A growing gap between innovation in the service of narrow economic interests and the greater public good is discernible in many fields. As Richard Florida warns with respect to innovation and cities:
The link between innovation and segregation is not just a consequence of inequality per se, but of the way we increasingly sort into different geographies by knowledge, education, occupation, and income.
Divorcing innovation’s dividends from social context is dividing us and eroding public trust: according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 40% of Canadians now believe that ‘people like me are denied access to the education and opportunities we need to get ahead.’ 61% ‘do not have confidence that our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges’ and 80% agree that ‘the elites who run our institutions are out of touch with regular people.’
To address complex problems like growing inequality, food insecurity, and increasing burnout in the helping professions, we need to complement technological, financial and scientific research with social innovation — new ideas, strategies and organizational arrangements that better meet social needs.
Social innovation is coming of age in Canada, and comes with its own toolkit — including social R&D informed by solutions labs and service design; systems mapping; social procurement policies; social enterprise incubators; impact investing; learning and collaboration platforms; and data-driven evidence about what works.
2. Why the future of social is innovation
Social innovation is about creating better outcomes: Community Food Centres replace conventional food banks and improve nutrition, belonging and social justice in low-income communities. JUMP Math uses group rote learning to enable every student to succeed at math. SNAP is an evidence-based cognitive behavioural program that teaches self-control and problem-solving skills to children struggling with conduct disorders. Winnipeg Boldness, an Indigenous social lab, has incubated a doula initiative that promises to reduce the number of children taken into state care.
The field is now evolving to integrate grantmaking with other forms of investment, including loan guarantees, low-interest loans and hybrid capital stacks, and from individual initiatives like those mentioned above to platforms that integrate the efforts of multiple actors in ‘partnership ecosystems’. Innoweave provides social innovation training to hundreds of charities and non-profits using web-based modules combined with in-person coaching. CCEDNet, the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, supports social entrepreneurs. Future Cities Canada, based at Evergreen Brickworks, is building a network of urban innovation hubs — like Montreal’s Maison de l’innovation sociale, which repurposes empty public buildings to host civic incubators. The SVX, a kind of social stock market, raises capital for enterprises that integrate environmental and social ends with financial returns. The Indigenous Innovation Initiative, a partnership among Grand Challenges Canada, McConnell and Johnson and Johnson, is an Indigenous-governed and operated platform for sourcing and scaling innovative solutions to issues like youth mental health and food security. Social Innovation Canada, a new non-profit founded and led by the Centre for Social Innovation, is mapping and connecting the disparate and diverse components of Canada’s social innovation ecosystem.
Despite such successes, social innovators and social entrepreneurs have struggled with access to growth capital, a cumbersome regulatory environment, and lack of recognition by business and scientific innovation support programs.
These barriers were addressed by the federal government’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Co-Creation Steering Group established in June 2017. It included representatives of the community, philanthropic, financial, academic, labour and public sectors (including the author.) In August of this year, ESDC Minister Jean-Yves Duclos released the group’s report, Inclusive Innovation: New Partnerships and New Ideas for Stronger Communities. One of its 12 recommendations — that government create a Social Finance Fund — was announced in the Fall Economic Statement. The fund will deploy $755 million in repayable capital over 10 years, and will be accompanied by a $50-million Investment Readiness granting fund to prepare social sector organizations to invest capital in addressing community priorities. The goal is to leverage government’s contribution to create a $2 billion fund. The federal government also announced a permanent civil society advisory to the Canada Revenue Agency, which relates to (though is more narrow than) the Steering Group’s recommendation to create a permanent multi-sectoral Social Innovation Council to advise the government on a range of issues. Work is underway on the other 10 recommendations, covering such issues as social procurement, an enabling regulatory and policy environment, evidence and knowledge sharing, and cross sector capacity building.
Other governments are getting involved too. Saskatchewan’s Hub Model, which integrates the work of several human service ministries and community agencies, is driving down crime rates using coordinated service interventions informed by advanced data analytics that adhere to adaptable privacy protocols.
As part of the Future Cities Canada initiative, Evergreen and Open North, a leading open source technology non-profit, are set to deliver the Smart City Community Support Program, bringing data utilization capability to cities across Canada.