Social Innovation: Lessons for Communities

Submitted by sylvia cheuy on July 5, 2016 - 1:24pm
Insights from social innovation to accelerate innovation in communities


Those of us working in communities recognize the need for greater innovation, and experimentation if we want to accelerate our ability to advance positive change in neighbourhoods, municipalities and regions.  Whether the focus of our work is: citizen engagement, belonging, community safety, poverty-reduction, housing, or community economic development, there is a growing recognition that wiser and bolder approaches are needed to effectively meet the complex challenges before us.  So, where do we begin?  The robust field of social innovation offers important insights, lessons, patterns and practices to consider.  

The ABSI Connect Fellows spent seven months, exploring the field of social innovation in Alberta and the findings of their in-depth exploration are contained in their final report, The Future of Social Innovation Alberta 2016.  They describe Social Innovation less as an end-goal or clear formula and more like an ecosystem, or set of, “…people, practices, policies, resources relationships and capacities that interweave together to support social innovation in Alberta.”  And, their learnings, contribute to a growing body of knowledge about the field of social innovation that provide useful insights for those of us eager to accelerate the effectiveness of our community innovation efforts.  Four of these insights are explored below. 

Insight #1 Consider Innovation on a Continuum 

It is useful to think about innovation as unfolding along a continuum, towards an agreed upon end goal.  Thinking in this way helps to avoid the temptation of having to choose one possible idea over another, and instead invites us to consider the relationship between the ideas.  In her blog, Nesting Social Innovation, Cheryl Rose, a Senior Fellow with the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, identifies four different but uniquely powerful elements of change-making:

  • Intention – The point when there is AWARENESS that a problem exists
  • Involvement – The point when SOMETHING IS DONE about the problem
  • Invention – The point when NEW WAYS of addressing the problem are found (e.g. faster, stronger better)
  • Innovation – The point when ROOT CAUSES of the problem are addressed (e.g. changing rules & relationships) 

While each of these elements of change-making can stand alone, their full impact is revealed when they are “nested” together.  Using the analogy of babushka dolls, Rose observes, “real lasting innovation at a systems level cannot happen without enough creative invention to demonstrate and prepare new possibilities.  This rarely happens without significant involvement to gain deep understanding in the issue area, which itself will never occur without sparking individuals’ intention and their desire to be part of making change happen. When this interconnectedness is present, the energy of a whole field works for impact – and that can make all the difference.”

Insight #2 Emphasize Adaptive Strategies Over Comprehensive Plans

An innovator’s response to problem-solving is less focused on planning and more on process.  Interviews conducted by the ABSI Fellows found that, “Many successful innovators firmly stated that their key to making progress on complex problems was their ability to be nimble with regard to planning and program development.” So, while there is growing awareness of the limitations of 5-Year Strategic plans in today’s rapidly-changing world, there is a need to build capacity for adaptive planning with staff and Boards in community agencies.  Organizations like InWithForward and Winnipeg Boldness provide powerful examples of adaptive problem-solving in action at the community level. 

Insight #3 Design With Not For 

The design of promising innovations to vexing community problems begins by shifting the relationship between those experiencing the problem and those who see it as their role to try and fix it.  Investing time to build an evidence-informed view of the system that reflects a diversity of perspectives ensures that the issue – and not the proposed intervention – remains at the centre of thinking and action. This kind of cross-sectoral work often requires working across administrative silos and being willing and open to engaging government and unusual partners to join in reimagining what is needed and how best to do it. 

Insight #4 Recognize and Cultivate the Skills of “Institutional Entrepreneurs” 

Renown researcher and social change expert, Frances Westley has long studied the dynamics of systems change which are at the heart of social and community innovation.  Her paper, A Theory of Transformative Agency in Linked Social-Ecological Systems explores the role of change makers (individuals and groups) in influencing the transformation of complex systems. Westley calls these individuals and groups “institutional entrepreneurs” and she has identified nine skills that these change agents draw upon while serving as catalysts in the transformation of complex systems.  The nine skills are:

  1. Facilitating Knowledge Building & Utilization – This skill is best demonstrated by the ability to generate and integrate a diversity of ideas, viewpoints and solutions. 
  2. Vision Building – This skill includes the ability to synthesize a compelling, inspiring vision that unifies individual visions and attracts support 
  3. Developing Social Networks – This skill encompasses the building of multisector coalitions and the capacity to bridge across different actors and stakeholders across and within a variety of organizations and hierarchies 
  4. Building Trust, Legitimacy and Social Capital – This skill emphasizes the ability to recognize the contributions of formal authorities and bridge them with the emerging consensus of a diverse group of stakeholders 
  5. Facilitating the Development of Innovations – This skill emphasizes the ability to foster knowledge-building by bringing together different types of thinking as well as identifying and introducing new processes and products 
  6. Mobilizing for Change – This skill includes linking innovative ideas to existing funding opportunities as well as the ability to leverage both existing and new resources and funding to support promising innovations 
  7. Recognizing Windows of Opportunity – This skill involves the ability to sense, and capitalize on, the dynamics of the system one is operating within. This is demonstrated by the ability to identify and capitalize on emerging opportunities 
  8. Identifying Opportunities for “Small Wins” – This skill highlights the ability to envision small, achievable projects that offer the promise of demonstrating the possibilities of systems change and innovation. 
  9. Facilitating Conflict Resolution – Conflict is often a natural and normal by-product when diverse perspectives attempt to work together on a common issue.  This skill recognizes the that the ability to effectively surface and resolve tension when it emerges as critical to the long-term effectiveness of any system change effort. 

Drawing upon the insights, practices and learnings of the field of social innovation offers a useful lens to inspire critical thinking about the work of community innovation.  However, discernment – and a trust in one’s own knowledge of the community – is required to ensure that new ideas and approaches do not trump the unique context of your community; and, that the needs of the community remain at the centre of thinking and action.


Wow Sylvia!

Thank you so much for sharing this important information- I was very excited to see that you mentioned the Winnipeg Boldness Project! I actually worked with TWO of there fantastic team members when I lived in Winnipeg. It is inspiring to read about these great people in the context of the innovation at the community level.

Lots to think about! 

Thank you,