Practice makes better: boosting your social innovation capacity

Image by Nuthawut Somsuk

Written by Geraldine Cahill, Director of Engagement at SI Canada

In their recent editorial, Re-booting Canada’s broken innovation system, Andrea Nemtin and Tim Draimin write about the potential of social innovation to address the polycrisis of our time. They specifically encourage the Government of Canada to create policy shifts that will unlock the capacity of the social innovation sector to get us there. The article highlights some recommendations from the Brookfield Institute that identify needed mindset and resource shifts in the innovation economy, and it calls to mind the article Andrea and Sandra Lapointe of La/The Collaborative wrote in Spring 2023 in the Social Innovation Journal, All Hands on Deck: enabling social innovation

These articles all emphasize the system shifts required to create a much more effective enabling environment for social innovation practitioners to do their work better. And their realization cannot come too soon. 

At the same time this advocacy work is happening, there are multiple efforts underway, including innovation labs, working to address social and environmental challenges. Here at SI Canada we have two Labs on the go as I type – a Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing Lab held in collaboration with the CMHC and multiple partners in Hamilton, Ontario; and a just-launched Climate Equity Lab, with Gore Mutual and York University. 

These multi-stakeholder processes are deeply complex and require skills across a range of activities – often deployed at the same time. Partnership development, research and analysis, systems mapping and relationship identification, engagement, design thinking, ideation, facilitation, prototyping and more! It’s a heady list! And it too requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. 

Over the years I’ve been connected to a growing number of practitioners who make this heady (and heart) work their every day. I was fortunate to meet many pioneers in the early days of this way of working and to watch and learn from them, as well as to then practice a particular methodology with Miquel de Paladella of UpSocial for some years, before joining the SI Canada team. 

One thing that’s never changed over the last decade was my need to be constantly learning. There is a solid community of social innovation practitioners in Canada facilitating labs, engaging in Social R&D or applying design and systems thinking in their work. It’s an inspiring cohort and I’ve never been disappointed by their generosity, sharing lessons, failures, sore spots and wins. There are many issue- or location-based communities of practice sharing learning, which all feeds into broader knowledge and practical application.

At SI Canada, we have made it core to our mission to support and connect innovators working across every sector, and provide them with resources to better enable their work.

One such resource was actually co-created by the practitioners themselves and recently launched alongside our website refresh. SI Unlocked is part of our What Works Centre and is a facilitation toolkit for social innovators. There is a wealth of offerings there – guides for ideation, systems thinking, design approaches, scaling and sustainable business development. 

Unique to this compendium was the process of hearing what practitioners said they needed and how best to develop the resource. During the needs assessment phase, the team conducted 1-1 interviews, hosted webinars, design sessions, and pilots ultimately engaging 400 people at various levels of depth throughout the needs assessment and design phases.

It would take all of this blog to recognize the contributors to this resource, but we do want to thank Joshua Cubista and Zoya Jiwa in particular for thoughtfully guiding the process.

Please take the time to explore these resources and suggest new ones. We are all trying to be more impactful with our work and these guides go a long way to supporting better practice. On SI Unlocked, you can choose from over 50 crowdsourced and open-sourced facilitation activities. It is a go-to compendium for me, alongside the first guide I was introduced to many years ago called Liberating Structures. Definitely add this site to your innovation playlist as well. 

I don’t often do this kind of spruiking for website resources, but we all need some reminders and some guidance sometimes. This practice work is hard and we get into the weeds pretty quickly. SI Unlocked could reinvigorate your practice just in time for the next workshop.

Last note: over the past few years, a few folks have asked what happened to the SiG Knowledge Hub that Social Innovation Generation hosted from 2013. For anyone that’s missed it, SI Canada is in the process of rebuilding it and it will be restored within the new SI Canada site very soon. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, check out the SI Canada resources and if there’s something missing, let us know. We want to share what supports your changework.  

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