What Tim’s Reading: How Does Social Innovation Contribute to, or Bang Into, Previous Generations of Social Change Thinking?

Although discrete social innovations have been around since time immemorial, the field of social innovation has only gained significant profile in the last couple of decades. How does social innovation contribute to, or bang into, previous generations of social change thinking? That is the tension that two recent and connected articles grapple with.

The first by Marilyn Struthers, “At odds or an opportunity? Exploring the tension between the social justice and social innovation narratives” appeared in The Philanthropist on March 19, 2018. Struthers reflected on her work at Ryerson University as the first chair in social innovation. “Fundamentally,” says Struthers, “how we organize for social change evolves over time. In the long frame of civic organizing for public benefit in Canada, are the differences between social justice and social innovation really irreconcilable? Or, as I have come to understand it, is the tension a signal of the emergence of something different?”

Ultimately Struthers decides that

“[d]ichotomous thinking may bring a temporary hard-edged moral clarity to our thinking, but the beauty, the invention, the prize is hidden in the space between. Imagine social justice practice that fosters invention, or social innovation practice that advances equity. In reality, between social justice and social innovation, cross-over examples abound in the constantly mobile patterns of civic organizing practice in this country.”

Several months later, partially reflecting on Struthers’ article, Tatiana Fraser & Juniper Glass, published a CKX blog drawing from their working with feminist organizations. (See “The Promise of Bridging: How feminist social justice work and social innovation can strengthen each other”, May 6, 2018.) Fraser and Glass focus on how we can move forward beyond apparent differences through “bridging”:

“Bridging work is often undertaken by system entrepreneurs, described sometimes as transformative agents or weavers within and across different system actors. We know that working from a systems perspective means that we are often called to work more deeply in collaborative ways, however we propose that bridging is more than convening across sectors towards a common goal. While still emergent, bridging is body of practice that includes translating across scales, cultures, and approaches, “code switching” (understanding and being able to communicate with the vocabularies and behaviours of different fields), leveraging resources and opportunity, awareness of dynamics of power and privilege, and being comfortable with the discomfort that comes from different ways of being and seeing in the world. Successful bridgers create spaces that support the deep knowledge, lived experience and critical power analysis of those working in grassroots mobilization and advocacy to be at the centre of a social innovation initiative. Bridgers are also able to support social justice initiatives to move beyond binary for-us-or-against-us analysis, opening up creative possibilities for new collaboration, strategies and tactics to increase equity in our systems.”

These two articles highlight extremely important challenges facing today’s social innovation movement. While social innovation brings new assets to the field of social change (valuable innovation processes and approaches, systems thinking, and recognition of the role of entrepreneurship), it can also suffer from myopia about the political economy of social change and the power dynamics that influence it. How do we help build a highly self-conscious and impactful social innovation field that leverages all the assets of Canada’s social change communities? These articles point the way towards social change that engenders and enables disruptive social innovations that avoid perpetuating dysfunctional systems.


What Tim’s Reading

What Tim’s Reading is an ongoing series of thoughts and short essays by Tim Draimin about things he’s reading from the world of social innovation. 

Tim Draimin is a Senior Advisor at McConnell Foundation, a social innovation maven, connector, and ecosystem field builder, and former Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National. 

A leader in the non-profit sector, Mr. Draimin was the founding CEO of Tides Canada Foundation. Mr. Draimin guided the Foundation’s expansion, established Canada’s first national support system for social entrepreneurs – Tides Canada Initiatives – and supported a world-renowned model of integrated conservation: BC’s Great Bear Rainforest initiative.

Tim is the author of Canada’s first national study of social entrepreneurship and a frequent advisor to government, non-profit associations and business. He has worked for or consulted in Canada and abroad with the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, the International Development Research Centre, Synergos, and Ford Foundation. 


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