Top Ten Takeaways from the Social Enterprise World Forum

Last month Calgary hosted the annual Social Enterprise World Forum. Here are Charmian Love and Tim Draimin’s top 10 takeaways from the conference.

1.   System Change. The Next Frontier.

While “entrepreneurship is about the creation of tangible value,” says the godmother of social entrepreneurship, Pamela Hartigan, “in the case of social entrepreneurship, it is about creating systems change.”

 2.   The Social Enterprise Movement Is Tax Status Agnostic.

Calgary was the sixth SEWF and the first to be tax status agnostic. For example, the competition for TRICO Foundation’s Enterprizes were open to for-profits and nonprofits. “Social entrepreneurship,” said Pamela Hartigan, “… is paving the way toward a much larger transformation of capitalism where the creation of positive social change through markets will be the key to success rather than the result of a special kind of business.” The corollary is that blended value can produce change regardless of its tax status. Ultimately the biggest impact of social enterprise will be its ability to help kick-start the shift from traditional capitalism to Capitalism 2.0, or what John Elkington calls Breakthrough Capitalism, or Umair Haque’s constructive capitalism.

pamela hartigan

Pamela Hartigan spoke at the Social Enterprise World Forum

3.   Heroes Welcome. Teams Required.

Not everyone can be a social entrepreneur, says Pamela Hartigan, if it doesn’t stand for “promoting disruptive business models” and transformational change that addresses root causes.  At the same time, visionaries require teams to make change. While Pamela highlighted that only a few are social entrepreneurs, many people can be involved in the entrepreneuring (Pamela’s term) efforts to make societal change happen.

4.   Disruptors Need Bridging and Receptive Innovators.

Al Etmanski, the co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) and social entrepreneur behind the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), described entrepreneuring systems change roles slightly differently. He says that “it takes three distinct types of innovators or entrepreneurs to achieve broad systemic change: Disruptive, Bridging, and Receptive.” Al’s Disruptive Innovator is the social entrepreneur. Bridging Innovators excel in identifying big ideas and leveraging their connections, reputation and resources to make the value of the disruptive innovation clear to the system. Receptive Innovators are the institutional entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs, who are skilled at advancing the big idea throughout the system. All are required.

5.   Events Can Kick off the Conversation.

MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and TRICO capitalized on the unique character and size of SEWF by hosting a half-day lead-up event: Canada’s first gathering of impact investors. The event began with an update from Sir Ronald Cohen, video-conferenced in from Washington where he had just hosted the G-8 Impact Investing meeting. Also joining this landmark event were federal and provincial ministers and their delegations from across Canada who also attended Canada’s first-ever national social enterprise gathering by government policy makers.

6.   Labs, Labs, Labs.

It appears there is a huge push in Canada to develop labs to support multi-sector collaboration in solution generation and scale up.  How these activities happening across the provinces stay connected to each other – and learn from one another’s successes and failures – will be instrumental in making sure this movement transcends the fad-ism that some fear will consume their activities.


The Social Enterprise World Forum hosted several Finance Solutions Labs that generated plenty of ideas

 7.   Top-down support from across party lines

From Federal Minister Jason Kenney to Ontario Minister Eric Hoskins to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, intergenerational and cross-party support signal growth for the social enterprise sector. Whether through an openness to explore addressing the needs of the sector through policy reform or through investment funds or tax credits for social enterprises – the bottom line is that very senior levels of government are watching and ready to do something different. The question will be how to make their interest leap from conceptual conversations to practical and pragmatic action.

8.   Community capitalism.

Dr. Wanda Wuttunee has devoted her research to understanding how Aboriginal values interact with capitalist values. Opening the conference alongside Dr. Ilse Treurnicht of MaRS and Mary Gordon of Roots of Empathy, Wuttunee asked attendees to reflect on the unique lens indigenous experience provides to enterprise and economic opportunities. The term “community capitalism” reflects her emphasis on the need for economic development to be in sync with Aboriginal communities. There are under-valued benefits in seeing the economy through this perspective.

9.   Resiliency Required.

The SEWF taking place in Calgary was a metaphor for the change needed. This is about resiliency and an ability to pick up when times get tough. This was most pointedly drilled home by the Mayor of Calgary indicating that only 52 days earlier the venue for the evening rodeo was under water due to mass city-wide flooding. As he pointed out, responsive community cohesion led to a quick recovery.

