It is hard for me to think about 2022 alone because March 2020 until now has blurred together into one very, very, long year. But 2022 was different, it marked the beginning of a transition out of disruption and a movement towards a new reality. The most obvious is the transitioning out of lockdown, more subtle are things like the permanent shifts to an increasingly digital society, policy shifts in regards to social infrastructure, economic shifts that are impacting the financial markets, and the foreboding shift from climate change prevention to mitigation.
There is also a social shift, a greater awareness of how our systems are not serving everyone, that communities are crucial, and that neither the government, the market or civil society can solve complex challenges alone. Challenges of affordable housing, food security, wealth inequality, and the list goes on. I joined SI Canada because I truly believe these complex challenges can only be solved through the application of social innovation approaches.
For SI Canada, it has also been a time of change. We have transitioned from an initiative to an organization. We have brought on new team members and said farewell to others. We have become a digital-first organization with a team that spans the country. It has allowed them the option to shift out of the urban centres and enjoy living in smaller, rural communities.
We have been expanding our role as a capacity builder, making strides to strengthen our relationships with philanthropy, the academic sector, social finance community and the federal government. These shifts have been in response to a listening exercise we did in 2021 which identified four goals for the organization:
- Incorporate and demonstrate an equity lens in our practices and programming to influence the social innovation field to become more accessible, and inclusive.
- Nurture a collaborative infrastructure that strengthens and grows a national social innovation network/ecosystem.
- Leverage a systems approach to create pathways and reduce barriers for the implementation and scaling of social innovations.
- Strengthen the operational capacity of SI Canada to make valuable contributions to positive social and environmental change.
In this process, we heard that our regional partners faced challenges in implementing and scaling solutions, including policy barriers and access to national charitable funding. They shared that they valued being part of a national network of innovators but that social innovation has a narrative problem- folks either don’t know what it is or don’t feel included in it. These challenges were recently written about by our Board member and Action Lab Founder, Ben Weinlick. His three-part blog series explores definitions of innovation and social innovation, explores parts of the lab process that they think need focus, and shares some of the learning and unlearning they’ve been doing in the social innovation space to continuously improve their lab processes and make them more equitable and inclusive.
Now as SI Canada manages the transition into becoming an organization, there is a moment to reflect on if the structure which resulted from the Strategic Clarity Process in the summer and fall of 2021 continues to be appropriate. The Board and management of SI Canada decided to undertake a design process and through this recognize that the current Canadian context includes a number of challenges and opportunities that are a result of the disruption from COVID and its impacts.
We believe there are a number of opportunities to better support the Canadian Social Innovation Ecosystem to create systemic change:
- Potential retooling of a fragmented and unsuccessful innovation policy framework that does not incorporate social innovation and is siloed from the current Social Innovation Social Finance strategy.
- A greater connection with a growing social finance ecosystem and increased interest in investing in social and environmental solutions.
- Movement to address the policy barriers within the charitable sector for supporting innovative solutions.
- Growing curiosity around the potential of social innovation approaches to support solutions at a systems level.
- Learning and examples from two decades in Canada and throughout the world of the effectiveness of social innovation’s effectiveness in addressing complex challenges.
We also recognize a number of systemic barriers and challenges including:
- Outdated philanthropic organizational models and assumptions about charitable organizing and the potential of nonprofits and social enterprises to impact change.
- Social innovation is not well understood; the term is used to describe social entrepreneurship, social impact, social justice and social change in general.
- Policymakers are unsure of how to interact with it, where it should fit, how to support it, or why.
- As a sector, social innovation is sometimes experienced as exclusive, not all actors or communities see a place for themselves or know how to interact with it.
- Lack of shared clear narrative that honours all contributions and centres the “why”.
In 2023, we hope social innovation will increasingly contribute to systemic changes that will allow our people and planet to thrive, and we will work to learn how SI Canada as an organization can best support that process. This will include our transition from Capacity Builder to a National Systems Change Agent.
We are at a crucial moment; change will emerge from the disruption, for better or worse. I truly believe we have the resources, methods and the will to collectively transition our systems for the better. I look forward to working with you all towards our shared goals.
It won’t be easy, things that matter never are.