Social Innovation and the Serious Business of Play

Guest blog by Joanne Benham Rennick, PhD, Executive Director, Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship & Social Innovation, Wilfrid Laurier University. This blog originally appeared on the RECODE website. It has been republished here with their permission. 

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I played a game of ping pong last week that made me laugh so hard I was in tears. It was not your typical ping pong game (should you have one). Instead, it involved three people at each end of the table. The first person served the ball, then ran to the other end to receive it back from the second person. That person then sprinted off to make the third return, and so on until there were six bodies racing around the room with tiny paddles and desperate looks on their sweaty faces. The skill level was not high so ingenuity and adaptation was critical. A missed ball had to be chased down and banked off the wall or ceiling to get it back in play. A hit into the net required a sideways grab and tap to avoid the imminent crash. Innocent bystanders had to be avoided. There was grunting, sliding, wild paddle swings, crash avoidance efforts, and high-speed dodging. One player took a ping pong ball to the back of her calf that left a small, bright-red welt. But what was most memorable about the evening was the incredible, child-like laughter that erupted.

Reflecting on the experience a little later, I realized with some surprise that I hadn’t laughed that hard in a very long time. I am very fortunate to do a job I love with people I respect and appreciate. I get to work with students and colleagues that are full of energy and enthusiasm for generating positive change. We work on big, complex issues and we take our work seriously. We think a lot about poverty, inadequate social supports, climate change, species loss, discrimination and all the other complex issues our society faces. We work unceasingly to support students and community members trying to innovate solutions that are transformative yet achievable. When I thought about that ping pong game I felt a little ashamed that I got so much pleasure out of such a seemingly unproductive activity.

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My killer ping pong game was part of a three-day retreat on Wasan Island, hosted by the Breuninger Foundation and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, that brought together staff, faculty and community partners trying to transform higher education through social innovation and entrepreneurship programming. The setting was naturally beautiful, the conversations unscheduled and unscripted, the programming relaxed. We worked in a beautiful room or outside, often seated on the floor, in casual clothes. In the evening, there was time for recreation, fellowship and fun.

The change of space and pace gave me a rare, legitimated opportunity to slow down and reflect. While I was gratified to be among like-minded thinkers working to envision and create impact education, I was wondering how I’d get caught up with deadlines (still trying), if my inbox would be out of control (berserk), and how I would dig out from the burnout that is the hallmark of intra- and entrepreneurial work. Others among the group described being over-burdened and under-resourced. The levity of my ping pong revelry stood in stark contrast to my state of mind and it got me thinking about the differences between those states.

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I see social innovation work as entrepreneurial in nature. Together with my team, we imagine alternative possibilities and then try to bring them to life. There are misstarts and failures but when we find something that sticks, we build on it, struggling to do what Otto Scharmer describes as ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’. We’re asked to innovate within a medieval institution marked by tradition, bureaucracy and elitist hierarchies. Government and institutional policies are ostensibly supportive but lagging behind our programming needs. The reflective time away, the play and laughter that psychiatristStuart Brown identifies as so critical to innovation and creativity, get deferred, replaced or trampled by our efforts to work harder and faster, to produce more impact, engage more people, and shift our faltering social, economic, and biological systems in whatever ways we can.

There’s a clear value proposition for including space and time to think and play in order to be creative.

Adam Grant shows that original thinkers have unique approaches that help them innovate. He includes culture, community, athletic pursuits, strategic procrastination, and yes, play, as valuable resources that take pressure off the executive brain and release the creative flow from the subconscious. So why aren’t these core to our working environment? Why aren’t we championing and elucidating the value of doing things differently in order to do things better?

There’s a clear value proposition for including space and time to think and play in order to be creative. Creating space and a culture for innovation is a legitimate need for protecting and nurturing the innovative capacity of our students, our colleagues, our community partners, our institutions, and ourselves. As influencers of social innovation education in Canada, we need to articulate and reiterate that value. We may ‘lose social capital’ from the establishment, as one of my colleagues noted, by having regular team retreats, establishing innovation zones where play is valued and encouraged, or strategically procrastinating, but we could be gaining cultural capital for social innovation. ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got’ — What are your strategies for protecting creative and innovative capacity in a burn-out role?


On the subject of “play”, check out The importance of play, a TED Talks playlist featuring eight talks on play as a driver of creativity, collaboration and thinking outside of the box.

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