About Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships, SiG National

A disruptive Conversation with Al Etmanski

“Impact – Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation”

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

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

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



A disruptive conversation with Cheryl Rose

Keita Demming works in the space of Applied Innovation but when I met him he was working with our SiG@Waterloo colleagues at WISIR. Much of our time together was spent evaluating the SiG Knowledge Hub. Since then, Keita has gone on to complete a PhD in Workplace Learning and Social Change and to kickstart a popular podcast series called: Disruptive Conversations – among other things. In his podcast he unpacks how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think.

The following podcast features SiG Director, Cheryl Rose. Cheryl is a Senior Fellow with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has spent many years working to support social change agents through education and training that helps them to have more impact.

In this episode, Cheryl shares a wealth of knowledge in how we can think about changing systems and sectors. Having been a mentor and coach to many disruptors, she reminds us to hold a systems lens or a complexity lens when thinking about generating change. For her, generating change is about accepting the honest complexity of our world. What are the implications of confronting honest complexity? With this question, she reminds us that change takes a long time and takes significant investments of resources. In the conversation, she stresses that resources are not just related to money, but are also connected to the social capital we invest in the problems we seek to solve.

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












Making Indigenous histories and futures visible

The YVR Art Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1993 by the Vancouver Airport Authority to foster the development and enhancement of BC First Nations art and artists. The First Nations of British Columbia have artistic traditions that have been part of their fabric of life for millennia. While these traditions are not unique to BC, the Vancouver Airport is one of the only public authorities that has decided to dedicate space and championship to the celebration of local Indigenous art and craftsmanship. 

jade canoe

Bill Reid -The Jade Canoe at Vancouver International Airport 

Last week, some 4,000km away at Toronto’s YWCA, dedicating and creating intentional space to celebrate Indigenous culture was the heart of a public discussion convened by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam about Truth and Reconciliation in an urban context.

The panelists included Susan Blight, an artist and activist; Sam Kloetstra, Youth Coordinator, Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle; Sarah Midanik, Executive Director, Native Women’s Resource Centre; and Andre Morriseau, Director, Awards and Stakeholder Relations, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB). 

One of the most cited critiques of Toronto’s city planning during the discussion was the lack of intentional place-making for Indigenous peoples. Many suggestions were offered: renaming streets and waters, a multi-functional space/community centre to re/learn culture, a centre for Indigenous Social Innovation, a dedicated district – akin to Chinatown, Little India etc, and an Office of Indigenous Affairs within City Hall.

Sam Kloetstra recently moved to Toronto and Kristyn accidentally introduced him as having just moved to Canada. As Sam pointed out, what’s interesting about the mistake is that, “Not every Indigenous person identifies as being Canadian, but every Indigenous person I’ve met identifies as being Torontonian.” This knowledge is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto. So, how to step up its game?

North American Indigenous Games

North American Indigenous Games

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) will come to Toronto in 2017 – the same year the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, which Prince Harry announced last year with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wynne in attendance. In contrast, few people have heard about the North American Indigenous Games, which have been held since 1990. These kinds of events can help raise the profile of Indigenous leadership. Similarly, Andre Morriseau spoke of a missed opportunity to build on the success of the Toronto-based 2015 Pan Am Games by creating a living asset of Indigenous experience, athleticism and culture in Toronto. Amplifying the profile of the NAIG’s is a very achievable way to learn from that missed opportunity.

Still, there are some inspiring rogue and entrepreneurial examples of place-making and place-keeping out there that others can build on. Susan Blight and Hayden King took to the streets a few years back, making stickers with Ojibway translations of Toronto street names that they plastered over the English signs, beginning with Queen Street, or Ogimaa Mikana. What began as a political action became a full scale billboard project.

First Story app

First Story app

There’s also the work of First Story. Since 1995,  First Story Toronto, (formerly The Toronto Native Community History Project), within the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been engaged in researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto with the goal of building awareness of and pride in the long Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. They have created a handy mobile phone app (via itunes and google) and you can take self-guided tours of the city, learning about Indigenous heritage and communities in Toronto.

Naturally, in addition to place-making efforts, citizens themselves need a culture shift. Education systems can play a role in this and many are making strides to introduce new curricula. But on the streets and in our every day, how do we foster better relationships with each other? I think it was Andre that remarked, “If you don’t have a dog, do you talk to anyone in the park?”

