Friday, March 26, 2010

Canada--Social Innovation Nation?

Today's columnist is Stephen Huddart from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation. He writes:

It seems that everywhere you look these days, people are calling upon Canada to invest more in innovation. Here for example is Preston Manning on the topic and here is former Privy Council head Kevin Lynch. Such commentaries typically focus on the roles of business, government and universities – but either barely mention or completely ignore the community or voluntary sector. For those of us who work and volunteer in this sector, this is a regrettable and all-too-familiar oversight.

Tim Brodhead, President and CEO of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, has provided a helpful reminder of this sector’s powerful role in innovation, as well as a comprehensive analysis of the sector’s recent history and future potential. As he notes in the former document, the most recent Speech from the Throne makes a break with the usual pattern of omission, and refers to innovative charities working in concert with business and government to solve persistent social problems. The speech states that:

Every day, the power of innovation is seen at work in communities across this country, as citizens, businesses and charitable groups join forces to tackle local problems.

Too often, however, grassroots efforts are hobbled by red tape. Too often, local solutions are denied access to government assistance because they do not fit the bureaucratic definition of the problem. Too often, the efforts of communities falter not on account of a lack of effort or heart, but because of a lack of expertise to turn good ideas into reality.
  • Our Government will take steps to support communities in their efforts to tackle local challenges.
  • It will look to innovative charities and forward-thinking private-sector companies to partner on new approaches to many social challenges.

Before we can consider the community sector’s role in catalyzing innovation, we need to look at business model innovation within the sector itself. As Bill Drayton points out in Massive Change, from 1700 onwards business innovation has generated compounded productivity increases of 2 - 3% per year, while the social sector’s tightly regulated operating system of grants and donations has hardly evolved since the 1800’s. To support the passion and entrepreneurial energy that shape bold new ventures, innovative models and methods are essential.

First Steps: Creating Time and Space for Innovation in the Community Sector

Continuous innovation in the community sector has only emerged in the last couple of decades. Within this timeframe, McConnell developed a suite of national programs that tested, adapted and scaled up new approaches over periods extending up to a decade or more. In fields ranging from community economic development to arts in education, breakthrough results came about because a funder was prepared to accompany grantees through cycles of testing, failure and adaptation rather than put them all to sleep in a Procrustean bed. Tides Foundation Canada, established in 2000, introduced shared back office services so that social and environmental innovators could spend more time on their mission-related work and less on operating redundant, resource-intensive administrative structures. The Kahanoff Centre in Calgary and the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto introduced co-location for non-profits so that they could benefit from access to shared services, economies of scale, and convergence innovation – the unexpected results of people and ideas bumping into one another. Today CSI is home to over 100 nonprofits and is linked to centres like the Hubs in Halifax and London, England. A second site is in the works. The model works in smaller centres too - the Creative Space in Barrie operates on similar principles. Counter to this promising trend - and to the government’s stated intentions in the Throne Speech - Industry Canada has just announced that it is ending support for much of its Community Access Program. This noble effort to bridge the digital divide ensured that low income and transient people had access to the net and supported innovations like Homeless Nation.

Next Steps: Building a Culture of Social Innovation

Social Innovation Generation, a partnership between McConnell, MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, the University of Waterloo and the PLAN Institute in Vancouver was designed to enable closer collaboration among institutions with complementary capacities for supporting social change. At the risk of oversimplification, McConnell contributes funding, convening and several communities of changemakers; MaRS adds support for social entrepreneurship and social finance; Waterloo brings intellectual leadership, research capacity and new tools for organizational learning; and PLAN’s work with the disability sector exemplifies how an entire domain can be shifted from ‘problem’ to ‘promise’.

New operating systems for the community sector are about to emerge. One set of strategies is clustered under the heading of social finance – funding and organizational models that support hybrid organizations generating both profits and specific public benefits. Shared reporting platforms are needed to streamline relations between funders and grantees. We need a new marketplace for good ideas in this sector – one that removes some of the barriers to bringing good ideas to the attention of funders, and to scaling up the best ideas. When one funder has done due diligence on a proposal it can often save others the trouble – here's an idea from Philanthropy Australia that might be worth building upon. Other areas in development include tools for measuring social impact, and open software platforms that enable multiple organizations to share data and learning.

To take this work to the next level, we need public, private and philanthropic investments in these areas, plus an accessible, adaptable architecture – an ecology if you will – that supports new players entering the field - locally, regionally and nationally. With social innovation partnerships and hubs in place, and networked, a whole new set of capacities and possibilities emerges.

For the open source community – volunteer developers, teachers, students, entrepreneurs – the needs and opportunities are boundless. In addition to the work involved in connecting the community sector with new, networked means of getting things done, whole new frontiers are opening up: working with open API databases to create new data sets for analyzing and tracking social innovations will generate new knowledge and enable innovation collaboratives to learn and adapt quickly.

When private and public institutions collaborate with the community sector, disruptive innovation can take place, saving scarce resources, improving services and deepening civic engagement. An illustrative example is PLAN’s Tyze program, which enables collaboration between the formal and informal health sectors. This one social innovation, developed in Canada, has garnered attention and support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in the US and is also being piloted in the UK. Imagine what could be accomplished with a pipeline of such ideas, as Mexico is building with its Oportunidades program.

Canada: Social Innovation Nation?

As a uniquely diverse society with a strong community sector (the second largest in the world as a share of the economically active population according to The Canadian Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector in Comparative Perspective; Imagine Canada 2005), we have some natural advantages when it comes to social innovation. Observers who have rightly pointed out that innovation = productivity = social wellbeing have often missed the fact that the community sector provides invaluable social R&D, and that hobbling it with outdated business models is a serious drag on the economy.

The open source software community is part of this picture too, although often overlooked because it isn’t organized into ‘charities’ where things like volunteer hours can be counted. Unleashing the generative possibilities among open source technologies, new social process tools and the community sector ought to be a priority component of our national innovation strategy, and would help Canada to define and occupy an advantageous global niche.

No comments: