The future of social innovation – Canada and the world

It’s not enough to be reflective. You need to put action into your reflection

This was one of the many calls to action from the Spark! Conference in Toronto at the end of November. This gathering of 250 social innovators was at a pivotal moment. Although social innovation has gained in traction over the past decade thanks to the thought leadership and core support of SiG National and all of the partners including the McConnell Foundation, the University of Waterloo, MaRS and Plan Institute as well others like the Centre for Social Innovation; the work is by no means done – in Canada or across the world. 

Compared to the scale and complexity of the scale of the challenges we face, we’ve barely scratched the surface. 

Although Canada is leading the field in many aspects, from the Federal Government’s Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group to the support for indigenous innovation to the progress on protecting the environment, there are still many challenges with reconciliation, social progress and equality. 

The questions and subsequent answers raised at Spark! mirrored those from the SIX Wayfinder we hosted in February 2017 in London. The Wayfinder unapologetically focused on the future of social innovation. It was a place for 160 thought leaders to come together from 36 countries who collectively wanted to address:

  • How do we become more than the sum of our parts?
  • What should we, as a social innovation community, aim to achieve in the next 10 years?
  • How do we best support this work?

Despite the diversity in the field of social innovation, our vision and purpose feels shared. The Wayfinder and Spark! articulated and reaffirmed the vision for the future of a more just, equitable world. This will be reflected in our systems, structures and mindsets. Where businesses serve beyond their shareholders, where governments tap into the collective intelligence of the people, where we are able to bridge the disconnects in society and learn from different sectors, and where we are able to  influence policies to manage these systems. 

We’re interested in ‘innovations which are transformative and generative and which change the rules of the game, create new relationships and with that, create new flows and resources through society’ (Charlie Leadbeater, SIX Wayfinder, Feb 2017).

Both Spark! and the Wayfinder left me with more questions than answers including: 

The need for inclusivity 

Too often, social innovation can feel like an elitist club. You see the same faces over and over again, the people are similar in background.  Sometimes this field can feel impenetrable, with specialist language or jargon. How do we reach those not in the room? How do we ensure that we are not merely consulting or resorting to tokenism, but genuinely sharing power in an inclusive and meaningful manner? How do we constantly confront the spaces that we create? 

Language and labelling

How do we communicate this work to bring in others, without watering down the meaning? 

Ten years ago, it was imperative to add ‘social’ in front of our work – helping to distinguish the difference and potential impact (e.g. social finance, social enterprise, etc,). Is this still necessary? Or does this labelling accidentally push this work to the margins and reduce our potential impact? If we’re serious about systematic change, then we need to priortise communication and marketing to ensure that we’re scaling our efforts and impact. 

Demystify the systems change

Systems change is daunting. The boundaries are blurry. The work can feel overwhelming. 

Understanding and articulating the difference in your mission and vision and recognising that these systems are human created, and therefore, can be changed or dismantled by humans can help. Sharing and highlighting key resources and best practice is key to our success.

Democratising this nascent field and welcoming newcomers is essential. 

We need honest conversations about what we actually mean. In the light of reconciliation, Canada proved that a ‘system’ means very different things to different people and ‘systems change’ shouldn’t have an assumed or shared vision or uniform process. 

Movement building 

Can social innovation become a movement? Or is the purpose too broad? Are our ways of working too diverse? 

What’s important to remember in conversations about movements is that ‘The point about being a movement is you have to move people. You cannot move people unless you touch them. You can be a group of people who share ideas and kind of go along together but if you have a movement you’ve got to move people’ as Charles Leadbeater identified at the Wayfinder. Moving people means going beyond the post-it notes. It means thinking deeply about why we’re doing this work. It means getting to the heart. This speaks to the values of the work that we do. 

Values are like magnets for connection in networks

Participant at Spark! 


oo often there are like-minded tribes of self-serving belief systems. We need to break through silos and bubbles, to work differently.

Alex Ryan, MaRS Solutions Lab, Canada at the SIX Wayfinder

How best can networks and platforms break down these bubbles to accelerate best practice and learning? How do we balance this online and offline? At what stage does creating a social innovation industry hurt the very aims we’re trying to create?  

Going forward 

As we close another year where the headlines regularly challenged our beliefs and values, it’s important to remember the importance and urgency of this work. 

I encourage everyone to read Charlie Leadbeater’s piece on six things that social innovation can offer to the world.

I’m energised and encouraged by these conversations. We need more of them (SIX is excited to be working in partnership with Zorlu Holding to host another iteration of the Wayfinder in Turkey in May 2018) But we also need collective action. As we continue to support and catalyse the growth of social innovation ecosystems across the world, this will be at forefront of my mind. 

Now, we mustn’t be complacent. We have to come together at the Wayfinder and think about how we can set stretching goals for the next 10 years, which really make this movement and its tools commensurate with the difficult challenges that we face ahead.

Geoff Mulgan, Nesta, UK