An Emerging Community of Practice for Canadian Social Innovation Labs

Darcy Riddell_Blog Author EN

We are living at a time where some individuals seem to have tremendous influence over political events, media narratives, and even global philanthropic agendas. However, we know that individuals acting alone – no matter how powerful or charismatic they may be – cannot address the complexity of current social and ecological problems. Our long-term challenges call for comprehensive and collaborative work across sectors, because they are deeply rooted in cultural values, encoded in our institutions, and re-enacted each day through the behaviour of countless people. In the face of their systemic nature, it can be hard to know where to engage on social problems, or how to adapt when change efforts aren’t working.

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Photo credit: Social Innovation Generation

Social Innovation labs offer one promising entry point for collaborative work aimed at the roots of wicked social problems. At their heart, labs offer a structure to use where no one institution or sector can solve a complex challenge alone, and where no single solution or intervention is likely to work. Labs provide a container for ongoing experimentation and learning – so new insights and interventions can be developed, and great ideas from elsewhere can be tested and adapted. When undertaken with the discipline and commitment to achieve implementation, labs can extend their impact to a system level.

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has been funding and supporting a growing community of labs in Canada for several years (2012). Earlier this summer, we convened a group of lab practitioners from The Natural Step’s Energy Futures Lab, l’Institut du Nouveau Monde’s Labis, MaRS Solutions Lab, and WellAhead along with staff, to harvest lessons learned from diverse lab efforts across Canada. These labs work on issues including the acceleration of Alberta’s economic transition away from fossil fuels, the shift to sustainable food systems, the need to connect health issues to social determinants such as access to housing, and proactive approaches to stem the increase of mental health challenges in children.

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Falling into the “program” trap

Mali_Blog AuthorPerhaps you’ve heard the story about the person who falls into a hole in the street. He walks along the street, falls into a hole, and climbs out to the same spot where he started. He walks back along the street and falls into the hole again. In fact, he continues falling in the hole, climbing back out, and returning back to where he started, until finally someone shows him a parallel street, a different way to get where he’s going.

We had heard this story told in the context of addictions research, or when describing habits that are seemingly permanently fixed. It illustrates how habits and ways of being are deeply entrenched in certain ways of thinking. In reflecting on WellAhead’s past year of work, we have begun to see how we may have fallen into some of these habits ourselves.

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In the research and design phase of WellAhead, one of the key challenges or ‘holes’ identified was that mental health and wellbeing was approached as a ‘program’ to be implemented in the school setting rather than as a way of being, a cultural shift. Such programs had a range of efficacy, and were costly and difficult to scale across all schools. In addition, because programs were often developed and delivered by people outside the school, they were not being integrated into school communities. There was a sense that districts and communities needed to be part of the visioning and action towards change rather than simply recipients of solutions. From this, it was hypothesized that engaging a range of stakeholders in an emergent, participatory process might be more effective than imposing a highly defined program.

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Future Food: rebuilding the middle of the food system

Jessie Radies_Blog Author_ENGuest blog by Jessie Radies, Local Food Associate, Northlands

The future of our food system depends on us and the choices we make every day. In North America, what we eat, where we buy it and what we grow, all help determine the make-up of our global food system.

There is growing collective recognition that our global food system, as it operates today, is not feeding our planet efficiently and comes at a great cost.  Regions are not encouraged to be self-reliant, farming is not financially viable with an ongoing effort to drive down the cost of production, starvation is still a reality and much of the food grown and raised is wasted before it ever gets eaten.

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Globally, science and agriculture are focused on providing enough calories to feed a global population of 9 billion people by 2050.  Today we imagine this by making agriculture production efficient and low cost; having infrastructure that can transport, store and process food products and ingredients efficiently around the globe.  It also requires chemicals and GMO’s to increase annual production and protect against disease and minimize the risk of crop failure. It means varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown based on their ability to be shipped, so oranges, bananas and fresh tomatoes can be a staple in our North American diet year round and can be shipped thousands of miles before they end up on our plate.

In my lifetime our food system has changed from one that was basically local to one that is primarily global, but the emergent edge of food is hyper-local and small, made up of urban agriculture, heritage varieties and artisan products.

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Fostering Consistent Stakeholder Engagement for a Maximum Impact

Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project

Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.

At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.

Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public. The Binners’ Project is now a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, which supports on-the-ground efforts.

Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.

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Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.

Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.

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Northern Manitoba Community Food Security and Cultural Food Heritage

Guest post by Carl McCorrister, retired teacher and member of the Peguis Community Garden

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Seven years ago, I retired after a teaching career spanning 25 years in northern Manitoba. Feeling the urge to start something new, I began to complete a Master’s degree, and then contemplated how I had always wanted to return to the land to  promote food security within my community, Peguis First Nation.

Located 190 kilometers north of Winnipeg in the Interlake Region of Manitoba, Peguis is home to about 10,000 people, making it the largest First Nations community in the province.  In a region where disputes around Treaty Land Entitlement have persisted for years, I unexpectedly found myself with the opportunity to participate in the development of a community garden that would also function as a means of reconnecting Peguis First Nation with its land and agricultural heritage…and so began working with the Peguis Community Garden.