 10.   Value – for whom?

One of the most re-tweeted one-liners from Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS.  Harvard’s definition of innovation is invention with value.  But Ilse rightfully asks – “value for who?”  This is a powerful reframing of the role of innovation and how it must be leveraged as a force for good.

Reflections on the Social Enterprise World Forum

Now, I may be a bit biased given that it was hosted in Canada, but I honestly believe that this was the best Social Enterprise World Forum I have ever had the pleasure of attending. The forum built on the tradition of social enterprise, recognizing in particular the historical leadership of the United Kingdom, and moved us to think about the links between social enterprise and the broader social change imperative—a uniquely Canadian positioning.

The organizing team worked so hard, by design, to ensure inclusion. If you were just discovering the field of social enterprise, you had the opportunity to learn the essentials from terrific leaders in the field through sessions like Social Enterprise 101, which was offered in both English and French.

For those of us who have been around this game for some time, it was terrific to see the engagement of new players. I heard an elder state that this was the first conference of this type in his memory to have a stream and keynotes reflecting the experience of indigenous peoples, and the session on rural realities was critical, especially given the increasing focus on urbanization as more and more of us move to cities.

Broad government representation

The event welcomed all three levels of government and, given the state of our federation in Canada, this is virtually unprecedented. This monumental task was achieved in part by the leadership of the Government of Alberta, who organized a pre-conference session with other political and bureaucratic staff from across the country. I am especially appreciative of the efforts of Dr. Eric Hoskins of the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment and the Hon. Jason Kenney of Employment and Social Development Canada for taking so much time out of their intense schedules to join us. Obviously the issues we discussed are resonating in political circles.

Corporate representation

It was also wonderful to see so many players from the corporate world join us. In one of the sessions I attended on corporate social innovation, the attendees were lined up along the sides of the walls and out the door. We often talk about the fact that social change requires multi-stakeholder engagement, but we spend a lot of time talking only to ourselves and to those who agree with us. With this conference we have broken down many of these silos and there is some discomfort in our wake as we transition to a broader, more inclusive approach to social change.

Social finance

One area where those silos are blurring is in the field of social finance. My colleagues in the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing worked with the Trico Charitable Foundation to bring our extremely popular Social Finance Forum to Alberta. Started in 2007, under the visionary leadership of Tim Draimin, Tim Brodhead and Bill Young, among others, we were able to engage Sir Ronald Cohen in our work in Canada, which was fledgling at the time, and to keep him engaged in that work as we moved forward. It was terrific to welcome him back to Canada—via Skype—and to have him share his deep knowledge and unique perspective with the corporate, political and social enterprise leaders at this pre-conference event.

On a personal level—and because I am privileged to attend so many of these events—I rarely expect to learn anything new. However, I, along with many other seasoned practitioners, walked away inspired by the wisdom of everyone from Al Etmanski and Mary Gordon to llse Treurnicht (more bias), the Hon. Paul Martin and Pamela Hartigan.

Allyson Hewitt with Wayne Chiu, head of the organizing committee for SEWF 2013 and chair of Trico Foundation

Allyson Hewitt with Wayne Chiu, the head of the organizing committee for SEWF

They consistently recognized a place for us all in this movement. They talked about the role of social entrepreneurs at the systems level, about disruptive, bridging and receptive innovators, and about “entrepreneuring.” They challenged our complacency, they offered hope and they offered a way forward—and that is well worth the price of admission.

To everyone on the organizing committee in general and to the remarkable leadership of Wayne Chiu and Daniel Overall of the Trico Charitable Foundation, congratulations on a job well done! As for the rodeo, well my friend, that was the proverbial tasty icing on the well-baked cake. Yahoo!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the MaRS website. It has been reposted here with permission from the author.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Building Capacity for Partnerships

Ros Tennyson has been in the business of partnerships for over 20 years. In her role as the Development Director of the Partnership Brokers Association, Ros delivers a comprehensive range of training courses designed to build the skills, confidence and competencies necessary to broker partnerships effectively. We’re excited that Ros will be moderating at the Social Enterprise World Forum in the breakout session, “Culture Shock: Engaging Others in Your Success.” Just in time for the forum’s launch next week, SiG had the opportunity to speak with Ros about developing partnership competencies for social change.

