It’s a tall order to make innovation sound compelling these days. Countless companies use the word in their taglines and advertising campaigns. It’s a word thrown up on billboards to sell everything from cars to energy drinks. Yet innovation is more than just something new. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht explained at the MaRS Global Leadership event in early October, we keep driving to innovate—to create something new and of value—because our future literally depends on it.

The question of value, including what it means and for whom it is created, is an interesting one. Importantly, there is a growing recognition that there are certain challenges—those that are complex and that cross sector domains and national boundaries—that require the creativity and commitment of all of us to solve. This is perhaps the most important task of innovation: to find solutions to complex challenges that will provide value for many.

As Ilse said: “Solutions require coalitions of problem-solvers who coalesce around a shared vision.”

“It is what we value that will align our aspirations and help us build the future we want and the future our children deserve.”

Innovation is no longer the domain of a few. Given the acceleration of change and global pressures today, progress calls for new partnerships. These partnerships must draw on both deep domain expertise and entrepreneurial drive, and must involve all sectors—government, science, academe, industry and community—collaborating together in new and open ways.

It was this knowledge—this awareness that innovation is not a solo exercise, but a team sport—that helped shape the mission and operations of MaRS. Deliberately designed to bridge the public and private spheres and to match capital to entrepreneurs to business development expertise, MaRS also recognized the necessity of creating social value alongside economic prosperity. Throughout MaRS’ early years, an awareness of social innovation was barely on the public radar. However, MaRS founder Dr. John Evans and Ilse approached Tim Brodhead, then president of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, with a proposal to embed social innovation in the MaRS system DNA as Social Innovation Generation (SiG) was forming in 2006.

Today, “social innovation is moving into the mainstream, the evidence is everywhere,” said Ilse, and MaRS finds itself at the leading edge of this innovation space. As an innovation incubator that could compare itself with the likes of Boston’s Kendall Square or the East River Science Park in New York, MaRS is a change agent.

“Now that we finally realize we can’t solve problems alone—that challenges like healthcare costs will not be solved by new drugs and gadgets or cost-cutting measures—we must do things differently,” said Ilse.

That difference involves building unique, collaborative and productive partnerships, and creating spaces that allow many different people to come together to work on the problems we share as a community, as a country and as global citizens.

There has always been a lot of lab talk at MaRS. With a history of medical discovery within the building’s old walls, it’s understandable. However, as Ilse reminded us, there is a particular burden in that legacy and that is about continuing to search, test, prototype and identify qualities and ideas that are capable of positive change in our society, and then to build the coalitions and to work on the hard stuff of partnerships and policy development that will enable the good ideas to scale and have impact.

Watch Ilse deliver “Innovating Innovation,” a presentation delivered in partnership with MaRS Global Leadership and the SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series. Consider the levers for change. How might you be involved in this work?

Geraldine Cahill

Geraldine is the Communications Manager for Social Innovation Generation, a group that addresses Canada’s social and ecological challenges by creating a culture of continuous social innovation. See more…