Learning together in social innovation — a reflection on my visit to the MaRS Solutions Lab

Cross posting with permission of Dr. Mieke van der Bijl’s blog post June 26, 2018.

The amount of people involved in social innovation is rapidly increasing. Many people are trying to improve people’s lives and create more resilient and sustainable societies through innovation in social enterprises, innovation labs, grass root organizations, and within social and public-sector organizations. Many great examples exist of successful social innovation, as well as many failed initiatives. There is still a lot we need to learn about how we can advance this field and I believe that learning together and sharing knowledge is one of the keys to achieve this. In this blog I reflect on how we learn, and how we can learn from each other in social innovation, based on a one-month visit in May 2018 to the MaRS Solutions Lab in Toronto as International Fellow.

One area of collaboration that I am particularly interested in is how we learn together across academia and practice. As a university academic I get the time to study social innovation practices and reflect on how this work relates to the literature and existing body of knowledge. But there is always a danger of disconnect when you spend too much time teaching and writing articles from our ivory university towers. Because social innovation is such a rapidly evolving field it is even more important to stay connected and learn together. My visit to MaRS Solutions Lab (MSL) was therefore a great opportunity to learn from seeing social innovation ‘in action’. In this blog I summarise my experiences and what I learned about the role of values, systemic design, and collaborative innovation skills. I will particularly zoom in on learning experiences that help us improve our innovation skills, and on how we can continue to learn together from within this constantly changing field.

What is MaRS Solutions Lab?

My visit was part of a 6-month ‘Professional Experience Program’ (study leave), generously offered by my employer, the University of Technology Sydney. Inspired by my work in transdisciplinary innovation, the main theme of my study leave is learning about how we work together to address complex societal challenges. The people at MSL are experts in collaborative social innovation and I was therefore delighted that MaRS kindly offered me the International Fellowship.

MSL is part of MaRS, the world’s largest ‘urban innovation hub’ in the heart of Toronto. MaRS was founded in 2005, driven by a belief that ‘great minds may not think alike but they like each other’s company’ and that co-location of innovative organisations promotes collaborative innovation to provide solutions to society’s complex problems. To achieve this, MaRS co-locates universities, start-ups, corporates and investors by providing 1.5 million square feet of flexible lab space, research facilities and offices to over 6,000 people. MaRS furthermore provides various services and programs aimed at creating the systems change that is required to address complex societal problems, one of them being the MaRS Solutions Lab which is aimed at public and social innovation. MSL was established in 2013 as an outcome of the joint research and promotion of social innovation labs in Canada by Social Innovation Generation (SiG).

As a public and social innovation lab, the MaRS Solutions Lab brings together governments, foundations, corporations, non-governmental organizations, academia and the greater community to help unravel complex problems from the citizen’s perspective.


What I learned during my visit

As a researcher I have studied many public and social innovation agencies through case-study research and by interviewing people who have been part of innovation collaborations. The fellowship at MSL provided me with an opportunity for a much closer look at social innovation through a participatory action-research lens. Throughout the month I participated in and co-facilitated workshops, was invited into team meetings, attended events organised by MaRS, and was given access to files and documents. I joined Alex Ryan on one of his visits to Edmonton to work with the Recover team, who are improving urban wellness, and was invited into their meetings, a presentation of the work to the council, and even experienced one of their prototypes. I also connected to the broader social innovation community in Toronto, including Peter Jones and his colleagues at OCAD University, design agency Bridgeable, and various members of the local ‘lab community’ in a session which I co-facilitated with Claire Buré from MaRS. To return the favour I presented my work in workshops and various public talks.

My key learnings from the one-month visit were:

  • Social innovation at MSL is driven by values related to people, planet and economy, and includes democracy and inclusion; Social innovation would benefit from building on non-Western values and ways of knowing. Read more about this topic in this blog.
  • Systemic design principles offer opportunities to create systems change, and includes making interrelationships visible, searching for leverage points, humanising systems, and iterative experimentation. Read more about the basics of systemic design and how it is applied at MSL in this blog.
  • Working together effectively is key to successful social innovation, and requires productive conversation skills, building shared understanding, and building collaborative cultures of trust and respect. Read more about what I learned about working together in this blog.
  • Building a better understanding of how we learn and teach social innovation, and how we learn together can help advance the field of social innovation.

