Social Innovation Generation

Social Innovation Generation

Four partners – the Foundation, the PLAN Institute for Caring Citizenship (Vancouver), the MaRS Discovery District (Toronto) and the University of Waterloo (Kitchener-Waterloo) - collaborate in the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) initiative to develop, encourage and support continuous social innovation; their collective goal is to identify, test and share new approaches to addressing entrenched social challenges facing Canadians.

‘Innovation’ normally means doing things better, smarter, more efficiently. In business, it is a given; it receives constant encouragement in the form of training, investment and public attention. The not-for-profit or public benefit sector sees no such support: there are many social entrepreneurs but most funders seek ‘safe’ projects. There is little risk-capital and even less willingness to accept some ‘failure’ as the price of path-breaking innovation.

A corollary of taking informed risks is a commitment to learning. Evaluations are the preferred tool for learning from projects, but conventional approaches and understandings of evaluation weigh heavily toward rigid measures of accountability rather than true learning. As part of SiG, the Foundation is developing more user-focused approaches to evaluation, and we try to ensure that the principal beneficiaries of evaluation are grantees and stakeholders.

Strategic Vision

Through SiG, the Foundation envisions a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient Canada that engages in continuous innovation as a means of adapting to complex social challenges.

Granting Total

$10 million – Foundation contribution

Program History

SiG emerged from the Foundation’s experience over several years supporting the testing and building up of locally developed innovations through what we called ‘applied dissemination’.

From this evolved a body of practice, a ‘social innovation lab’ that identified other needs: in particular, a coherent theory to guide further progress and a wider suite of resources to complement the Foundation’s granting.

The establishment of a Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo, the appointment of Dr. Frances Westley to that position and the adoption of C.S.Holling’s ‘panarchy’ framework as a guiding model for the initiative have all advanced our understanding of innovation processes; collaboration with the MaRS Discovery District and PLAN Institute has encouraged involvement from the private, public and community sectors in testing approaches to creating lasting change from local to system levels.

Key Lessons

  • ‘Scaling’ innovations is not about growing programs or organizations, but about increasing their impact in ways that are appropriate to different contexts.
  • Even successful projects can rarely be ‘duplicated’; what is required is a deep knowledge of what works - and why - so that the essence can be preserved while allowing for flexibility and adaptation to different circumstances.
  • The notion of ‘best practices’ or templates for success stifles innovation. ‘Next practice’ better describes an approach based on continuous observation and adaptation.
  • Conventional evaluation methods, which test outcomes against set objectives, can stifle innovation, which requires risk, experimentation, freedom to fail and the chance to learn from failure and the unexpected.
  • The Foundation participated in the creation of Developmental Evaluation: balancing creative and critical thinking in guiding and assessing innovation.
  • While the term ‘social innovation’ has spread quickly, along with notions of complex adaptive systems and related concepts, it is not clear that its use is leading to or associated with transformational change.
  • The Foundation has learned that collaboration across sectors requires concerted effort to overcome differing organizational norms and values. It requires a commitment to social learning that includes the ability to adapt one’s own viewpoints and practices.
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