What Drives Experimentation?

Field Notes from Silicon Valley #2

I am spending some time this year in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to better understand their culture of R&D, how organizations are set up to pursue R&D and deliver programming in tandem, and the role of funders and grantmakers in supporting the practice of R&D in the social impact sector. An overarching question I have in mind is: as we seed the initial conditions for a vibrant Social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem have to share?

In light of all this and as we approach the 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering, I have some questions, observations and curiosities.

Recently, I’ve been obsessing over what drives experimentation at its start; I’ve spoken to about 40 organizations in the Bay Area in the last few months – from public sector innovation organizations like City Innovate and healthcare innovation organizations like Center for Care Innovations to grantmakers like Tipping Point and frontline agencies like Year Up asking and observing how they start experimenting. One of my key observations is that there is no recommended or right or single point of entry – the way experimentation starts is diverse. Gijs van Wulfen, a recognized innovation authority notes that it is often called the ‘fuzzy front end’ due to its lack of process, structure and guidebook.

In the Canadian social impact sector, we believe that it’s a sin if our starting point isn’t a social or frontline problem. It’s wrong and potentially even irresponsible, we are told, if our starting point is discovery or an idea or new technology. In his book Innovation Maze, van Wulfen offers a useful frame for us here, graphic inserted below. He argues that innovation starts with an idea, a technology, a problem or a business issue. They are all useful starting points – and I’ve learned that really, in the Bay Area, you can begin anywhere.

Source: The Innovation Maze

Gijs van Wulfen’s frame of four common starting points above offers us folks in the social impact sector an opportunity to adjust our assumptions and thinking about what can trigger tinkering, research, prototyping, and ultimately, new value creation.

Based on his frame, let me now overlay some Canadian examples.

  1. You might start innovation with an idea, like Jay Garlough and Katrina Siks of Hidden Harvest. While taking a walk together one day and noticing all the fruit and nut trees on public property in Ottawa that go unharvested, they saw an opportunity to experiment with a new way of addressing food security among vulnerable populations. They founded, what is now an award-winning social enterprise, Hidden Harvest Ottawa.
  2. You might start innovation triggered by technology, like Scotiabank’s Digital Factory. They explore emerging technologies beyond Scotiabank’s core business, and design experiments and identify new use cases, for example, basic financial services built on artificial intelligence.
  3. You might start innovation to solve a problem, like Sarah Schulman and her team in Vancouver. They observed that adults with cognitive disabilities didn’t lack exposure to social life but lacked exposure to continuous learning. In many ways, you could say that we had been solving for the wrong problem. Following extensive ethnographic research, Sarah and her team started developing Kudoz, an online learning exchange where local community members share their passions and skills through one-on-one learning experiences with adults with cognitive disabilities.
  4. You might start innovation because your organization needs to innovate, like the healthcare provider Saint Elizabeth in Toronto. In response to changing demographics, new business models and a strained healthcare system, the social enterprise put R&D at the core of their business. Today, Saint Elizabeth is one of the most innovative healthcare and homecare providers in the world.

Using R&D practices to create new value in the social sector has yet to be mainstreamed in Canada, but it’s clear that there is potential.

2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering

We are a handful of days away from SiG’s 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering. Let’s keep ‘multiple entry points’ in mind as 45 R&D practitioners from diverse disciplines, regions and issue domains spend two and half days together to:

  1. strengthen peer relationships;
  2. share research and experiments;
  3. cross-pollinate methods and techniques;
  4. learn about successes and failures in organizational setup and management of R&D, and;
  5. identify areas where practitioners can act as a whole to remove barriers to R&D in Canada’s social sector.

If previous gatherings are an indication, participating practitioners and this ecosystem will not be the same after the Gathering. We anticipate a more connected, fired up and sophisticated movement.

There are a handful of changes to the 2017 Gathering compared to the inaugural edition in 2016: from the introduction of Heads of R&D at a few BCorp companies and a contribution to Canada’s Social Innovation Strategy to doubling the cohort size and participation from community foundations and United Way Centraides. As well, Renuka Kher, Founder of T Lab in San Francisco, Tipping Point’s R&D engine, will be joining us as our international speaker. We cannot wait.

Cultivating a Canadian Social R&D ecosystem

As part of a two-year exploration, SiG is seeding the conditions for legitimizing and advancing R&D as a core organizational practice, for making available a more intentional suite of supports and resources, and for a networked ecosystem driven by practitioners. The Canadian social sector needs more experimentation, and multiple entry points; a robust Social R&D ecosystem is a key piece to get there.

The thing is, there is no formula for catalyzing an ecosystem – no playbook and no step by step process. I’ve learned that ecosystem catalyzing, done well, is messy, multi-dimensional, without a single uniform narrative, and is both bottom-up and top-down. Luckily, there is a growing movement of practitioners with an increasingly sophisticated skillset, and funders and policy leaders willing to come to the table. There are a few signals since we began on this journey a year and a half ago, that are promising:

In the public sector and public policy: Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy co-creation process has the opportunity to be inclusive of and meaningfully advance R&D. There is active engagement in the strategy consultation process, including a session at the Practice Gathering. Social R&D has also helped to shape the policy innovation agenda across the federal government through experimentation units like ADAPT and the recent Policy Community Conference.

In the international scene: Canada’s journey to grow R&D capacity in the social sector is complemented by growth of Social R&D around the world. Individuals like Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta in the UK and organizations like the Skoll Foundation have noted the importance of investment in Social R&D.

In funders circles: Funders and grantmakers in Canada are beginning to consider integrating experimentation supports and find ways to fund R&D. In the spring, SiG hosted a roundtable that convened funders like SSHRC, Canada Council for the Arts, RBC Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation and others to demonstrate the value of investment in R&D alongside program delivery. Long established social service agency funders like United Way Centraide and Community Foundations are engaged and participating in the Practice Gathering.

These early signals illustrate progress but the next little while is fragile and critical to advancing the growth of a viable Social R&D ecosystem – either we expand or we see momentum contract. Based on what I’ve been learning through my explorations in Silicon Valley, and given that we remain at the fuzzy front end, we need to continue catalyzing the conditions for R&D to gain traction. As examples, systematic R&D supports through Canada’s Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy, non-government funders intentionally integrating R&D into granting process, and a formalized network of practitioners pursuing and promoting R&D are vital.

Here. We. Go.






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About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.


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