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In 2011-2012, fundraising began for a community garden in Peguis that would also serve as an education hub to share resources around healthy eating and well-being. Following a successful series of bingo nights, the Community Garden project had rapidly generated interest and support and project participants were able to break ground on a three-acre garden site on common Band land. The year was a success: the soil was perfect, so much so that a small portion of the plot went into production that year. The community was thrilled about the garden and viewed it as an opportunity to reclaim the agricultural heritage of the land.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is solutions journalism? Excerpts from an interview with David Bornstein

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Laurence Blog Author_ENDavid Bornstein, author, New York Times columnist (The Opinionator) and co-founder of the US-based Solutions Journalism Network, took part in a Foundation-sponsored retreat in early June, on the topic “Can 21st Century Journalism Solve 21st Century Challenges?”

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Bornstein in which he explains how journalism can help society to self-correct, by helping people understand where the deficiencies are.

What is the difference between journalism and solutions journalism?

BORNSTEIN: By and large journalism helps society to self-correct, by helping people understand where the deficiencies are. The theory of change is that we need to shine a light on the dark corners of society, to bring attention and, if necessary, outrage to those areas so that change takes place.

SOJUBut what we’re seeing today is that we need to re-invent many institutions designed for the nineteenth or twentieth centuries that are ill-suited for twenty-first century challenges, because of limits on planetary carrying capacity, in terms of global warming; and because the pace of change is so much faster today.

Journalism’s role now is not just to keep institutions honest but also to help people understand that in the twenty-first century, we need to reshape some of these institutions, or create whole new ones. And so the questions we need to ask are not just ‘what’s going wrong and who is responsible?’ but also, ‘what are the ideas that are emerging?, where is the knowledge; where are new models being born?’. That’s what solutions journalism does. Read the rest of this entry »

Catching seafood up with the local and sustainable food movement

Justin Cantafio_Blog Author_En Susanna Fuller_Blog Author_ENGuest post by Justin Cantafio, Sustainable Fisheries Campaigner and Susanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre.

Consumer preferences and buying habits can be instrumental in sharping food systems. Over the past two decades, two seemingly deviating consumer trends have taken hold. On one hand, our growing on-demand society seeks convenient and easily identifiable foods, with discerning consumers looking to third-party certifications and eco-labels to inform them on health and sustainability claims. On the other hand, consumers are increasingly turning to food to slow down and reconnect to family and friends, community, and food producers.

Luckily, the latter trend of whole foods direct from producer has begun to inform the desire for convenient and quick food. Gradually, trends that start off in local chalkboard menu restaurants and farmers markets have been finding their way into institutions and supermarkets. And while an erosion of values often occurs in the globalized commodity marketplace of big box stores, broadline food service providers, and restaurant chains, the result of both trends is that consumers are increasingly scrutinizing where their food came from, who produced it, and how it was produced.

Two young fishers working a weir—an ancient low-impact fishing method—on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

Two young fishers working a weir—an ancient low-impact fishing method—on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

From the silver platter to the hospital dinner tray, local and sustainable foods are growing in popularity. Yet while universities and elementary school cafeterias are proclaiming their menus replete with local poultry or organic salad greens, more often than not, outside of catch of the day labels – a fish is still a fish— and a wild protein luxury we often take for granted.

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Cities in Transformation

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Guest blog by Gorka Espiau, Director of Places and International Affairs, The Young Foundation. This blog originally appears on the Amplifier Montréal website. It is republished here with their permission.

Whilst there are huge amounts of innovative and creative work within urban areas, many of society’s most complex problems also manifest themselves here – unemployment, poverty, pollution and social mobility to name but a few. These problems, often described as ‘wicked’ problems for their complex, entrenched, and interconnected nature are too often addressed in a short-term or fragmented way.

Traditional interventions may often only address the symptoms rather than the root, or structural causes of the problem. They demand a comprehensive and interconnected series of interventions. A more holistic and large-scale transformation needs to take place. Even the most successful ones have always acknowledged that the challenges we are tackling are too complex and interrelated to be transformed applying a technical “project delivery” mentality.

Cities are also becoming the natural ecosystem for inequality. The wealthiest, the “squeezed middle” and the growing poorest couldn’t live physically closer to each other. In this context, many city leaders share the aspiration of launching new reform movements with the potential to incubate disruptive social innovations that will tackle the structural and institutional causes of inequality.

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For this purpose, interconnected and larger scale interventions need to be co-created until a genuine movement of transformation is generated at the city/region level. Projects need to be incorporated as necessary tools of the “transformation movement” but always integrated within a deeper aspirational goal.

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Three Thresholds from Worse to Better

Hal Hamilton_Blog Author_EN

 

Someone told me the other day that everything is getting better and better, worse and worse, faster and faster. There’s no such thing as “business as usual” anymore. Even the fast food companies are incorporating sustainability goals into their businesses. Local and organic are growing fast. Consumer research shows that concern about sustainable production of food influences shoppers more in Brazil and China than in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

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Better food is available in the niches and in the mainstream, but soil and fertilizer is still killing off the marine life where rivers meet seas all around the world. Small farmers have to become much more productive or exit for the cities. Aquifers are disappearing under some of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world.

We do-gooders try and sort out the heroes and villains in this story, but the actors don’t divide out that way. On the small farm where I live, we cool vegetables with air conditioners stuck in the walls of wooden coolers in the barn. Even though horses till the fields, the carbon footprint of the vegetables is probably pretty high because of the air conditioners, and because customers drive cars to the farm on pick-up days.

I want grass-fed beef to be MUCH better for the world than feedlot beef, but the science is mixed up.

 

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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.

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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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