I wrote three separate shorter blogs with more details about the first three key learnings. With regard to the fourth learning, my experience at MSL showed again that there are a wide variety of skills and expertise that are required in social innovation, including for example drawing on different ways of knowing, systemic design skills, conversation skills and building trust and shared understanding. If working together is such an important aspect of social innovation, then we also need to think about how we can teach people involved in these processes the skills to become successful collaborative innovators. In fact ‘capability building’ is a thing that organisations like MSL and many others take very seriously.

Learning how to navigate complex innovation processes

MSL’s way of looking at capability building is based on Schön’s ideas about the integration of theory and practice. In social innovation each problem situation is unique and needs a unique approach that cannot be planned in advance. Just learning theory and then applying it in practice is useless in that situation. The only way of learning how to approach situations like this is by doing and then learning from the experience. This is exactly how the Recover team in Edmonton was working. They executed the project for urban wellness supported by MSL’s Alex Ryan’s expertise, thereby turning it into an effective learning experience. Rather than sticking to one specific theory or methodology, they followed a more non-linear approach that we often see in social innovation, where methods and practices were pulled in whenever they were thought to be most useful. In design this messy process is often presented as a ‘squiggle.’

‘Design squiggle’: design and innovation follow a non-linear approach. Image adapted from Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5–18.

The Edmonton team experienced this process first hand as they were executing a diverse mix of research and innovation activities, while Alex also made sure that ample time was taken to reflect on each of these activities. This is in line with Kolb’s experiential learning cycle of planning, doing, reflecting, and abstracting. It is also fundamentally different from many design thinking training programs, that present a linear one-size-fits all method and toolkit, often outside real problem-contexts.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


Novice versus expert innovation practices

In my public talks at MaRS and in Edmonton I talked about the idea of levels of expertise in design and innovation, where people start at a novice level and work towards an expert level through experience. Novices work in rule-based manners, while experts tend to work more intuitively. Just like when you learn to cook you might follow a recipe step-by-step, while an experienced chef cooks much more intuitively, using their pallet and feel for flavour-balance to cook a dish. If we compare this to the learning experiences presented above, the linear design thinking toolkits and training programs offer a ‘formulaic’ step-by-step approach that is required to take the first rule-based steps as a novice, while the Recover team’s non-linear approach in which methods and practices were adjusted to the situation at hand represents a more intuitive and expert-based way of working. The problem with the latter approach is that it is very difficult to navigate such a non-linear approach without the required expertise, and that it takes a lot of time and experience before that expertise is gained (in Edmonton this expertise was provided by Alex Ryan who has wide experience in social innovation). The problem with the former is that the formulaic linear approach offered by a toolkit does not help to navigate unique and complex problem situations. One of my ongoing research interests is that if we are teaching people innovation skills, then what level of innovation expertise would we like those people to gain? And how can we create effective learning experiences that lead to that level of expertise?

Learning from each other’s projects — from how to what

Another interesting element of social innovation is that there is still a lot we do not know about the customized diverse approaches to social innovation and their impact. Even experts need to continuously update their expertise by learning from their own projects, but also from those of other teams. However, because each project is different it is very difficult to learn across projects. Alex Ryan believes that a project’s unique context is one of the reasons why methods and tools have become so popular, because they seem to be the only way to transfer knowledge from one case to another. However, as explained above, if each project is different, then ‘expertise’ becomes much more important than the methods or tools used by that expert. Alex also argued that there is too much focus on the how and not on the what. From design research we know that expert designers heavily use their ‘repertoire’ and knowledge of ‘precedents’ in their practice. In other words, they draw on examples from previous work. How can we start sharing such knowledge across projects and across organisations? Currently, case study research in innovation is very much about sharing the ‘shiny success stories’, while we probably would learn much more from the richness of ‘complete imperfect messy stories’ (a nice exception is the openly shared story by Thomas Prehn and Christian Bason about MindLab’s recent closure). How might we reorient social innovation around impact and content (what), instead of methods and tools (how), and at the same time join forces in sharing knowledge across communities and learning together?

I feel that MSL’s invitation to join them as an International Fellow is a great example of how we can expand our learning together about social innovation. Their openness and transparency provides exactly the type of rich and immersive experience that allowed me to learn about what, how, and why MSL works the way they do. I would like to thank everyone at MSL for this wonderful experience and hope we can continue to learn together about how to work towards improving people’s lives and creating more resilient societies.


I would like to thank Peter Rose, Hyun-Duck McKay and Alex Ryan for their feedback and comments on an earlier version of this blog.


Cahill, G., & Spitz, K. (2017). Social Innovation Generation — Fostering a Canadian Ecosystem for Systems Change. Montreal, Canada: The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. See also www.thesigstory.ca