Getting Past “What?”: A Journey Into Social Innovation

Back in 2012 I was trying to find workspace for a small non-profit, social finance organization I had founded. After searching all over the city for affordable commercial space, one of my board members had an idea: “There’s a coworking space on the floor above us that’s just for nonprofits.” he said, “They keep destroying my keyboards.”

He was wrong about Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation being just for nonprofits (they curate an intentional mix of organization types), but he was right about all of those dead keyboards. Apparently, this coworking space kept glass bottles of milk, designated for member’s coffee, in a bar fridge on the floor. People there weren’t very good at putting the caps back on the bottles, or at keeping them upright in the fridge. The porous old wood floors in the repurposed factory building were very good at letting spilled milk escape via gravity to the floors (and keyboards) beneath them. That’s how I found out about the Centre for Social Innovation, and by association, social innovation.

Fighting Fire with Fire: Social Problems are Frustrating, Social Innovation Is Too

Here’s the thing about social innovation: it can be very frustrating, and that is a feature not a bug. Many of us come to social innovation from nonprofits and charities, where statute governs much of how we define ourselves and our work. If you like constrained concepts and objective truths, prepare to be very annoyed as you start your journey. Starting with the definition, and carrying through to everything else about it, there is no consensus about what social innovation is and what is part of it. This is where many people give up and declare it to be some kind of “impact quackery”.

This has a lot in common with modern social movements. The same way that Christian protestantism escaped the top down hierarchy and strict control of the Catholic Church to become millions of individual interpretations of Christianity, social innovation also has no central governance, so single authority to dictate “truth” and you may well find yourself in a room with the social equivalent of a Quaker, a polygamist, and southern evangelical who all claim to know the true word of social innovation Jesus.

Dear Me: The introduction I wish I had

Still with me? Great. This blog series is going to be about my journey from the nonprofit sector into the social innovation world, and the answer to “What the heck is social innovation?” that I wish I had 7 years ago. My hope is that it will provide an entry way for everyone who wants to understand social innovation without the self-referencing jargon common to academic papers and frontline case studies.

Lesson One: The “Chairness”

I had a friend, let’s call him Gus, who didn’t like philosophy. He came back from his first semester of university complaining about the “chairness”. The “chairness” he explained, like happiness, was the idea that the concept of a chair is separate from the expression of a chair, a lesson which I’m certain was illustrative of Plato’s Theory of Forms. A chair may or may not have legs, a back, be big, soft, whatever, but we all know a chair when we see one. And we may struggle to write down a definition of a chair that includes all chairs. The idea of the chair is greater and more nebulous than any practical example of a chair.

This is true of every part of social innovation. A nonprofit is an organization with a board, that files tax returns and doesn’t distribute profits to shareholders. A charity is basically the same plus is working on something the government deems worthy of tax deductible donations. Social innovators can be people, organizations, nonprofits, for-profits, projects, labs, departments, many things.

Put Your Ass Into Systems Change

Does a chair need a seat to be a chair? No. But the seat is probably the most universal characteristic of a chair. In social innovation the place you put your ass is systems change. Let’s talk that through: Feeding the hungry is a vital, necessary, difficult activity done by many amazing, worthy, well-run organizations full of brilliant people. And a charity that does a great job will probably try to feed more people year over year.

I’ll say it again to be clear: awesome work feeders of the poor.

Now, what if you want to feed fewer people? Well then first you need to figure out why people can’t feed themselves (the social system that creates hunger) then you have to try and find an intervention in that system in order to stop, or at least slow down, its production of hungry people (change that system). If your work is in removing causes, not treating the symptoms, of social problems, you would be considered to be practicing social innovation by everyone I know.

– Article by Kyle Shantz, Communications Lead for Social Innovation Canada. You can follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleShantz

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