Before I made the decision to finish my education, I was fortunate enough to experience the beginnings of a promising career in social innovation. It was an exciting time because I was working in a community transitioning between a decade long recession and a promise of economic recovery. This community, at the time, was being courted by several large-scale industrial projects with deep pockets. Though the social implications from these projects’ investments were mostly welcome, the challenge lay in figuring out how best to benefit from them, while mitigating as many negative social impacts as possible. The majority of my work involved leading projects that required me to be immersed in the world of social innovation.
Unfortunately, for all of the work I was doing on the ground, there were always significant obstacles being met at higher levels. I guess this is the plight of grassroots movements, but as frustrating as it was to experience, it also brought me to an understanding of the difficulties faced by today’s social innovators. In this understanding, the only way I could see myself becoming a more effective social innovator was to finish my degree and gain more access to higher level decision-making processes.
Stanford Business defines social innovation as a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals. Social Innovation is not a new concept. Social innovation, I would argue is what Canada thrives on as demonstrated by many of our institutions, universal healthcare for one. As U of T students, almost by default, we are being trained to become the next generation of social innovators.
I write about this because last week, I was able to reacquaint myself with the field of social innovation through a conference organized by The Agency: A Hub for Social Innovation at U of T. The conference featured several industry panels of Toronto’s social innovation leaders imparting sage advice on best practices and lessons learned as well as some of our amazingly accomplished and socially innovative U of T peers.
The two key note speakers, Dr. Ilse Treurnicht (CEO of MaRs Discovery District) and Zahra Ebrahim (Doblin/Deloitte), were both well-spoken and inspiring. Dr. Treurnicht made it clear that social innovation, with current technological developments, is necessary now more than ever; and Zahra Ebrahim, through her story, illustrated how design thinking challenged the status quo and created positive social change in policy decision-making processes.
During the day, I was asked to choose three break-out sessions from a list that was difficult to choose from. In the end I decided to attend: City Level Social Innovation, Global Impacts, and Incubators and Accelerators. All three were equally thoughtful and inspiring. I learned about how different organizations are putting social innovation into practice in creative ways, whether it’s through pop-up retail in unlikely urban spaces, or incorporating art into the fabric of Toronto’s transitioning landscape while at the same time providing work for aspiring artists. I learned about the work our peers are doing abroad through programs like the Queen Elizabeth Scholars program, and how this has been a force in shifting their social perspective on a global scale. I also learned about U of T’s support for social entrepreneurs through Rotmans’ Impact Centre (A business incubator and accelerator). In essence, I learned.
It was a great conference. I listened, I learned, I networked, but I left feeling a bit disappointed. Disappointed because I didn’t walk away from the conference with a pivotal “Aha!” moment as I had hoped. Instead, I walked away with questions about the direction of social innovation. But as I let the conference material settle, I realized that perhaps my disappointment was a little premature. You see, for me the mark of learning isn’t based on acquiring facts alone. Learning shouldn’t end with a period, or an exclamation mark. Learning should end with a question mark, because new knowledge should be a launching pad towards further exploration of new, untouched terrain. So I guess by questioning what’s next for social innovation, I ended up with an “Aha!” moment after all: as the next generation of social innovators the direction of social innovation ultimately relies on us.