Why are partnerships helpful to creating social change?

Ros: If partnerships weren’t needed, they wouldn’t be necessary. In other words, if society worked the way we’d like it to work, we wouldn’t have any need for cross-sector collaboration. If each sector – government, business, civil society and international agencies – were able to function at their optimum capacity, then things would be fine. We would have a complex coherent world interrelated with each other in appropriate ways. The reality is that no one sector really functions particularly well. Most sectors are finding they are failing to deliver on their own goals and wider societal goals. So suddenly, the whole idea of working together to collaborate to make change seems extremely attractive.


How can we as individuals and organizations develop a more collaborative culture, particularly across sectors and continents, to address the systemic intractable issues of our society?

Ros: I think human nature is quite complex and there is a tendency to think that collaboration is just business as usual, straightforward. The tendency is to think:

Of course we’re all human beings, we get on with each other, we know how to make good relationships, therefore it shouldn’t be any kind of major problem to learn how to collaborate.

I believe the reality is quite different. The ability to break boundaries – to be boundary spanners requires quite a radical challenge to one’s assumptions and mindsets. One has to really question how one thinks about other sectors and countries in order to operate differently. I think certainly in the west, we’ve grown up with a certain culture of possessiveness, of thinking we have to know best, thinking we’re right. And actually we don’t necessarily know best and we’re not necessarily right. Actually a much more open and honest way to proceed is to see things as a dialogue, where everyone is discovering and learning how to do things, rather than some people thinking they have the answers and trying to coerce others into accepting their own point of view. It’s sounds like a complex answer but I think collaboration is not business as usual. It takes reframed skills and it takes the kind of people who are willing to adapt and move outside their own comfort zone perhaps, for the benefit of a bigger purpose. And actually when the chips are down – however liberal or liberated we think we are – we are all fond of our comfort zones. In fact, the challenge to change towards a genuinely more collaborative model is quite a big one.

Are there ways to prepare or hone the ability to be out of one’s comfort zone, as well as encourage other people to take that leap?

Ros: I’d describe it as both an art and a science. The art element is being able to envision something different, to know what you’re aspiring towards and therefore making the right journey to get to that goal. The goal has to be forward looking, future-looking. It has to be based on attentiveness, listening, intuition, on understanding what is needed now, on making the most of what you have, instead of some preconceived idea that you are trying to impose. That’s the art of it. But to do this well, art and intuition are not enough. You also have to be rigorous, technical, scientific, meticulous, business-like, astute, and persistent. These are very different kinds of attributes. So the ideal practitioner in this space, as a partnership broker or intermediary, will be able to see which of those things (art or science) they do naturally and work quite hard to develop the other side of themselves so they can do both.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?

SEWFRos: I’ve been working partnership brokering for the last 20 years and only when I was invited by Social Innovation Generation to speak at a MaRS conference two years ago did I find myself in a room full of social innovators. As I started to hear people speak, I suddenly realized that I was amongst my peers. What I registered is that although my work is in the realm of partnership brokering, as an individual I’m basically a social innovator, so I feel very naturally drawn towards that world. I’m extremely excited to hear how much that world has developed in Canada, as social innovators seem very central in Canada. It does feel like a privilege to be in a room full of social innovators because I think the world really needs it. Of course, the big question for me is what is the interface between social innovation and partnership brokering and partnership development? Since the two worlds have similar qualities and are useful to one another, they seem to support, inform and reinforce each other.



Social Enterprise Spotlight: Failing Forward

When we experience failure, we are forced to confront uncomfortable truths; that our abilities can fall short and we make mistakes. Through reflecting on our actions we can learn to let go, become more grounded, and see reality for what it is. As painful as the process may be, experiencing and learning from failure can build formidable resilience and empathy, qualities that are critical to social innovation. Ashley Good knows this better than most people. Through founding the consulting firm Fail Forward, Ashley helps organizations adopt a culture of learning from failure. This October, Ashley will be furthering the conversation during the Social Enterprise World Forum breakout session “Sharing Failure: Winning Strategies For Sharing Failure.” I had the good fortune to speak with Ashley on how failure is a force for good.

