What I learned from the ABSI Connect fellows

Guest Post by Kelsey Spitz, Senior Associate SiG. This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.


It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

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National Food Policy and the Future of Food

Diana Bronson_Blog Author_EN


I write this blog on a plane having just watched Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. The film ends as Moore reminisces about the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, when people simply took hammers and chisels to the concrete structure that had outlived its usefulness to anyone. I believe the food system for the next generation of Canadians will be as different from today’s as the Germany of Chancellor Merkel is different from the Germany she grew up in.

Twenty years ago, on November 9, 1989, jubilant crowds celebrated the opening of border crossings along the Berlin Wall. To find out more about the Berlin Wall, please visit www.Germany.info/withoutwalls. Copyright: Press and Information Office of the Federal Government of Germany. (PRNewsFoto/German Embassy Washington, DC)

Just as East Germans no longer believed the Soviet lie, consumers, particularly younger consumers, no longer trust our food system. There are many signs that the future of food will be more local, diversified, decentralized, sustainable, organic. In fact, the local system is already thriving on the margins of the dominant system, despite a policy environment that has been geared for decades to industrial production where success is measured by the growth of exports. Government policy has been increasingly out of sync with the way more and more people are looking at food: they are concerned about the health impacts of the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides; they are frightened by the collapse of entire species (bees, monarchs, tuna); and the risks involved in extreme forms of genetic modification (synthetic biology, GM fish); they mistrust the products of industrial and factory farming and they are concerned about the rights of workers and farmers and fishers to make decent livelihoods while growing the food we need to survive. When given the option, as we saw recently in the French’s Ketchup controversy, they are fiercely local.


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It’s Not About the Practice… or is it?

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“Breakthroughs come when people learn how to take the time to stop and examine their assumptions.” – Peter Senge

Mali_Blog AuthorEarlier this year we shared a list of ‘everyday practices’ that are currently being prototyped (see here). The concept of an everyday practice came from two places: the research around ‘kernels of practice’, as shared by Dennis Embry and colleagues, and a survey. In the spring of 2015, WellAhead asked over 1,400 people two questions: “What does your school do to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing” and “what do YOU do to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing.” Everyday practices are one way to frame and understand the responses to that second question: the many things that we do day to day to support our children and youth.

There’s a few things we’re hearing about the concept of ‘everyday practices’ as connected to the broader system of work happening in schools:

Building on what is already happening

Taking a moment to reflect on and examine our own practice is one way to value, respect, and appreciate the potential each of us have to make a difference in the lives of our children and youth. The everyday practices being prototyped in BC this year are merely examples of the dozens, hundreds of ‘everyday practices’ that that our teachers, parents, EAs, administrators, nurses, students, aboriginal support workers, bus drivers, CUPE workers, after-school providers enact across BC. Read the rest of this entry »

Eating Responsibly: A Daily Challenge for Tomorrow!

Florence_Blog Author_EN

Guest blog by Florence Lefebvre St-Arnaud, Owner, Campanipol Family Farm 

Food: a central theme of contemporary life and a priority issue for agricultural producers. The food system appears to be rediscovering the importance of local products, the quality and traceability of products, and the family farm. However, the system seems to be at a crossroads.

As a member of a family farm that has been a certified organic producer for nearly 30 years, it goes without saying that I would like our food system to be more focused on innovation and our rich array of local products. Above all, I hope that all the initiatives taken by the generations that have come before will continue to evolve and help change society’s overall vision of farming and food. Whether by carrying out collective marketing initiatives, sustaining small farms specialized in niche productions, or promoting and providing information about urban agriculture and self-sufficiency, I continue to believe that we should strive to have multiple options, as a community, to allow us to eat responsibly.


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Moving from scarcity to abundance: Our story

Guest article by Mike Morrice, Executive Director, Sustainability CoLab, Chad Park, Executive Director, The Natural Step and Elizabeth Sheehan, President, Climate Smart Business

At the turn of the last century one of America’s great innovators, Henry Ford, commented, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” And today, a hundred years later, his words still ring true, embodying the spirit of collaboration that the Foundation proposed to us last fall.

Coming Together

Going back to early 2014, The Natural Step, Climate Smart and Sustainability CoLab – each supported by the McConnell Foundation – was working in different areas of the country on different solutions, but with a significant commonality: each were scaling innovations that engaged business in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

At the time, each was aware of one another, but none had prioritized collaborating. This, combined with the scarcity of resources, provided the potential for future competition between the three.


This is where a well-timed bit of leadership came in: the Foundation proposed a small collaborative grant to the three organizations. The only caveat? The money must be used on a shared priority.

Now, rather than being protective of the similarities between our solutions, as leaders of each organization we could be opportunistic about them. We could seek out shared gains in our work, should we commit some time to build up our shared understanding.

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Reading the Future in a Glass of Milk

Guest blog by Isabelle Mailhot-Leduc, Sustainable Food System Coordinator, Concordia University

Isabelle blog author_ENHalf listening to the radio as I prepared my dinner, I was suddenly struck by the words of the reporter and turned up the volume. The radio program was talking about a demonstration that had taken place earlier that day in front of a large milk-processing plant in Montreal. Some 50 milk producers had gathered there to denounce the use of diafiltered milk from the United States in the industrial production of dairy products. Diafiltered milk is a product that has been filtered several times in order to obtain a very high protein liquid. It is also available in powder form. Canadian customs authorities consider diafiltered milk an ingredient, making the product exempt from tariffs on milk. Major dairy processors are delighted with this situation, as diafiltered milk allows them to save money. Not only is this milk competitively priced, but given its high protein content, it is also more efficient than Quebec milk for the industrial production of yoghurt and cheese. My thoughts were immediately drawn to the concept of a more “efficient” milk.