While making things visible may be the easier first step, actually allowing oneself to be uncomfortable in not knowing how to demonstrate your willingness, to work on Reconciliation is the harder part. Chad Lubelsky from McConnell’s RECODE project wrote recently:

A key challenge therefore is to not rush into solutions, but to live with the tension that resetting relationships will require everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to change, and to change together. Change happens in concert and takes time; perhaps more time than we’d like…These tensions will create discomfort, and increasing our discomfort might be an indicator that we are making progress. It’s hard work that will only get harder.

There is so much more for us to talk about and action together – in urban environments and in rural communities. There is much that people don’t know. For the participants in last week’s discussion, all seemed to agree that a physical and official commitment by the City of Toronto to reflect Indigenous life is important. Yet all would also agree that we can’t stop there. As a Globe and Mail article published just yesterday outlines: “There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life.”

The City can move forward with many of the suggestions raised during the discussion, but while they work through official channels, we must all continue our own journey along this difficult but hopeful path.

On wattle trees and maple leaves

In two days from now, I fly out to Vancouver to begin a whirlwind tour with two of the brightest Australian social innovation leaders. I dare say, two of the brightest social innovation leaders, period.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) was created 7 years ago and since that time, has led the practice of social innovation in Australia, developing on-the-ground solutions such as Family-by- Family and Weavers, building capability in the practice, skills and conditions for social innovation, and initiating tough debates about how we might shift outcomes in relation to some of our most challenging social issues.

SiG is both happy and fortunate to welcome its CEO, Carolyn Curtis and Ingrid Burkett, Director of Learning and Systems Innovation to Canada and I am even more fortunate to host their tour through Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

This tour is a learning opportunity for both countries. While wattle trees and maple leaves share few attributes, the two nation’s social and political systems share many. We have vast social and environmental resources and talented people but are stuck on those thorny problems where solutions seem to elude us – inter-generational poverty, systemic violence, poor mental health, unfair distribution of wealth.

TACSI has made some significant in-roads over their first few years, particularly in the area of family preservation and restoration. This is important. As Canadian media has reported, (and here and here) and service agencies know well, far too many children are being removed from their families due to overwhelming challenges and being placed in unsustainable situations that often present more problems than they resolve. Not to mention that loss of resiliency that comes with the break-up of families, no matter what their size or constitution.

tacsi family restoration project

Throughout their time in Canada, TACSI will meet with elected officials, public servants, non-profit leaders, social lab practitioners and professional service designers to hear about Canadian efforts to address similar social problems. In Vancouver, we’ll be meeting with the team developing the Healthy City Strategy, City Studio students and the teams who developed Kudoz and Well-Ahead.

In Victoria we’ll meet with public servants who are instrumental in the delivery of new service approaches. Similar meetings with public service innovation teams will take place in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto. In Edmonton we’ll also meet with the people involved in SDX – as they describe themselves – “a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.”

In Winnipeg, Carolyn and Ingrid will meet with the United Way Winnipeg and stakeholders involved in their poverty reduction strategy. The brilliant folks at the Winnipeg Boldness Project will also host us and a learning community to discuss Indigenous Innovation and whole systems change.

Arriving in Ottawa next, we shall split up and meet with government innovation teams, meet the awesome reverse mentors at Hub Ottawa and finish the day with the National Association of Friendship Centres, The Circle on Indigenous Philanthropy, Community Foundations of Canada and Media Style.

Next on the tour will be Montreal where we will hear the exciting plans of Amplify Montreal – a collaboration between Montreal organizations and citizens focused on making Montreal more innovative, inclusive and resilient. The TACSI folks also get a chance to meet some outstanding social entrepreneurs and philanthropic leaders at the McConnell Foundation, before heading to Toronto.

At their last stop, Carolyn and Ingrid will be part of a terrific panel discussion at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), featuring Canadian innovators from the MaRS Solutions Lab as well as CSI itself. Together, we will talk about how change happens and how we can create a culture and the political, business and social will to focus innovation on positive social and environmental outcomes.

It’s a full 10 days, no?!

I’ll be recording insights throughout the journey via video with Carolyn and Ingrid. What are they learning? What are they hearing? What were some of the big a-ha’s from the various people they met? Let me know if you have any questions!

It’s going to be a hugely significant journey for both Australia and Canada and we will share all we can with you along the way. Watch this space! And our Twitter and Facebook pages for updates throughout the tour.

What does Canada look like in 2067?

I first heard this question asked by the leadership team at MaRS’ Studio Y in Toronto in early 2015. It was the echo of a similar question posed in a 2015 Possible Canadas workshop convened by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Reos Partners. It’s the kind of question that passionate young people get excited about answering.