Why is reporting and sharing on failure so important for people, organizations and society?

AshleyGoodheadshotAshley: It comes as no surprise to anyone that failure is the best teacher. Anecdotally we know that and as kids we knew that too. We are hardwired to learn from failure. But something happens when we become adults, where the stakes get higher and we start surrounding ourselves with tasks that we already know how to do. We stop pushing ourselves to the edge of our capacities – where we really have the ability to accelerate our learning. So the idea of creating a conversation around failure, whether that’s in the not-for-profit or private sector, is an important one because it destigmatizes failure and makes it acceptable to fail. We allow ourselves the space to push ourselves. With the pace of change in the world, the ability to accelerate our learning is going to become an ever more important skill.

How can failure be used as a force for good?

Ashley: I have a bit of a different definition of failure than most people. I define it as any situation that teaches you a better way of doing something. Basically, anything you can learn from. For me, every failure has the potential to be a force for good. It’s our instinct to ignore, deny, blame or try to fix it before anyone else figures out that we’ve failed, but in fact those responses prevent us from maximizing our learning. Inherent in every failure is the opportunity to learn. Accepting a certain level of failure is the only means by which we feel safe trying new things, being creative and innovating.

Can you share a story about failure being used for positive change?

Ashley: I’m going to tell you a story about myself. Three years ago I started the site The vision was to create a platform, almost a database, where people could submit their stories of failure and you could search by country, project type, etc. It would spark this new collaborative era where people involved in the social space could learn from each other. I imagined thousands and thousands of failures. Three years later, there are 32 stories of failure on the site, which you could imagine, was not the intended outcome. Funding was cut to the project six months in and I was jobless. This project and idea that I believed in and cared about so much just fell flat on its face. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Through this experience, I realized that my mistake was in misunderstanding the problem. The problem was not that people weren’t excited about the idea and wanted to engage with it – the problem was actually taking action. There was a huge gap in understanding the importance of discussing failure openly and taking action. This was the catalyst for starting Fail Forward: to bridge the gap between the theory that people buy into and being able to create individual and organizational culture change. I couldn’t have learned this lesson without trying and failing.


What role does failure play in social enterprise?

Ashley: The vast majority of startups fail. There are so many entrepreneurs trying new things and most ideas are not going to work because it’s inherent in trying something new. You add the element of social change to the picture and all of sudden it gets even harder. You aren’t simply trying to keep your financials in the black; you are creating complex social change, which is inherently gray and difficult to measure. You need to be constantly aware that failure is possible at every moment when you’re trying to create social change. It’s the continuous adaptation that allows for success because you don’t have black and white measures of dollars coming in. You are always looking for ways that it’s working and ways that it isn’t and adapting on the fly.

What are you looking forward to in the next six months?

Ashley: I’m starting to get asked to speak more and more, which is really exciting. Just like was a catalyst for conversation, I see many of these speaking roles and conferences as a catalyst for generating conversations on failure in different areas. Obviously I’m looking forward to the social enterprise world forum. I’ll be speaking at the next PechaKucha in Toronto this Friday. I’m also in the early stages of hosting a failure event in Toronto sometime in 2014. It’d be great to put Toronto on the map as a hub of where this conversation is happening.


The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?

Ashley: I love events like these for bringing together the kinds of people that can push the conversation further. It’s in conversation and group gathering that we really get out what’s important and shape the narrative of the social entrepreneurship space.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Seeding the Roots of Empathy

Over the course of the last 12 months I have read a plethora of articles and blog posts on the importance of empathy and the urgent need to nurture it. From Arianna Huffington’s words at the 2012 Skoll World Forum to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Project, from Bill Drayton’s article in Forbes to Paul Bloom’s more challenging piece in The New Yorker. Why the growing call?

We are moving in this world at a heightened pace, images fly at us from multiple media platforms. Tragedies from mass murder, to the drumbeats of war, to teen suicides rise in number and our hearts and minds struggle to makes sense of it all. The absence of empathy underlies the creation of these conditions; without empathy there is insufficient traction for conflict resolution. This is the problem Mary Gordon has been trying to solve since 1996 when she started Roots of Empathy.

