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Becoming visible 2011: Social innovation goes mainstream

January 19, 2011

Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin: 2011, the year of mainstream social innovation

Al Etmanski, SiG@PLAN partner in British Columbia, has an inspiring blog written by 58 thought leaders in answer to the question: What would you like to become more visible in 2011?

In this edition, SiG National Executive Director, Tim Draimin offers his reflections on how social innovation can go mainstream.


Social innovation will be much more visible in 2011. Al Etmanski is the thought leader who advocates that “social innovation needs to be in the water supply”, his metaphor for going mainstream.

To put it another way, social innovation has to be recognized as integral to the DNA of mainstream “innovation”.

I think social innovation will be embraced as the necessary, integrated complement to business-oriented, science and technology, R&D innovation

To have real impact on the economy and social-environmental well-being, innovation needs to be composed of double-helix DNA: science and technology innovation intertwined with social innovation.

This is important for many reasons, especially two:

  1. Society is under pressure to deliver high impact innovation able to tackle large-scale complex problems. This will only be possible if we strengthen our approach to innovation by adding a social innovation lens and practice (e.g. sharpening how we define the questions shaping the process, deepening our understanding of the impacts being sought, involving all sectors in co-production, empowering local innovation capabilities, etc.)
  2. In order for high impact innovations to be originated, developed, financed and scaled, society requires the appropriate enabling infrastructure training, supporting, networking and financing social innovators and social entrepreneurs.
Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin on social innovation

To date the “innovation agenda” has been largely shaped by business leaders and like-minded policy-makers. This has meant a policy environment fixated on narrowly cast support for business innovation capability. Even defined in its own terms, the business innovation agenda has been running into problems.

Since the 1990s, the alarm has been raised about Canadaʼs growing “innovation gap” resulting from low rates of R&D by Canadian companies.

The latest report from the Conference Board of Canada reinforces that concern, from a science and technology mindset.

The Conference Board gives Canada a failing grade – a “D” – on innovation, and places Canada 14th among 17 peer countries in the OECD. The report card uses a total of 12 traditional indicators to rank the countries by science and technology research output (articles), patents by population and high-tech industries (such as aerospace and electronics).

As important as those OECD tracked criteria are, they do not extend to social innovation.

In an attempt to close the commercial R&D innovation gap, Paul Lucas, President & CEO GlaxoSmithKline, and John Manly, President & CEO Canadian Council of Chief Executives, spearheaded the new Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada (CAIC). CAIC cites the Conference Boardʼs research in making its case that business and academia need “to forge a consensus…behind a focused and achievable agenda to position Canada as a world leader in innovation.”

Paul Lucas has said, “For us, innovation doesnʻt simply mean invention, or the results of R&D. We see it as putting ideas to work, and the work is all about creating economic value. Without commercialization of an idea, innovation is a car without tires – itʻs not going anywhere.”

In response to CAIC and other earlier research reports on the “innovation” dilemma, the Canadian government launched the Review of Federal Support to Research and Development on October 14th. This Review is led by “an independent expert panel to solicit the advice of Canadians and business leaders on how the federal government can cultivate its support of business research and development.”

The review addresses the lack of return on public investments in innovation.

“Canadian business spends less per capita on research and development, innovation and commercialization than most other industrialized countries,” said federal Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn when announcing the Review, “despite the Government of Canada investing more than $7 billion annually to encourage business R&D.”

An urgent question is: Will the Federal Review include social innovation as being part of its working definition of “innovation”? Itʼs obvious to ask that at a time when social innovation is building global momentum as a necessary lever for substantive and positive social change – change that can generate both economic and social value.

Canadian thinking is changing.

MaRS Discovery District, Canadaʼs leading innovation hub, is now one of the very first global innovation systems to integrate social innovation into its DNA.

The same integrated mindset embracing social innovation was the hallmark of the November 30th report by the blue ribbon Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, entitled “Mobilizing Private Capital for Public Good“.

The Report proposed linking hitherto separate spheres, stating that:
“Canadians have long relied on governments and community organizations to meet evolving social needs, while leaving markets, private capital and the business sector to seek and deliver financial returns. However, this binary system is breaking down as profound societal challenges require us to find new ways to fully mobilize our ingenuity and resources in the search for effective, long-term solutions.

Mobilizing private capital to generate, not just economic value, but also social and environmental value, represents our best strategy for moving forward.”

The Task Force focused its seven recommendations on building a new, social innovation approach to finance, referred to alternatively as “social finance”or “impact investing”. Social finance will be a key requirement for a robust Canadian social innovation ecosystem to develop.

Bringing social innovation into the mainstream is the opportunity for 2011.

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Allyson Hewitt @ MaRS

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Allyson is the Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at MaRS, where she has been leading the SiG@MaRS program; advising social entrepreneurs; building the social innovation ecosystem; and incubating successful programs such as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and the MaRS Solutions Lab.

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