The world is in dire need of new ways to solve old problems. Increasingly, we turn to social innovation as the response to intractable and enduring public challenges: homelessness, indigenous-settler relations, social exclusion, environmental degradation, and social and economic justice, to name a few. The Stanford Centre for Social Innovation calls social innovation “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”. In their new edited collection of case studies of citizen-led innovations, Canadian scholars Alison Mathie and John Gaventa argue that citizens are ‘acting collaboratively and challenging the status quo’ to “help answer the vexing question of how we reverse or temper the trends towards greater inequality and environmental crisis”. Both descriptions share at least three key requirements for social innovation: focusing on systemic change, crossing sector silos and reorienting both personal and professional relationships.

During the opening plenary session of the 2015 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation conference, social innovators from four organizations of diverse focus — from social justice education to indigenous health to social inclusion — echoed these requirements during the panel “Local Innovations, Global Footprints”. In particular, they suggested that social innovation depends on our ability to innovate relationships, both within and between institutions, communities, sectors and nations. During both the plenary session and subsequent breakout discussions moderated by current and former Trudeau Scholars, panellists pointed to the need for more egalitarian relationships between people.

During the plenary session, moderated by Al Etmanski, author, social entrepreneur and co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network, panellists said their work included fostering power-sharing between historically disparate social groups, recognizing and drawing on different forms of expertise, countering social stereotypes, applying new technologies and building human connections where they did not previously exist. Melissa Scavuzzo, a featured speaker in Raising the Roof’s “Humans for Humans” campaign, noted that “changing the conversation” about and with people who have experienced homelessness was a key goal.

Nadia Duguay, co-founder and co-CEO of Exeko, an organization that promotes social inclusion through creative activities such as workshops and cultural events, explained that changing the way people see each other is a requirement for, and an outcome of, its work. Philippe Tousignant, director of Educonnexion, an “educational program
that brings together people who want to teach, learn and act as responsible global citizens,” explained that building connections that do not reproduce existing power hierarchies between people is an important function of the organization’s work. Together, they defended the importance of mutually respectful and egalitarian relationships to successful small- and large-scale social innovations, highlighting the fact that how and with whom they do their work is as important as what they do.

The idea that innovation depends on relationships is recognized in research on public and private sector innovation more broadly. Relationships within networks of individuals, and between institutions, and the trust that these relationships foster are central to how we understand and describe the diffusion of ideas in both the private and public sectors. However, unlike research on the diffusion of innovation, which generally focuses on how ideas spread and are adopted by individuals and across systems, panellists were focused on the need to innovate relationships between people, particularly in order to create more egalitarian social arrangements.

Take, for example, the work of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, including its Circle of Care program. Circle of Care is an indigenous alternative dispute resolution program that works with indigenous families involved with child welfare agencies. This and other programs at the centre draw heavily on indigenous beliefs, values and traditions. Panellist and Circle of Care program coordinator Gina Metallic described the ways in which the centre uses circles in its programs to enable people to honour their truths, and to promote the power of listening. Its programming recognizes that people’s experiences give them knowledge, and it moves dramatically away from punitive child welfare policies that have resulted in unacceptably high and ongoing incidents of indigenous youth being removed from their families.

In addition to focusing on building more egalitarian relationships, panellists were clear about the intersectoral nature of their respective undertakings, again demonstrating a core principle of social innovation. Each organization draws on disciplined scientific knowledge, community expertise and the relationship between them; by extension, the organizations acknowledge that departmental silos within institutions, barriers between sectors and social power hierarchies all pose problems for innovation. Exeko focuses on bringing together art and philosophy to break the cycle of social exclusion; Educonnexion uses ideas from psychology, education and computer science and information technology to facilitate optimal contributions by volunteers to the development of social justice education programs. Raising the Roof, represented on the panel by Caitlin Boros, marketing and communications manager, and the Circle of Care program at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health are clearly grounded in the belief that people’s experiences with homelessness and traditional indigenous practices respectively bring important knowledge that must be incorporated into sustainable long-term policy decisions.

The implications for public policy are several. First, while panellists expressed clear commitments to using research evidence to support their work and practice, they also focused on recognizing and acting on diverse expertise and on the context in which knowledge is produced. This begs a more nuanced definition of evidence in terms of evidence-based policy-making. Far from rejecting science, these innovators recognize that knowledge comes in different forms, and that it is appropriate and necessary to combine knowledge from empirical research with knowledge from experience when formulating (policy) responses to social challenges. François Bourque, psychiatrist and 2010 Trudeau Scholar, echoed this point during one of the breakout sessions while reflecting on the unique considerations of practising psychiatry in the Far North.

Second, panellists insisted on the importance of working at both the individual and the systemic level. Scaling up or expanding social innovation demands innovating not only relationships but also broader social and economic systems. Implicitly, panellists challenged conventional and often unquestioned features of many Canadian institutions. For example, positional and individualistic definitions of leadership and hierarchical organizational structures can hinder social innovation.

Third and finally, the models that have been created and are in use by these organizations offer lessons for our approaches to policy development. For example, how can the collaborative approaches being developed and implemented by Exeko and the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health be applied in policy contexts? How can Educonnexion’s work in bringing together diverse expertise to produce state-of-the-art educational programs be replicated to train public servants? How can the empathy-focused messaging of Raising the Roof inform our public discourses more broadly?

Boros, Duguay, Metallic, Scavuzzo and Tousignant are five of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of social innovators working to facilitate large-scale social change. Their work and experiences suggest that innovating relationships is key to our capacity to address old problems. Their ideas are an invitation to collaborate.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous rĂ©agir Ă  cet article ? Joignez-vous aux dĂ©bats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Leah Levac
Leah Levac is an assistant professor in political science at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on diverse women’s engagement in politics, including in northern contexts in response to resource extraction, and in response to changing public services more broadly.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this