Exported ROE

Mary will share her thoughts on empathy’s surprising power at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary next month. I spoke to Mary to get her thoughts on how we can foster this most beneficial and necessary trait in our communities.

With a growing chorus of people calling for the development of empathy, do you believe it is well understood?

Mary Gordon: I believe the value placed on empathy varies from country to country. For example, there are big differences between Canada and the United States. In the U.S., empathy is regarded as a soft, female trait, and is often confused with sympathy. In Canada, it is considered a desirable, non-gendered trait. So you have to begin work in a country knowing how empathy is perceived.

We know that empathy is developed by the attachment relationship between a primary parent and child. Exposing children to the experience of empathy gives them the capacity to build good relationships – it helps them learn and develop skills sets for entering adult life. Good relationships help in every aspect of life. You cannot be in a meaningful relationship with anyone unless you’re able to feel with them. In understanding this, you then realize that fostering empathy is not just the responsibility of the family, but of everyone. For example, in order to break out of the cycle of poverty we need to ensure that impoverished individuals experience empathy. That means those with power to inform policies must also operate with empathy.

What are some of the best ways we can develop empathy in ourselves and others?

Mary Gordon: One of the dreadful things I encountered overseas, was the lack of support for the bonding between child and parent. Many parents know they will lose their job if they stay home with their newborn. They are forced to give their baby to multiple people to take care of and the crucial serve-and-return exchange is undermined. One example of an empathetic Canadian policy is the extension of maternity leave to one full year. In doing that, policy makers supported a healthy attachment relationship between a baby and parent. What we haven’t done is extend it to people who don’t have benefits, which is also necessary.

If society wants to do something at a general level, they need to look at policy decisions that allow parents to spend time with their children and meet their needs. When families are well supported, there are better attachment relationships, and aggressive behavior like bullying is reduced. Empathy is about fairness. Citizens that have empathy make life fair.

Is empathy simply the ability to take the perspective of others?

Mary Gordon: Empathy is not cold cognition. It is the combination of emotional connection, understanding and care. You can be a true sociopath with the ability to take the perspective of the victim without the ability to care for what they’re feeling. For me, it’s very much a combination of the two. A little child’s brain, empathy and cognition are tightly aligned.

Sara Konrath wrote on The Empathy Paradox at the University of Michigan, after finding that there has been a dramatic decline in perspective taking and empathic concern in college students since the 1970s. She didn’t mean to have an impact but people went nuts over it. It’s a sign of the times, not just an American situation.

So we must ask: what is the difference in the landscape for children growing up? What are the policies? What are the points of connection and contagion for good or for bad?

I think you can have an impact if all of those that are trained to work with others – in corporate life, education or government – are aware of the needs of those that are learning or working with them. To be aware of an individual’s needs is to understand that at the very basic level, people desire a feeling of belonging. How do people feel like they belong? When they feel understood. It’s all about empathy.

This is a conversation about humanity.

Exported ROE2

You have been working on Roots of Empathy since 1996, and even longer on understanding how empathy can be fostered. What gives you energy to maintain your focus in this work?

Mary Gordon: I’m not a Pollyanna in terms of optimism, but I do believe in the power of humanity to create an empathic space in which we all can live. I believe we have that capacity. I don’t think we’ll see it delivered in my lifetime and I don’t think it’s up to me. I don’t feel the weight of this on my shoulders, as long as people like you want to talk to me. And as long as people want to train for Seeds of Empathy or Roots of Empathy, they want to understand, to learn, to make things better. I feel very encouraged. I see acts of courage and hear about them every day. And I pass the stories on because they encourage people.

Someone once said to me, “It’s a curse being an innovator.” I don’t agree at all. I am very encouraged by the world I see. For every horror story I hear, I hear a positive story.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?


Mary Gordon: I think there is a particular surge of energy having so many people together that care about innovation. The fact that many in the audience may not have necessarily thought of empathy as a lever for change. That they’re already cued into social change and that it might help some of their initiatives to put on a lens of empathy. That by talking to all of them, it will open me up to having new relationships. I’ll get a lot of learning after the fact. It’s an electrifying group. I love talking to people that are switched on. I think that’s going to be great fun.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Forming unlikely alliances for shared value

If we ever hope to navigate our complex and strained socio-economic landscape, we need to facilitate and initiate more meaningful ways of working together. Collaborations between disparate parties unlock doors and direct new resources towards enabling systems-level change.

