A Year of Exploration
December has been a month of reflection for many years – not because it’s close to year-end but because I moved to Canada as a preteen in December. I remember the start of my journey in this beautiful country. My earliest memories of Canada are snow, the holidays, and some of the more unique things we have put in place to care for one another as a society. Things like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), and a high-functioning public education system were foreign to me. My mother took English as a Second Language from an immigrant services organization that was supported by the local community foundation. The idea of a community foundation was foreign to me.
Today, community and social assets, such as the ones I learned about when I first arrived, are all around us – many invisible. You could say they are in the air we breathe. Yet, once upon a time, they were novel. They were innovations. Some folks somewhere, decided to craft hypotheses, do research, run experiments, test assumptions, take risks, and scale what worked. No asset is designed to operate at its optimal forever, and in a fast-changing world, we often forget how fragile our community and social assets can be. How might they be ready for and evolve in a way that attends to tomorrow’s needs? How might the spark of experimentation that led to the creation of these assets be rekindled, sustained and embedded within these organizations? What conditions are necessary to make continuous innovation worthwhile?
Questions such as these led us to kick-start an exploration to strengthen community and capability, and seed more capital for social impact organizations practicing research and development, or as we are calling it for now, “Social R&D.” The exploration is incubated by SiG, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Community Foundations of Canada, Open North, MaRS, Skills Society, Engineers Without Borders Canada, WEST Neighbourhood House, York University, and many others.
The Social R&D exploration caught the wind this year, taking a multi-sector approach. There were policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, designers, and many others contributing to the journey.
We focused on four primary areas of enhancement to social and grant-making organizations:
Demystifying R&D and demonstrating R&D in action
Through Appreciative Inquiry principles, we researched and shared 50 inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector to demystify the practice, surface resonating language, and identify ways for grant-makers and social mission organizations to better activate, empower and build R&D capacity, capability, community and capital. We packaged the practices in a first-of-its kind report in Canada – called ‘Getting to Moonshot’ with a Foreword by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta.
Catalyzing a community
We hosted gatherings, had one-on-one meetings and phone calls, and engaged over 100 people practicing R&D within their organizations. Through this exploration, more Social R&D practitioners found each other. Peer relationships began to deepen and grow, across geographies, sectors and disciplines. This community has its roots in a Social R&D Declaration of Action that was co-created and jointly signed in late-2015.
We designed and hosted two unique gatherings this year to cross-pollinate, advance, and increase the adoption of R&D practices. In August, we convened approximately 20 practitioners from across Canada to connect with one another and with funders to learn, share insights, exchange methods, and find ways to strengthen their organizational R&D craft. In October, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we led an inaugural study tour to Silicon Valley to learn about R&D practices, emerging technologies, and innovations in the world’s leading lean R&D ecosystem. We also contributed to the development of a new labs and experimentation learning module hosted by Innoweave. The module kicks-off in January.
Social R&D can lead to better policy development. We also believe that Canada can drive inclusive growth by strengthening R&D in the not-for-profit and charitable sector. However, this sector remains one of the least supported in terms of access to federal R&D infrastructure, advisory support, capacity and capital. We helped to convene a cross-sector policy gathering with Public Policy Forum in June; participated in policy meetings and consultations, including the pan-Canadian innovation policy consultation, and; submitted a policy brief to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development focused on enhancing federal R&D support for Canada’s social sector.
We have just begun this journey. Not everything worked as planned, there were failures along the way – there always will be (more on the failures in January). We are thrilled to advance each of the above four areas in 2017 and have you join this exploration as a partner, champion or practitioner.
The funny thing with mainstreaming experimentation is that we will not know what approaches will work best in advance. Only through experimentation, fast learning, and showing how it’s improving lives will they materialize.