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Introducing Solutions Finance: A New Vision for Our Work

SF for newsletter

Erica Blog Author_ENBy Stephen Huddart and Erica Barbosa VargasStephen-Huddart-author

In the coming weeks, the Foundation is rolling out several new resources on Solutions Finance: a series of white papers and related case studies, illustrating some of what we’ve learned over the last decade from our successes—and failures—in deploying capital for systems change. The first white paper is available today. We hope these resources will be useful to a growing community interested in financial innovation for positive social and environmental impact.

Until recently, we did not talk about Solutions Finance. The new term requires a bit of unpacking.

Social Finance refers to financial instruments that generate social and environmental impact alongside financial returns. It is a term widely recognized in the field and the umbrella term we have been using to describe the Foundation’s market-building and impact investing activities. However, as our experience and practice expand, we see that the promise of this work goes beyond investments with blended returns.

Successful systems innovation requires adequate resourcing, and calls for different forms of capital allocation across the multiple stages of design and implementation. To make this happen in the context of our work, we’re advocating for — and adopting as our own practice — an integrated approach to deploying financial capital and adapting financial models to catalyze, sustain and scale systems transformation. In other words, Solutions Finance. This approach includes, but is more than, continuing to grow an investment portfolio with the expectation of a financial return as well as a positive social or environmental impact.

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Social Innovation and Cities – Les Jardins Gamelin, Montreal


Definition: An influence process leading to social change that rejects existing social standards and proposes new ones.

Lyndsay Daudier_Blog AuthorEN
When referring to social innovation in cities, the one and only concern is the welfare of human beings in the environment where they evolve. This is increasingly important today since 80% of the Canadian population live in cities. We are experiencing a constant renewal of urban areas in order to meet the new needs of its inhabitants. We are witnessing political transformations, planning changes, technology improvements and the discovery of changes by city-dwellers and visitors alike.

For true innovation to occur in a city, economic/technical innovation must merge with community innovation, as it is largely the community that will benefit from these changes. A city does not consist only of its representatives, but all those who use it: children, young people, the active population, the inactive population, seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers, immigrants, First Nations members. It is therefore critical to clearly identify everyone’s needs.

Moreover, in keeping with the times, innovation also requires a smart design, whether it be in the use of technological tools for a comfortable urban life, the planning of a city space or the ergonomics of public equipment. The challenge today is also about working with what already exists and making the most of it. For example, the planning of a city space must take into account what has happened there historically, the population groups that already frequent this locale, as well as the existing architecture. Innovation is not a substitute for heritage. Instead, it must go further to find out what must no longer be done and respond to the new needs.

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Technology takes us back to the future of fish

eric enno tamm_This fish_ENGuest blog by Eric Enno Tamm, General Manager, This Fish

The fishing industry is our most ancient food system. It’s really the last vestige of our hunter-gather society, predating human civilization (and agriculture) by hundreds of thousands of years. Wild-capture fisheries are our greatest undomesticated protein source – the original paleo-diet. The technology and industrial scale of fishing has certainly changed over centuries, but the pursuit of fish on the untamed seas is an age-old story.

So, what is the future of this ancient pursuit? The revolution in information technology and changing consumer attitudes and behaviours presents an opportunity to reverse many of the excesses of industry-scale fisheries in the last half century. The problems have become all too apparent.


Consumers, businesses, NGOs and governments are demanding more transparency and accountability in supply chains to prevent illegal fishing, seafood fraud and human rights abuses. Oceana campaigners have DNA-tested 1,200 seafood samples in the U.S. showing that 30 percent of some species were mislabeled. Recent investigative reports have uncovered shocking stories of slavery at sea in Southeast Asian fisheries. And scholars have estimated that between 20% – 32% of wild-caught seafood imported into the U.S. is illegally harvested.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Being Vulnerable


Blog by Danica Straith. Danica joined the RECODE team in spring 2015 for a one-year Social Innovation Fellowship through the McConnell Foundation’s Fellowship Program.

As I wrap up my RECODE fellowship with the McConnell Foundation, I have many thoughts on this pivotal year and what I have learned throughout. I would, however, like to come full circle on one of my initial fellowship learning goals. Though, instead of full circle, I think I may be still rounding a corner. And instead of a circle, it may be more of an oval shape, but here is my attempt to articulate.


At the outset of my fellowship, I said that I wanted to develop my skills in stakeholder management and relationship building within the budding RECODE ecosystem. This goal drilled down into another, more personal, capacity building aim; one where I felt like I needed to learn how to better relate to a diversity of people, to meet them where they were at, and to find ways to speak their language authentically and sincerely. From my previous research on scaling impact, I saw that the ability to genuinely relate was critical to deepening any collective work aimed at tackling deeply rooted and systemic problems. We can talk about amplifying models all we want, but if they can’t be socialized and made sense of in the day to day, they can become meaningless. This falls under one of the three dimensions of scaling—scaling deep*.

It seems that empathy with a big E requires that we expose our own rawness to our partners and colleagues from time to time.

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