Jocelyne Daw, founder of JS Daw & Associates,and a panelist at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum, is a champion of shared value and forger of partnerships. is a champion of shared value and forger of partnerships. Over the last 30 years, Jocelyne has built bridges between the corporate, non-profit and government sectors to create worthwhile and sustainable collaborations. While vacationing in Ontario, Jocelyne kindly shared some of her wisdom with SiG, presented in the Q&A below:

What led you to realize that partnerships are essential to creating shared value?
trent-severn waterway

Trent-severn waterway, a national historic sight of Canada administered
by Parks Canada

Jocelyne: My first experience highlighting the value of partnerships began at Parks Canada. While working in Peterborough Ontario, it became quite apparent that maintaining a park is a big undertaking. So big, it was beyond the scope of what our organization could take on alone. With this in mind, as well as recognizing that Canadians take great pride in their natural environment, I formed one of the first “Friends of Parks” groups in Canada. Through Friends of Parks, Parks Canada was able to tap into new resources such as partner organizations and volunteers, who also had a deep interest in park preservation. Following my initial exposure to the benefit of partnerships, I carried on as the founding executive director of the Canadian Parks Partnership, overseeing the formation of all “Friends of Parks” groups across Canada.

How do you create shared value now and could you offer an example?

A part of our work at JS Daw & Associates involves helping non-profits understand their value proposition. Charitable organizations often struggle at communicating what they have to offer. I assist non-profits in seeing their assets, not necessarily the ones on their balance sheet, but the intangible connections and influence derived from their relationship with the community. Through talking about these hidden community assets in a different way, non-profits can better use them to leverage business relationships in the community.

The other side of the coin is our work with corporations. Companies increasingly understand that they have to be more involved in the communities in which they operate. As a result, I support corporations in finding and forming relationships with non-profits and communities that can create shared value, typically through tackling an issue of mutual interest.

Math-Minds_logo_CMYKAn example of shared value is the Math Minds collaboration between Canadian Oil Sands, Jump Math, the University of Calgary, and Calgary Catholic School District. Math Minds is a 5-year initiative with the shared goal to enhance elementary numeracy in students and teachers. This multi-sector partnership would not have been possible without each member agreeing on the critical importance of early math literacy. Further into implementation, we invited other partners to collaborate like the Calgary Public Library.

What excites you most about the future of social enterprise?

In the traditional sense of the word, social enterprise is a non-profit starting a business. Nowadays we are increasingly seeing the roles being blurred between nonprofits and business, sometimes in the form of new social enterprises. How do we take social enterprise up to the next level and help people look at social problems as opportunities for business? We live in a resource-trapped world. The social issues are too big to ignore and it can’t just be one sector doing this anymore. We have to collaborate with a whole new mindset.

For this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, you will be speaking on “Unlikely Alliances”. Why are unlikely alliances important and how might we go about forming and sustaining them for the long-term?

Jocelyne: For forming unlikely alliances, I’d advise organizations to be open to involving the unusual suspects. How can you look at things in new ways? Who would you work with? Think about what you are trying to achieve, and what strengths and assets you bring to the table.

People tend to silo the activity of gaining partners; however it is truly an integrated journey. Good intentions aren’t good enough. We have to work harder at knowing what we want to achieve. Through knowing what we offer and what we want to achieve, we can start to forge unlikely alliances. For unlikely alliances to sustain themselves, people have to feel the value of being there. When there is a higher purpose, people stay committed. 

The Social Enterprise Forum is a gathering of 1200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you most about attending the event?

SEWFJocelyne: I am especially excited for the incredible speaker lineup. Leaders are coming from all over the world to share their knowledge and expertise. I expect it’ll be an incredible networking experience. Looking at other great social enterprise forums, some are invitation-only like the Skoll World Forum, but this is an invitation for anyone who is passionate
about social enterprise and can just get to Calgary. 

This blog is part of the Social Enterprise Spotlight series showcasing various social innovators speaking at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum taking place in Calgary on October 2 – 4. Learn more about the Social Enterprise World Forum here.

