Taking Stock: a reformer’s outlook on the rise of social innovation

SFor as long as I can remember, I have been committed to social reform. I’ve always aspired to address root causes behind fundamental social problems. During my 35 year career in health, social policy and service work in Ontario, I chose to influence public policy from outside of government and the formal political process. I have been involved in reform initiatives ranging from broad based grassroots coalition building, to targeted interventions undertaken by so-called elites.

Early Inklings

Starting in 2000, I became involved in the Toronto City Summit Alliance, now CivicAction, initiated and led for many years by the late David Pecaut. In this environment, I came to appreciate the power of social innovation, though the term was not used much then. The work however, of convening stakeholders from across a broad range of sectors – business, labour, government and across age, race and culture, to try to solve specific social and environmental problems was foundational for social innovation today.

Leaps and bounds

Flash forward 13 years, after several years as a hospital executive, I find myself now as Executive in Residence at Ashoka Canada, immersed in the world of social innovation. In my first three months at Ashoka, I am struck by three trends:

  1. Moving into the Limelight
    The extent to which social innovation has come into the mainstream is impressive. Centres of Social Innovation at educational institutions have developed to meet the growing demand from students. Community-based incubators are supporting fledgling social entrepreneurs. The private sector is investing in social innovation and social media is accelerating this already rapid pace of development.
  2. Boundary Blurring
    Boundaries between sectors are beginning to break down. Different stakeholders are now more comfortable working together. The private sector identifies as part of civil society, and social innovators at the grassroots level engage in entrepreneurial activity as part of their social reform agenda.
  3. Igniting Young Changemakers
    There is an explosion of youth engagement in the social innovation space. The field attracts young social reformers; millennials with a strong sense of social justice, a healthy skepticism about the current way we address social problems, and an appetite for risk-taking. Ashoka’s Everyone a Changemaker vision and similar movements are empowering young people to pursue careers in social impact.


Where to?

I’m seeing some exciting developments and now the administrator in me wants to see more discipline emerge in this new frontier.

There is no shortage of good ideas in the world. The difficult task is in identifying the best ideas and growing them so that they may become the new norm. There is a striking lack of awareness about what social policies, strategies and initiatives currently exist, and could possibly be built upon. Perhaps this is natural in the early years of a movement, but it will become more important to map the terrain as more activity develops in the social innovation space.

With increased currency and influence comes increased responsibility. In this case the responsibility is to identify best practices in social innovation within the space itself but also to point the way to the future evolution of effective social reform.  It is time for social innovators and thought leaders to take stock of this remarkable emerging phenomenon. In both learning from each other, and acting on best practices, we can deepen the immersion in mainstream culture. And in doing all of this, keep innovation at the centre.

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