Throughout my time with Social Innovation Generation (SiG), we have looked for ways to support the next generation of social change leaders. In hearing the question,“What does 2067 look like?”, and sensing the growing energy to spend time answering it, a cohort of youth leaders, youth-led organizations and SiG began exploring the development of a vision and how we could get there together.

Enter the 4Rs Youth Movement, Apathy is Boring, Studio Y and some graduates from the University of Waterloo Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, with supportive energy from the McConnell Foundation and ImagiNation150. Together, these groups represented a wide range of experience, knowhow and action, from systems thinking to movement building to civic action to reconciliation and deep partnership.


Photo: Renaud Philippe

Several of the early participants familiar with systems thinking wanted to put their research into action, so there was a lot of talk about committing to transformational change. Some of the Diploma graduates wanted to build on the work they had just completed for their program, while others were interested in keeping the focus very broad to allow for an emergent pathway forward.

With diverse directions on the table, instead of agreeing on a particular idea to collaborate on, we focused instead on agreeing on a common vision for 2067.

Waterloo graduate and collaborator, Derek Alton, called it finding our north star. It meant finding common language and agreement that could guide us for the next 50 years. No small task. We noodled around with language that would keep us all going when life inevitably throws curve balls. What could bring us back to centre when we travel down divergent roads or down rabbit holes?

This is where we landed:

In 2067, the diversity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who share these lands are in an authentic and inclusive relationship with each other and with the natural environment.

Each word was carefully chosen. We wanted to acknowledge and include everyone. We wanted relationships between people to be authentic – meaningful, respectful, honest – and for equal respect to be shown to the natural environment.

Photo: Cheryl Rose

Photo: Cheryl Rose

Importantly, the words also built off those spoken by Jess Bolduc, who heads up the 4Rs Youth Movement and was part of our cohort from inception. She placed the language of our north star in an Indigenous context with particular attention to our relationship to the land.

Once we had agreed on the north star, we turned our attention to designing a pathway to get there. The subsequent months were pretty murky to say the least. There were many ideas and also several challenges to participation. Despite wanting to engage, some of the recent Diploma graduates felt the pinch to focus on other work. For some of the organizations involved, our joint project felt like a distraction from more pressing initiatives. While wanting to remain agnostic about and open to what the work would become, it was difficult for me to see the early energy dissipate.

And then there was a shift.

2015 was a big year in Canada for several reasons. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released, including 94 Calls to Action. The first Indigenous Innovation Summit was held in Winnipeg. The federal election brought in a new government who immediately announced an inquiry into the deaths of murdered and missing Indigenous women and a commitment to answer the TRC calls.

In parallel, and in a much quieter setting, I was fortunate to be present for a convening organized by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Canada Council and The Circle on Indigenous Philanthropy. It was a retreat for artists who had received funding for {Re}conciliation: a groundbreaking initiative to promote artistic collaborations that look to the past & future for new dialogues between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Following the retreat, and in recognition of the growing momentum of the 4Rs Youth Movement and the national energy around reconciliation, it suddenly made much more sense for our small team to focus our vision on Reconciliation. The 4Rs’ mission is to change the country by changing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. Over the past year, 4Rs has developed a cross-cultural dialogue framework to articulate what they have learned about what is needed in a shared experience for young people to engage in dialogue that furthers respect, reciprocity, reconciliation, and relevance. This has been a crucial year in building shared capacity as young people to lead dialogue in ways that honour its complexity, and respect the vision of 4Rs to support the change that Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth want to see.


Photo: www.4rsyouth.ca

By flowing with this energy, we thought we might uncover how we could make a unique and helpful contribution and nurture the rising tide. So we placed the 4Rs approach at the centre of our work. Rather than duplicate efforts, we are now working to amplify their outreach and produce a shared story of 18 months of dialogue and visioning with and by youth across the country. The journey story will be shared at a national gathering in November 2017.

It is an ambitious project and it has already provided many lessons for me.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has been an early champion of our exploration and I’ve shared this blog with their community as well. The way forward will be strengthened by partnerships with more and different organizations and networks. I suspect the rest of the way to 2067 will be equally dependent on collaboration. Let’s see what we find out as we journey on.

Seeking! Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Social Innovation

The University of Waterloo’s Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) is offering a postdoctoral fellowship to start August 1, 2016 for one year. WISIR was founded as part of a national initiative funded by The J.W McConnell Family Foundation and is designed to build capacity for broad system change in Canada.