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

This is the second part of a blog series on systems thinking. In part I, Realizing the ultimate impact of community-based innovations,” I introduced the theory and core elements of systems thinking.

In Part II let’s begin with two questions: what can individuals and organizations do to be part of systemic change? And how can powerful institutions like governments be more part of the solution than the problem?

In Systems Innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggests two sets of answers.  The first: it is essential to ground individual change actions within the context of the “broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.” For Mulgan “the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. Realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of leverage. If you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.”

The second: recognize and leverage the essential role of what I call the missing middle or what Mulgan calls intermediaries. In order to succeed, “the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. In retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies.”

The roles played by intermediaries can include: orchestrating advocacy campaigns; engaging critical stakeholders; demonstrating alternatives; and facilitating the required networks into power structures and changemaking communities. Some of these roles resemble those of “backbone” organizations in collective impact initiatives. Mulgan lays out a valuable chart for seeing the range of roles and their goals:


Joined-Up Innovation, Geoff Mulgan p. 21

Building the Enabling Systems-oriented Ecosystem

What would be elements of an ecosystem building approach for systems innovation that a government should focus on? Social Innovation Europe suggests seven:

1.    Developing a common vision around the need and potential for systems change
2.    Supporting greater experimentation
3.    Expanding rapid learning through open innovation platforms, greater transparency, and much more cross-sector collaboration
4.    Expanding incubation support systems and platforms to enable systems innovations
5.    Targeting capacity building focused on critical competencies
6.    Developing enabling conditions through funding instruments, regulation and legislation
7.    Growing networks connecting key stakeholders in order to spread and disseminate innovative practice and generally enable knowledge mobilization.

How imminent is a heightened focus on systems change? What conditions will prevail to shift us in that direction? Charles Leadbeater, in his essay in Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series, says there are four main ingredients to the systems shifting process (that he calls “regime change”):

1.    Failure Stacks Up – The multiplying failures and frustrations with the current system
2.    Landscape Shifts – The landscape of the current regime shifts so much that it is left at odds with the world
3.    Alternatives Accumulate – Real alternatives start to grow, multiply in overlapping fashion
4.    New Technology Offers Accelerated Impact – “These new approaches are energized by the application of new technologies, which open up new possibilities for organizations, businesses and consumers. These rising new technologies add to the momentum and excitement for change.”

Alice Casey, from her vantage point in Nesta’s Public Service Innovation Lab, highlights two additional ingredients for people working on systems change at the community level. Her essay in the Discussion Series advocates for:

1.    Structures that value collaboration and that assist people escaping their narrow service silos to think and work together, and
2.   Relationships that enable power sharing by using an asset based approach and drawing on the tools of co-production that “help create collaborative and trusting relationships that give people the risk–friendly space they need to engage and behave in different ways.”

Systems Thinking Into the Water Supply

How do you see the issues you care about through a systems thinking lens? Does systems thinking have implications for how you imagine deepening your impact over the next decade? One of Canada’s social strategists extraordinaire, Al Etmanski, is fond of saying that we need to get “social innovation into the water supply”. For many years now he has applied his talents at the systems tilting end of the social innovation spectrum. How do we take Al’s lead to expand that essential “systems think and do”?

Related Links:

  • The indispensable desktop resource on systems thinking is the short book by Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Donnella was a co-author of the 1972 watershed book Limits to Growth that was a catalyst for recognizing earth as a system with finite limits.
  • The SiG Knowledge Hub is replete with useful content including the sections on Systems Thinking (Dip into Systems Thinking, Dive in Systems Thinking)
  • The Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary Oct 2 – 4, features an extensive line-up of systems thinkers and social innovators.
  • Nesta’s robust website contains two excellent 2013 PDFs on systems thinking: Systems Innovation and Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series. The latter carries a contribution by Canadian Daniel Miller a St. John’s, NL-based independent researcher who has a web site Systemnovation dedicated to systems thinking.
  • The field of social innovation, design or change labs is developing across Canada. It offers a growing set of basic tools to assist organizations, businesses and governments in initiating practical multi-stakeholder processes to develop, prototype and scale systems-shifting innovations. SiG has just published a new map to those resources.

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

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