The Unique Challenges for Social Innovation in Atlantic Canada

“The importance of plain language, and helping people to see that they are actually social innovators even though they wouldn’t describe themselves that way. That is something I would say was a win for some of our fellows. They were able to connect with people and help them see their impact in a way they hadn’t thought of before.” – Annika Voltan, Inspiring Communities.

What does it mean to craft and curate a social innovation ecosystem in a given region? Annika Voltan, Executive Director of Inspiring Communities in Nova Scotia, has been working with her colleagues to answer that very question. Formed in October 2018, Inspiring Communities is an organization that has grown from the ground up and is supporting the growing field of systems change in the region. One of its earliest partnerships was with Social Innovation Canada.

“It’s been a big task for us to start to think about Atlantic Canada. There hasn’t been a strong history of working across provinces, especially with Newfoundland,” Annika says. “I think we have developed some really good, strong relationships across those four provinces. People are really excited and have bought into the idea that we need to work more closely regionally.”

Establishing local connections

During the summer and fall of 2019 Inspiring Communities engaged nine individuals in fellowship positions via WeavEast – a regional ecosystem building initiative supported by the McConnell Foundation. The purpose of the fellowship was to sense the current state of social innovation in the region, develop connections, and identify needs.

Fellows worked in paid positions from early June to mid November, offering representation from the four provinces, with Social Innovation Canada directly funding an Indigenous fellowship position. During their time with the organization, each was charged with producing a number of storytelling assets, including blog posts and videos. They also resourced and built lists of relevant social innovators in their respective provinces.

“We weren’t strict about how they had to do it,” Annika explains of the process. “Folks in Newfoundland ended up doing a lot of community conversations in public settings. [Fellows] in other places went on road tours of the province. There were larger events…it was a mix of approaches.”

Unique challenges in Atlantic Canada 

Through this process the team learned that working in this region presents its own challenges. Innovators in Atlantic Canada are sometimes more likely to take advantage of cheap flights to urban centres like Toronto, rather than connecting with their neighbouring provinces. But Annika stresses that social innovation practitioners in her region are craving those kinds of missing local connections, and benefiting from cultural similarities once those connections are made.

As for the pace in which these networks are revealed, Annika is unconcerned about the waiting game required to see them flourish in the best way possible. In fact, in her view, sensitivity and patience are a vital and necessary part of doing this work..

“For me, the pace is not [a big] concern—this is the kind of work that we do, and it is really about building trust, building relationships, and that takes time,” she says. “This is culture change work…you can’t rush these things. When you’re trying to engage communities who don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘social innovation,’ or people who have a lot of trust issues because they’ve been burned lots of times.”

Plans for the future

So what does the future hold for this evolving organization, the new connections it has fostered, and its relationship with Social Innovation Canada and its partners? Closing the gap between the Atlantic region and geographically distant nodes is a promising goal for Inspiring Communities as they move into their second year.

“As much as there is great work happening regionally, I’d love to see more work happening across the different nodes,” says Annika. “Now that we’re developing a network out here, how can we, for example, connect that network to the people in Alberta or BC?”

“Engaging more diverse voices and trying to reach communities that don’t have access to this work or peer community is a big theme across the country.”


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