My name is Isaac Caverhill-Godkewitsch and I joined WISIR as a research assistant in January, 2013. In my time working here I have enjoyed a wealth of experiences in researching and working with the concept of social innovation. But as a newcomer to the field, I can offer my experience as a lesson to others interested in social innovation.
Social innovation is a difficult concept, especially at first glance. Here at WISIR, we define it as …an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.
That's the gist of the issue but I must admit it is hard to wrap my head around. However, there is some advice I can give in trying to understand this definition. Stepping into social innovation requires going outside intellectual boundaries. Likely, you have read about interdisciplinary research; maybe it was called trans- or multi-disciplinarily studies or some such thing. Whatever the term, I found that going beyond established boundaries is vital in understanding social innovation and how to research it ‒ turns out it does not cleanly fit into one disciplinary box. I had to become comfortable outside of my discipline.
Social innovations do not affect single, discrete systems. They affect several systems at any one time, some natural, technological or social in character. Because of this fact, it is best to allow our conceptual and methodological lenses to be as multivalent as the phenomenon itself.
I come from a background of international affairs, security, and political science alongside a hodge-podge of other disciplines from my bachelor's degree ‒ but social innovation still stumped me. I found I had to be willing to switch gears into different perspectives. Instead of thinking of governance, policy, or national security, I tried to become more fluid in my thinking. I tried thinking as an engineer, a psychologist, or a doctor on different issues (though I am not by any means!). Each role-playing experience gave a small additional insight into any particular social innovation. The cumulative effect allowed me to piece together a larger picture of the process and effects of social innovation.
To others trying to get their first grasp on the concept of social innovation, I would recommend to be prepared to go beyond your comfort zone. Social innovation does not neatly fit into any one discipline ‒ a single discipline is not sufficient to understand it. When reading the literature on innovation, complexity, systems, or otherwise, indulge the secret engineer, creative writer, historian, musician, or eccentric sides of your thoughts. Going beyond our own mental boundaries is vital to understanding how social innovations work.
The Project Course is one of the main program elements of the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, and highlights its active and applied approach to learning. Small project teams have formed as generative collaborations to address questions related to innovation needed within specific problem domains and the social systems in which they are imbedded. The project is focused upon teams developing a strategy with potential for broad system change.
The project requires team members to:
• Identify innovations or clusters of innovation present in the system(s);
• Design, develop and test ideas for strategy(ies) to connect/enhance current or emerging innovations in order for these to have impact across scales in the dominant system;
• Provide a strong rationale for a chosen strategy’s potential to tip the system in a new direction that would result in broad institutional change.
Shared below are a few snapshots of some of the projects that our students are working on.
Wicked Question: How can greater diversity be introduced into the food system of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions while simultaneously preserving/enhancing its overall efficiency?
Strategy Goal: A set of innovations which will result in an increased diversity of high-quality, local, seasonal food being available within Ontario post- secondary institutions while simultaneously maintaining or enhancing the efficiency of the food production and distribution system. This strategy will be scalable across post- secondary institutions and potentially the whole food system.
Urban Systems Domain
Wicked Issue: When addressing social and environmental challenges related to urban sustainability, collaboration is necessary to bring about systemic change, however the more complex the situation, the more difficult it is for stakeholders to collaborate in a meaningful way.
Strategy Goal: To uncover the main barriers and bridges to individual and collective agency, and to determine potential leverage points that might lead to more successful collective impact projects addressing urban sustainability challenges .
Wicked Question: How can Canada advance toward a low carbon future while safeguarding the environment and enhancing the well-being and prosperity of all Canadians?
Strategy Focus: An engagement process to enable Canadians to speak collectively and compellingly about our energy future and help chart Canada’s journey toward a low-carbon future is proposed. Juxtaposing science and research with human experience, story, art and emotion an online “trans-media” platform (an interactive documentary, game-like experience rich with graphics, animation, video and audio) will invite participants to explore issues. Innovation will emerge as options are assessed, patterns observed and better and more effective means of producing, distributing and consuming energy identified.
As I think back to the two weeks I spent in Trinidad working with an incredible team designing and implementing the Agents of Change camp, push-ups always come to mind. This camp was a daring project to host in Trinidad, but in partnership with SiG, Village Seed Solutions, Demming Communications and other corporate and community backers, we successfully ran a camp for boys aged 15-20.
It began with the question: “What would happen if you gave a group of young men a hopeful lens to see the world through, an opportunity to name what they care about and the tools to create positive social change in the world? What could they accomplish with just a little bit of knowledge and new ways of thinking?”
Agents of Change was open to only young men in this first year, because we felt we needed to focus in a way where we could create the most impact. Some of these boys came from the toughest neighborhoods in the country and were offered corporate support to join us – these were strong young men on one hand, vulnerable on the other. Others had heard about the camp through various promotion and their families had enrolled them. The camp was designed to focus on providing participants with skills, tools and resources around systems thinking, creative problem solving and disruptive thinking. The hope was that participants would be able to use these skills in multiple contexts in ways that matter to them. The boys were asked to experiment with applying these tools within a particular problem domain of their choice. They chose from within education, environment or crime. Using the tools and skills taught in the program, participants developed their own innovative approaches to these issues in their communities.
