We are also conducting a short survey on what the social innovation ecosystem needs today. Please take a few minutes to give us your input!
SiG was only a twinkle in instigator Tim Brodhead’s eye in the mid-noughties. By 2007, however, SiG was born as a partnership composed of a charitable foundation (The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation), a business-sector-spawned urban innovation hub and convergence centre (MaRS), a university (the University of Waterloo) and a serially innovative non-profit organization (Plan Institute).
SiG National emerged in 2008 in response to a recognized need for a backbone office, which was documented after the fact in the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s 2014 Evaluation Roundtable report.
What challenge prompted SiG’s birth?
The idea for SiG came about after leaders in The J.W. McConnell Foundation shared the frustrations of the broader community that the proven social impact innovations they and others had funded were having a challenging time scaling. Too many entrenched systems didn’t like accommodating change, and Canada lacked the enabling programs and services that could add booster rockets to each social innovation’s liftoff.
The original idea was that a diverse group of partners could directly create the conditions required for scaling by fostering or encouraging institutions and governments to develop the missing or nascent elements of a robust social innovation ecosystem. These elements included the mindset, resources, partnerships, curricula, platforms and strategies needed for social innovations to scale, endure and have impact.
The partners integrated funders, innovators, academic researchers and teachers, MaRS’ civic-minded business leaders and governments. Each SiG institutional node made individual contributions while also collaborating as a team to be more than the sum of their parts and to produce impact that would not be possible as individual actors. SiG National was created to be a vital backbone that would enable collaborative impact for activities as diverse as the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, communications and narrative building, policy support, and connecting the dots on national and global network-building.
In order to encourage new players to enter the field, the SiG partnership was conceived as an unincorporated initiative with a sunset clause. Originally funded for five years, SiG has been extended twice, and a broad range of partners, including foundations, governments and corporations, has joined the McConnell Foundation in investing in the activities it spawned.
The legacy assets catalyzed with many partners over the decade include:
- field building for social finance (for instance, the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing);
- postsecondary courses and certificates in social innovation;
- research contributions on decoding the definition and genome of social innovation;
- support for integrated social entrepreneurship education (such as RECODE and Studio Y);
- enhancing policy receptivity and cross-sectoral regional networks;
- broadening Canada’s participation in a growing and dynamic global social innovation community of practice; and
- contributing to new grant-maker approaches, competencies and traits, helping to shape new narratives for how civil society can impactfully initiate and co-create large-scale social change.
Working with a cross-sectoral perspective
Over the past decade, the founding SiG partners have valued important partnerships with a broad range of charitable organizations, foundations, non-profits and governments (municipal, provincial and federal).
These partnerships and relationships have led to some milestone outcomes that we will cover in our forthcoming book. Here are just a few of our key collaborations.
- We produced watershed insights informed by Frances Westley, the J.W. McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and her colleagues at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, contributing to the global understanding of change in complex systems. Importantly, this includes a definition of social innovation that recognizes the need to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience.
- We convened a cross-sectoral, blue-ribbon Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, leading to the establishment of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the mobilization of many millions of dollars in mission-related investing, two social impact bonds and multiple ongoing outcomes.
- We supported Trico Charitable Foundation’s design of the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum and subsequently invested human, knowledge and financial capital, lending octane to Alberta’s fast-growing social innovation ecosystem.
- In partnership with the City of Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and numerous local organizations, the United Kingdom–based Social Innovation Exchange brought their annual international summer school to British Columbia in 2014, recognizing the pioneering work of BC Partners for Social Impact and Plan Institute, and also the integrative partnership approach SiG has followed in international social innovation systems development.
- We acted as an early champion of social innovation labs as catalysts for powerful multi-sectoral change collaborations, contributing to today’s globally recognized network of Canada’s emerging labs organized around energy futures, reconceived social services and repurposing the engineering profession.
- We inspired social enterprise incubators on numerous campuses, including the University of New Brunswick, McGill University, Concordia University, Ryerson University and Simon Fraser University among others.
- We championed the field of Indigenous innovation by supporting the development of two national summits, the Winnipeg Boldness Project and the Indigenous Innovation Demonstration Fund.