  • One year fulltime postdoctoral fellowship
  • $50,000 annual salary, office and administrative support provided
  • Supervision by Frances Westley, McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and Dan McCarthy, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)

Currently, four specific areas of interest and commitment concerning WISIR are:

  1. The challenges of indigenous innovation and engagement,
  2. Capacity building in the social profit sector– particularly the development of the skills and mindsets required for addressing increasingly complex social-ecological problems,
  3. The integration of art and science in stimulating innovative and breakthrough approaches to linked social-ecological systems
  4. General theory of transformation and social innovation in linked social-ecological systems, with particular emphasis on historical cases.

The postdoctoral fellow will work primarily with Dr. Frances Westley, McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and Dan McCarthy, Director of WISIR but will also have the opportunity to engage with a team of staff, faculty members  and graduate students attached to the SiG@Waterloo initiative.

The successful candidate can collaborate with researchers across campus in such interdisciplinary centres as the Waterloo Institute on Complexity and Innovation and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.  Qualified candidates must have a PhD (completed within the last five years), be familiar with complexity theory, social innovation theory and social-ecological transformation processes including such approaches as the Multi-Level Transition theories, and resilience theory approaches to adaptation and transformation. A strong research background and sound methodological training is a must. An ideal candidate will be interested in joining problem solving teams in writing proposals for research funding, leading teams researching social innovation, and collaborating on research articles for publication.

Review of applications will begin on July 11, 2016 and will continue until the position is filled. The position will start August 1, 2016

Please send curriculum vitae, one research paper and, two letters of reference with the subject line “Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Social Innovation” to: Nina Ripley, Office Coordinator at nmripley@uwaterloo.ca

Learning from our past; innovating for a stronger future

Understanding how and where change has happened in our past, can provide an innovator with important learning for designing and introducing a new idea today. It also honours and celebrates those ideas that make our lands and our systems more positively resilient.

The History of Social Change is a multimedia project of SEE Change Magazine profiling social change movements in Canadian history – and their key players – that have shaped who we are as Canadians today e.g. Suffrage, Marriage Equality, Cooperatives, Environment, Social Economy, Labour etc. With a focus on the 20th century, each profile will offer an in-depth look at the movement’s origins, its activists, challenges, victories and its status today.

As publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, Elisa Birnbaum explains: “Social change is not an easy process. It takes effort, stubbornness and the ability to persevere in spite of all obstacles and opposition. Once achieved, social change and any newfound rights and freedoms should never be taken for granted, yet they often are. When that happens, we not only lose our sense of who we are, we lose sight of how we got here, which makes looking forward that much more challenging.”

And so Elisa set about interviewing and developing profiles with people who have changed Canada for the better. There’s dozens of inspiring stories on their site and SiG is happy to amplify their messages. It’s the kind of project we love. Elisa also took the time to chat with SiG National Executive Director, Tim Draimin about where his passion for social change began and what social innovation is all about.

Spend some time trekking through these stories and let Elisa know what you think. I’m sure she would agree that it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a significant contribution to honouring our history. Importantly The History of Social Change project provides additional information and written history to give the interviews due context.

Leaving the last words to the producer herself: “It is my hope that this project will offer a valuable examination of the diversity of issues, people and social causes that define our country, remind us of the values we hold dear, celebrate the successes and illuminate the steps we must take next.”

For further stories of social change, visit our profile page as well.

The future is evergreen

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Sept 4, 2015 on the MaRS blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

On September 14, Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen, will hit the stage at MaRS for a MaRS Global Leadership event, in partnership with our Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series, to reflect on the past 25 years of work led by Evergreen and propose ways we can move toward a more sustainable state. Register here.

Near the tipping point?

Working at SiG in the MaRS building exposes you to many cool projects and companies. Some days you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re only days away from the tipping point to true social and environmental sustainability.

5glixOrvA quick scan of the many organizations moving us toward a clean, green environment reveals companies such as SunFarmer, Nanoleaf and Avalon Battery. Then there are transformational urban design projects such as Cities for People and Jane’s Walk, two programs I’ve been privileged to work with on a day-to-day basis. Today I learned about QUIO Learning Map, an educational technology application created by a company based in Winnipeg that develops solutions to improve student learning and teacher effectiveness. The company was part of the third cohort of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing’s Impact8 program. And the list goes on.

All of the exciting new developments and the stories of those who have been at the front edge of innovation for some time remind us that the road to transformation is long. There is rich knowledge to be found in these tales of failure, effort and success. Getting something started is one thing; keeping it growing is another.