This was a camp about empowerment, not just the transfer of knowledge. On the first morning, we asked the boys to work with us to co-create the rules we would all abide by for the next 10 days. One of the questions we posed was, how do we ensure all aspects of this space are respected; the people, the school we were in and the schedule we were working according to. They decided that if anyone was late, they would either have to do push ups or sing a song or dance. When we asked how many push ups, they enthusiastically shouted '10 a day!'. Meaning by the end of camp, if anyone was late on the final Friday, they would be doing 100 push ups!! I was grateful to be a facilitator who was there early every morning, because I knew my wimpy arms couldn’t handle that. While it seemed to be in good fun when we started, I learned lessons from these push ups. I also learned, that some teenage boys in Trinidad don’t have a musical repertoire that reaches beyond ‘I’m a little teapot’ or ‘Mary had a little lamb’. By day 3, these young men were encouraging each other to choose the push ups rather than sing or dance- they loved watching the physical engagement this forced everyone into. And then somehow this daily morning ritual started reflecting various lessons we were talking about during our days together. On the morning after we talked mental models, these boys challenged each others assumptions about what was possible. I watched one young guy just hit the concrete floor out of pure exhaustion – his arms couldn’t do anymore. Then Adom, a young charismatic participant, just shouted ‘come on bro, you can do this, you got it, I know you do’. And that one second of belief from someone else, seemed to breathe new energy through those arms and he pumped another 10 pushups to the hooting and hollering of his fellow students. I loved that moment.
Here we were in a school courtyard of sorts, with half a roof, papered chalkboards, a freshly scrubbed floor and sharing in a moment of how honest confidence in one another could take us to beyond the place where we feel like giving up. Those lessons of not giving up on each other, translated into conversations of what resilience would look like as these young men talked about a future for their country that could include their fellows students not getting caught up in gang activity and how relevant community programming could alter that. How they could use the vibrant party scene in Trinidad to be an accelerator for how people view, value and act towards the environment. Or why education needed to be taught in a different way to reach the diverse learning styles and interests of its students.
Then there was the day we talked about asset based approaches, true colors and seeing the good in people , regardless of if they are different than us. We saw barriers come down around how these boys interacted with each other. What had been previously identified as differences, were now viewed as opportunities. Past issues of, what school they came from, what music they listened to, or what their families looked like – no longer had a place or power here. These boys started taking push ups FOR each other. Helping each other out; those who were strong, who loved to do one handed push ups or push ups on their knuckles, would volunteer to take 10 push ups so that their fellow students would make it to their goal. Together they helped each other respect the rules they had set out for each other.
In the final circle, one participant talked about how he recognized they were part of this whole system, and could feel the constant pounding of the problems that surround them, and while they desire innovation in their responses, knowing there were other young men being open to thinking differently and wanting to act differently, meant we had hope. While there were typical moments in these 2 weeks where I had my first world purview stretched, what will remain my strongest takeaway, is the incredible hope in the next generation that is rising up in Trinidad. They are not being done to, they are doing. They are not just dreaming; they are capable. And yet, we can’t let that be an excuse, we all hold responsibility for how we create the conditions for success to be the reality. But for 10 days, being reminded of hope, solidarity and change through push ups – that’s a good start. I’ll take it.
Anita is the Manager of Knowledge Mobilization with WISIR and can be reached at email@example.com
Watch these two videos - the first of one participant having to do 60 push ups and getting a little help. And the second showcasing some of the learning from the two weeks.
I recently attended the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada’s Aboriginal Education and Youth Leadership Conference (December 13-14, 2012) in Ottawa. The conference brought together Indigenous activists, social entrepreneurs, youth leaders, funding agencies, and me (as WISIR’s representative) a researcher interested in the issues and opportunities within and around Indigenous communities and individuals in Canada. I have attended several similar conferences, involving many committed people sharing their passion and desire to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Canada, yet I found the Circle’s gathering unique in its focus on what attendees were doing, rather than generally what needs to be done. In particular, we began our two-day meeting with presentations from three young men who are carving their own unique paths: Nicholas is creating an education-based business, where he mixes Métis fiddling with cultural and historical lectures about Métis society; Michael is finishing a master’s degree in social work and a career in international hockey, and; Jordan has discovered and documented the history of his community in the North West Territories with his skills as a filmmaker. These stories set the tone for the rest of the two days; participants did not ignore or downplay the very serious obstacles in Indigenous communities and facing Indigenous individuals. Even the choice of the three youth men to speak reflected an attempt to acknowledge and address one of these problems, that young Indigenous women are outpacing men, more likely to finish school, more likely to establish themselves financially and personally. We celebrated these young men as examples of what can be done, despite the structures, relationships and racist negative expectations that can and have hindered so many other Indigenous youth.
The rest of the gathering focused on two basic questions, how have participants sought to create more physically, culturally and intellectually accessible education programs for Indigenous youth, and how members and affiliates of the Circle can better scale their work up and out to achieve broad system change. We discussed many projects and programs, from the Canadian Roots Exchange that brings youth (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) together on reserves to share experiences, to Gai Hon Nya Ni, an online school for Indigenous youth in southern Ontario that both meets provincial requirements and offers extensive Indigenous language and Native studies programs. Looking forward, there was an active exchange with representatives from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development about the federal government’s new Indigenous education initiative. There was a mutually-expressed hope that Indigenous youth themselves will have meaningful opportunities to contribute, and hopefully drive the consultation process. Although we all have a stake in the future of Indigenous youth, they need adult partners with whom they can work, not who make all the important decisions for them.
As a historian and as an academic, it is always an excellent and necessary reminder that we hold an incredible responsibility to those working to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. I approach these gatherings as a listener and a learner, rather than an expert, and I feel deeply thankful to my fellow attendees and the speakers at this gathering. The common interest in social innovation and disruptive change expressed to me personally in my many conservations is a constant reminder of the value of our work at SiG/WISIR, but also the humility of being a small part of something much bigger, the drive to make this world better than yesterday, and the real consequences of inaction. While the problems many Indigenous communities and individuals face may be wicked, they are not prepared to let that complexity stop the drive for meaningful change.