We see social innovation as a “big tent” and “big team” approach reflected in SiG’s focus on working at the macro and meta end of the social innovation spectrum. We do so in order to accelerate the efforts of all sectors and to shift their deployment of resources so they are able to tackle complex problems through collaborative partnerships (described variously as collective impact or generative partnerships) using a system-change lens.
Is social innovation in the water supply? Certainly, we believe social innovation has begun to be part of the way that we understand and engage with complex challenges.
What happens next?
We are now asking ourselves: If our mission was to help foster a culture of continuous social innovation, how do we know if we were successful? If we find that we made a good start, then what else is still needed? Where are the opportunities today and who can take advantage of them and in what ways?
Examining our circumstances through the lens of the Adaptive Cycle, we are in a process of creative destruction—of letting go—of the structures and resources that held us in this particular configuration for the last 10 years. We are now asking: What new impactful arrangements of energy and resources could be next? And we would like to include you in this reflection.
Some of the arenas of activity that are reorganizing themselves include academic research work, which has evolved into the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) at the University of Waterloo. The institute’s social innovation curriculum has been seeded to the Banff Centre through its summer immersion program in social innovation. WISIR graduates have started additional educational programs at Mount Royal University and Simon Fraser University.
Our support for regional network-building and policy work is reflected in collaborations such as BC Partners for Social Impact and ABSI Connect in Alberta. Our policy work is now collated on our website and is disseminated via thought leadership initiatives and partnered meetings with Public Policy Forum, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Philanthropic Foundations Canada and Community Foundations of Canada (CFC). Our incubation of non-profit sector innovation, organized through Social R&D, has evolved into a national partnership with the CFC. More recently, we have actively collaborated with the McConnell Foundation on social innovation initiatives such as RECODE, Cities for People and Smart Cities challenges.
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, SiG has always valued nurturing international relationships and partnerships that allow us to learn from our analogues around the world. In fact, SiG’s first joint activity was a learning journey to the United Kingdom with Canadian partners from foundations, government and research institutes. We subsequently supported regular thought leaders’ visits to assist Canadian innovation leaders, institutions and governments to leapfrog strategies and to avoid duplicating knowledge generating efforts. Sometimes these visits helped spark local investments in infrastructure or programs. Sometimes the nurtured ideas faltered before reaching liftoff, like the highly anticipated Alberta Social Innovation Endowment Fund that had been championed by two premiers.
We have a learning partnership with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), an organization that started shortly after we did. In 2016, TACSI did an intensive seven-city knowledge-sharing tour of Canada. The organization will be hosting the McConnell Foundation’s Stephen Huddart later this year on an Australian speaking tour.
Learning from global partners, SiG continues to decode and disseminate proven templates of social innovation platforms, including UpSocial (a European strategic partner helping JUMP Math and other innovations to scale outside of Canada) and The Young Foundation.
Slated to close in its current form (SiG 3.0) later this year, SiG has accelerated its 2017 partnerships to assist the birth of key future-focused resources before our denouement. At the same time, there are various visions and multi-institution conversations about potentially spring-boarding “SiG(s) Next.” Such possible successor activities, whether branded as SiG or not, would address remaining ecosystem gaps and challenges, while also supporting continuing efforts to catalyze, develop and mainstream social innovation.
SiG is fortunate to have the rest of this year, 2017, to plan an orderly exit or possible transition to a successor vision or platform. This year includes preparing a set of resources that capture the SiG story and make it accessible, including valuable insights, key tools and research reports. A Toronto capstone event to launch a SiG book, website and knowledge repository is planned for November 28. Please take note of the date!
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Additionally, a national collaboration including the network of alumni from social innovation educational programs is planning a 2017 Social Innovation Summit to convene social innovators from across Canada and grow the community of practice.
Your input requested!
As a part of this reflective and transitional work, it is important for us to hear from you. We have prepared a short survey that we hope will better reveal the growth of the social innovation ecosystem in Canada and around the world. To assess the value of the resources we have generated, we’d love to know your sources of knowledge and inspiration, and which communities feed your work. Your input is enormously valuable. Thank you and stay tuned for further updates.