The future is Evergreen

2rSywONz_400x400Evergreen has been at the forefront of sustainability innovation for 25 years. The organization has expanded from a small charity focused on community and school-ground greening to an innovative non-profit organization with global reach. It is now tackling a whole series of challenges and opportunities related to the broader issues of urban sustainability.

Evergreen has evolved dramatically over the years with a series of projects and programs that—more often than not—have enabled strategic leaps forward. It has been a wild ride and Evergreen has progressed from an organization with a simple idea to an institutional leader on subjects ranging from restoration ecology and the design of children’s learning environments to transit planning and laneway housing.

Today, 85% of Canadians and half of the world’s seven billion people live in urban centres, which means that the transition to greener, more sustainable cities is imperative. Evergreen doesn’t look for the hardest problems to solve; rather, they look for ideas that are stuck, but that are ready to move.

Geoff_200x301Leading all of this work is Geoff Cape, the founder and CEO of Evergreen. Geoff is a founding member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum and a regular participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was also the founding chair of the Sustainability Network. Geoff is an Ashoka Fellow and was recognized as one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40 in 1999. He won a Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation in 1996 and was also awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2007, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named him the Canadian Social Entrepreneur of the Year and, in 2010, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sustainable Buildings Canada. That’s some serious cred!

On September 14, Geoff will return to MaRS for the next Global Leadership event to talk about strategies that work and opportunities for change. Join us for Greening Cities, Healthy Planet: Strategies that Work, Opportunities for Change on Monday September 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the MaRS Auditorium.

Students receive half-price admission with the code: GLSTUDENT15.

Talking ’bout my generation

Decelerating is by definition, slowing down. That’s a prerequisite on Wasan Island; a beautiful cabin retreat in the heart of Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation, a German non-profit organization.

Great thinkers, from Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, Daniel Kahneman, to Ashoka Fellow and author, Al Etmanski, have written about the benefits of slow thinking.

As Al writes, “time to learn from [our] mistakes. It helps you recognize the meaning in seemingly random events and to connect the dots between disparate experiences, insights, relationships and activities.”

With a conceptual ‘hunch’ from Allyson Hewitt, a simple frame provided by Jason Pearman and Vinod Rajasekaran, and the facilitation prowess of Chris Moss, a small group convened on Wasan Island in late June to decelerate and do some slow thinking on inter-generational dialogue and relationships. We called it the Intergenerational Decelerator.

We were a disparate bunch, intentionally a range of ages and divergent experiences, all interested in what would bubble up over the few days we were together. I arrived thinking about a project I’ve been working on with a very cool group of young changemakers; while it’s still very much in its infancy, I wondered how the Decelerator would help me think through how it’s being designed.


In our very first introductory circle together, some big thorny topics were raised which, if slightly reframed, seemed to me to be critical questions, not just for our retreat, but for life in general. Here are the unedited notes I recorded after our session:

Even in our own circles, we struggle with compassion in a fight to prove and show what we know.

Is this an eternal struggle for meaning, a sense of identity, of proving that we exist, that we are here – dammit! I have something to contribute!

This is a central yearning.

This is an innate desire, perhaps?

We are driven by a need to feel as though our life has purpose and that life is worth living.

How can we – no matter what stage of life we are in – no matter how old we are – feel as though we are contributing to something greater than our own survival?

When we’re older we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

When we’re younger we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

What is a valuable contribution?

From this Day 1 – Session 1 reflection, lots of ideas were generated – all circling around this final question: what is a valuable contribution?

This question was filtered through various aspects of life, work and how society could reimagine contribution outside of the confines of traditional workplaces and financial compensation for efforts made. In conversations over the nature of work, some interesting proposals were made highlighting specific aspects and challenges that must addressed.

For example, Leo Plue, who runs the Abilities Centre in Whitby ON, reminded us that there are hundreds of thousands of people with post-graduate degrees who languish in day programming or isolation, because they also happen to have a disability. They are unable to make a valuable contribution. How can we change the structure and nature of work to support their inclusion and contribution?

Another example…

How can we develop a new lexicon that better articulates the contributions and capacities available to us across generations?
Move from:

Age arrow Life stage
Work arrow Contribution
Job arrow Engagement

Free ourselves from the confines of words like:
  • Retirement
  • Boomer
  • Millennial
  • Youth
Redefine or refine:
  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Inclusion
Be conscious of our default questions when we meet new people:

What do you do? arrow What do you like doing? What are you interested in? What are you engaged in?

