale.

0031-Localize_high-resA simple concept, but the power and impact of information is enormous: consumers are empowered to make informed decisions at the point of sale on how to align their dollars with their values and grocers are empowered to engage directly in the issues that their customers care about – a major step towards fairer food.

Future Fair Food

Fair food is about destroying the barriers to making decisions in alignment with our own values, by building systems to facilitate informed choice. Local producers and processors have enormous power to build transparency into their brands from the ground up and, someday, the largest food businesses might follow suit, providing high-quality information to consumers about how they have sourced and produced their food.

Localize’s audacious goal is to be at the forefront of designing and building a system that supports a world where consumers have access to the full story of their food. Building systems that sustain themselves and make sense to everyone is the engine of our growth. Most importantly, we envision a day in the not-so-distant future where we scoff at the idea that food could ever lack this basic information; where we ‘take for granted’ the opportunity to engage in choice via a symmetrical relationship of information between producer and consumer.

Down the Rabbit Hole…three weeks of social innovation

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

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!