There are two overarching issues emerging from the 2015 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Conference. Both raise values questions about what we consider important, and about the kind of communities and political spaces within which we choose to live.

The first issue is how our largely hierarchical institutions can adapt to address the major challenges we face, challenges that are both enduring and systemic. A list of these challenges would include climate change; food, water and energy security; global peace and security; the future of our relations with indigenous peoples; and the future of work in the face of technological disruption.

They are enduring in that they will not be solved within the mandate of any one government. They are systemic problems in that they transcend the jurisdiction or mandate of government departments and of governments themselves. Many are global in scope. Addressing them effectively requires engagement by civil society, the private sector and the academy. They require the expertise of a variety of disciplines and openness to new sources of knowledge. They are deeply connected to each other.

Indy Johar, from the Young Foundation in the United Kingdom, reflected on this issue in his opening keynote address, “The Challenge of Massive Change: From Silos to Systems.” Johar’s call to reimagine our institutions if we hope to create real change is discussed in the article by Lilia Yumagulova.

In the opening plenary panel about social innovation, “Local Innovations, Global Footprints,” the panellists echoed some of these themes. They emphasized the intersectoral nature of their work and the challenges posed for them by silos within institutions, by barriers between sectors and by hierarchical approaches to leadership. This panel is discussed in the article by Leah Levac.

These complex, interconnected problems require a different style of leadership, one that is more collaborative, that possesses humility, that is inclined to listening and considering evidence before acting, with greater tolerance for risk and honest mistakes. Moreover, there is a need for leadership that encourages creative and innovative approaches.

Amanda Clarke’s article addresses an important element of this: how to encourage a more innovative culture in government bureaucracies. Not surprisingly, one of her main conclusions, emerging from the panel discussion, is that political support and public trust are essential.

Clarke highlights Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters to the new federal cabinet, which encourage transparency, innovation and tolerance of error. As Clarke points out, these ambitions will be achieved only if ministers ensure that managers are held to account if status quo approaches endure without good justification, and that efforts to foster innovation are appropriately rewarded.

The second important crosscutting issue that emerged from the conference was that recognizing and addressing several kinds of exclusion is a key element of institutional adaptation.

An important contribution to this issue came from four indigenous rapporteurs. Their central message, explored in the article by Aaron Mills and Zoe Todd, is that every citizen of and visitor to Canada has an implicit relationship with indigenous persons, peoples and places. The challenge is that most Canadians do not perceive themselves to be in this relationship.

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Michael Pal’s article discusses the panel “The Shifting Landscape of Democratic Participation.” The panel looked at trends in the practice of democracy. It identified three concerns that could be said to be barriers to inclusive participation.

The first concern is about the impact of loosening spending limits before and during election campaigns. This is a much bigger problem in the United States, but Pal raises concerns about recent trends in Canada. The second concern is about the concentration of power within the Prime Minister’s Office at the expense of cabinet, backbench MPs and parliamentary committees. The third concern is the long-term trend to lower voter turnout.

Addressing exclusion was central to the discussion of the panel “Local Innovations, Global Footprints,” discussed by Leah Levac.  Panellists argued that bringing about social innovation requires a more egalitarian approach to social interactions.

Another important dimension of addressing exclusion is the need for an inclusive approach to knowledge. As Levac points out, social innovators are committed to using empirical evidence. But they also recognize that knowledge comes in various forms: that when it comes to social challenges, it is crucial that empirical research be complemented by experience-based knowledge.

For health specialists, one of the most dangerous forms of exclusion is the insufficient attention being paid to public health in the developing world. Steven Hoffman’s article criticizes slow progress in building public health capacity, funding research on neglected diseases and strengthening global health agencies. Hoffman also makes the point that when it comes to transmissible diseases such as Ebola, exclusion is an illusion. As he writes, “Our world is getting smaller, with people travelling farther and more than ever before, carrying potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses wherever we go.”

“Fail, Adapt, Innovate: Institutions for a Changing Society” raised a significant set of issues about how our institutions need to evolve to be up to the challenge of addressing the complex issues that confront Canada and the world and to do so in a more inclusive way.


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Morris Rosenberg
Morris Rosenberg is president and CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Rosenberg held several senior positions during his long career in the federal public service, including serving as deputy minister in the departments of foreign affairs, heath, and justice.

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