Meaningful work

We developed ideas around new mentorship programs and processes of exchange between people at different life stages. How do we design environments that are generative? What is the role and value of voluntary contributions?

Our conversation was not happening in isolation and there are many ways to look at the big question of: what is a valuable contribution? In “The World Without Work,” in the current issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes: 

“Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages. In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”


Photo by Raquel Fletcher from Focus on Saskatchewan

The article is not much of a stretch – imagining a world that many residents in post-manufacturing small towns and young university graduates are already familiar with.

What we haven’t imagined collectively is how to design the second part for millions of people: environments where meaningful contributions can be made, for compensation (monetary or otherwise) that facilitate one’s own good physical and mental health, and by extension, whole communities.

With only 2.5 days, it was unrealistic to reach grand conclusions, but the group reflected on the confines of our current language, our cultural barriers to change and our desire to be more conscious of the assumptions we carry and words we use in our every day.

If you took some time to think about how you introduce yourself to people and what you want to know about them, what language do you use and what assumptions do you bring to the meeting?

I think we all felt these things were obvious, but some deliberate decelerated time together revealed how difficult it can be to put into practice.

Seeing the patterns in our work for systems change

There was a strong sense that our Canadian Inspiring Action Series event on May 12 would be special.

We had yet to host Al Etmanski in Toronto, but he has been a close colleague for years. Alongside Vickie Cammack, Al began an exploration into Canada’s social innovation ecosystem before SiG was launched in 2007. This scoping work, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, built on years of experience in the disability sector, where trial and error, bridge building and empathy-based approaches informed their development of PLAN and also eventually, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).

They brought this experience into the SiG partnership and we all benefitted from it. Now everyone gets a chance to read much of Al’s wisdom in the form of IMPACT: 6 Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation.


At the Toronto “un-launch” of IMPACT, Al and local changemakers dug into each of the 6 patterns in detail to highlight practical and inspirational ideas for application in our own work. Hosting the evening with us, Allyson Hewitt, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at MaRS, provided some reflections on what she heard from Al and the guest panelists.

Two struck a chord in particular: Al Etmanski observed that the patterns often emerged out of a crisis, as when he and Vickie Cammack realized they were not making enough long term impact in their work with PLAN. They had to do things differently. During their secondment research in social innovation, one of their first observations was that movements are the ONLY way forward. It’s never good enough to just have great content.


Another important and difficult pattern to recognize was that friends come and go, but enemies can accumulate. To work for positive change, we must set the table for friends, adversaries and strangers. This dialogue is an end that enables trust.

“MaRS founder, Dr. John Evans, always said: ‘it is amazing, amazing,
what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit'” — Allyson Hewitt 

Moderating the panel discussion between the inspirational changemakers was Susan Pigott, who is currently consulting with MaRS and has deep leadership experience in the non-profit sector.

Joining Susan and Al, with wonderful insights of their own, were:

Watch the presentation to unearth all the nuggets!

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Allyson also captured so much of the magic in the following poem. Although it’s hugely helpful, it’s still in your best interests to read the book. Enjoy!


By Allyson Hewitt – with rhyming inspiration provided by Dr. Seuss


When one reaches a certain stage in life

One seeks a way to avoid, living in strife 

So Al has taken time to reflect

And share his thoughts, and interject


The lessons he’s learned, the patterns he’s seen

He’s been collecting them now since he was a teen

So what are these patterns he did imbue

Sit tight as I share them all with you


1. Think and act like a movement

That is the way to systems improvement

Pay attention to what’s going on in your field

Expand receptivity, increase your yield


2. Create a container for your content

That seems like a plan on which he is bent 

Make it easy for people to do the right thing

Inspire people to action, get them into the swing


3. Set the table for allies, adversaries and strangers

A welcoming environment helps us manage the dangers 

Dialogue and convening is more than a means to an end

Cultivate new relationships, is how your time you should spend


4. Mobilize your economic power

Change makers there is no need to cower 

Turn your social capital to create economic success

Both of your networks and others, all moving to yes


5. Advocate with empathy

Embrace those thought of as the enemy 

Seek to find an approach that is solutions-based

Work with government on the issues with which they are faced


And remember this, I tell you now

6. Who is as important as how

 Social innovation is about character, not technique

Bold humility is the trait that we do seek


So read Impact and share your views

Are those the patterns you indeed would choose? 

Or do you have others you would like to share

Then write them down, if you’ve time to spare


If not, no worries Al calls us to act

But first read the words of wisdom you’ll find in Impact


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