Social Innovation with Allyson Hewitt

Social Impact Advisors podcast with Allyson  Hewitt, McConnell Foundation Senior Fellow of Social Innovation at MaRS Discovery District.

Full podcast interview here

Below is a summary of her conversation

Social Innovation has to see rubber hitting the road

Social Innovation means new ways of doing things that are valued, but it needs to be differentiated from ideas and inventions because social innovation gets adopted, social innovation means adopting new ways of doing things that have social, environmental impact. In other words, we have many brilliant ideas, but that’s not social innovation.

Social Services are not necessarily delivering social innovation

Although social services think up and practice lots of innovative ways of keeping the ‘lights on’ for example, using volunteers, get in-kind donations etc. But this isn’t social innovation, because it isn’t necessarily delivering better social outcomes, its just a way to stretch precious funds.

Social innovation also isn’t about feeding a person in the foodbank, though that may sound harsh, the important point here is that social innovation takes a system lens and deals with root causes i.e., why is that person in the foodbank in the first place?

To batter an old cliché: Social innovation is not about giving a fish, or teaching them how to fish, but the need to revolutionize the fishing industry. The world of social innovation and social entrepreneurship is not about teaching people how to fish, because that does not take into consideration that fish stocks may deplete and the impact on the local economy and supply chains. There needs to be a systems view, and to see how these disparate things are connected. The fishing industry as a whole needs to be investigated as a system.

Systems Change

Palliative care is a Canadian social innovation, out of Montreal, as is Greenpeace, the forerunner of modern environmental movement, came out of Vancouver, Universal health care in its day was a social innovation, and we have come to take these things for granted and part of our national identity, but once upon a time these were social innovative practices. Social innovations are adopted and get embedded in the culture and gradually taken as ‘common sense’.

Not all innovation social or otherwise is good. Neither good nor bad, its the context that makes it good or bad. Residential schools in their day were a social innovation, in its historical context, Euro-Canadians thought they were doing the right thing, but the consequences were dire and tragic. We need to make sure people with lived experience understand what the issues are, and remedies. Its important to bring people of diverse backgrounds and experiences into the fold to work on social innovation.

What is needed are safe spaces for people to come together and bring their whole selves, to enlarge the space where people come together and listen to each other. We have to build empathy, and help sectors work together more effectively.

Collective Impact

Collective Impact: this is a framework that is really remarkable, its simple and accessible. This is a living breathing framework. Yet many of the challenges are incredibly complex, and so marrying the complexity of the situation with a framework that makes it accessible is a huge tension.

I’m a huge fan of Collective Impact because it gives us a common language and a great place to start. But also it is one tool and along with other tools like Design Thinking/Systems Thinking which can be paired in the approach.

Design Thinking

Change needs to work at multiple levels. The user needs to be a the centre of the work. Social innovation needs to be rooted in community, to be aspirational, and give people a sense of hope and possibility. How do you move from what we know and understand about community to how do we understand vision and aspiration and link them? Linking the immediate practical with the aspirational. Busy nonprofit executives are laser focused on the here and now, the pragmatics of getting things done on tight budgets, keeping the lights on and doors open. But vision and aspirational conversations are hugely important if social innovation is to happen in the sector. These two dynamics, the practical, and the hope and vision need to be linked somehow. This may be where Collective Impact and Design Thinking can help.

The Different Levers of Change

Same-sex marriage equality, our attitudes towards smoking, and now possibly universal basic income, these can be held up pointing to the importance of policy as one of the levers of change. The other levers are behaviour and mindsets, how do we actually act differently. Through policies on cigarette packaging, age restrictions, prohibiting smoking in certain public places have lead to behavioural change. Now we have a different way of thinking about smoking. This leads into a conversation about the business role in social innovation.

Market Opportunities

Marketing Nicorette, and vaping have reduced hazards of smoking, but also on a different note the iPhone has changed how we do everything. So we need to think market solutions too, and which means business needs to be at the table. This is the messy space of transformation, some come to it with Mission first, others with money first, these varying perspectives, as with all forms of diversity, are a fundamental element of innovation.

Engaging Business

It is thinking beyond simply corporate social responsibility. When corporations send their employees to community service agencies, it has to be about more than helping put food cans into boxes. Employ their engagement differently, use corporate teams to talk about workflow management, logistics and design, new market opportunities for the nonprofit, and have corporate employees talk about the emergence of new corporate structures like a community interest company, community contribution company, to B-Corps. We are seeing emergence of new business models and structures that reflect this new hybrid space.

Talking to Corporations: The Business Case for Social Innovation

There is a need when talking to business corporations to clarify the business case that will help to get them involved. There are 4 components. Employee engagement. Employees want their work to be meaningful. They don’t simply want to punch a clock literally or figuratively. They want purpose. Number two is customers. Customers are demanding products that are sustainable, an example are groups like Starbucks working with McDonalds to develop a coffee cup that you can compost. Tim Hortons will lose out unless they jump aboard this movement. Millennials are pushing this thought train. Third: shareholder activism. They are active in board rooms, insisting that companies do better. Fourth: Impact Investing, inter-generational transfer of wealth, $30 Trillion, will sit in hands of Millennials who much more conscious about social value and want to invest according to their values. So getting business to start looking at business through a social impact lens can create opportunities for innovation.

We’re Living in the World of ‘And’

It’s no longer a black and white world. We have to consider working at multiple levels and scales, and working with the Other.

For the Nonprofit Sector to be Changemakers

What does it mean to create Safe Spaces to work with others and redefine our problems? What does it mean to put users at the centre, (without being tokenistic)? How do we get to a culture where people of all backgrounds and abilities are honoured and valued?

Nonprofits need to think differently and WORK differently with funders. Nonprofits need to begin to stop contorting themselves into different shapes to meet with funder requirements, but instead work with funders who bring more than their cheque book to the conversation.

There will always be a need to feed the proverbial hungry person . But in order to stay relevant as change-makers, the nonprofit sector must know this is not enough. Nonprofits have to create places to experiment and prototype and get it wrong and mess around with it and when they finally get it right to scale it up and arrive at a whole new level of impact.

The community nonprofit sector must engage funders in difficult conversations about getting to a new future and a Canada that works for all.

Randy Terada
Centre for Social Innovation Annex
720 Bathurst St.

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