Strengthening Social Innovation Tools with Indigenous Values

The experience of attending the inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit in Winnipeg was transformational, as I also heard so many other participants say. A keystone theme of the summit was reconciliation – and I realized that as a nation, we need to talk about reconciliation before we can talk about indigenous social innovation. The depth of my experience at the summit was great, and while I continue to process what I learned, I wanted to share my experience and insights with you.

I had the honour of co-facilitating the social innovation lab at the summit, together with the Winnipeg Boldness Project. Our goals were threefold:

  • Provide input on some of the challenges that the Winnipeg Boldness Project is working on;
  • Enable participants to better understand social innovation labs and methodologies (and how they can be adapted to their specific challenges)
  • Explore how social innovation tools and methodologies can be strengthened through indigenous values.

The #wpgboldness social innovation lab allowed us to deeply reflect on lab tools and methodologies through an indigenous lens. I was moved by the thoughtfulness and profoundness with which people spoke. As Raven Lacerte, an impassioned and bold young Carrier woman from the Lake Babine Nation, said in her introduction to the moose hide campaign, her elders encouraged her to speak from the heart – and so she did. Never before have I seen someone speak so sincerely about their work that the entire audience is moved to tears of empathy, hope and connection. Back to the lab.

We wanted to take a step back and reflect on social innovation tools and methodologies from the standpoint of indigenous values. We asked: how can social innovation tools be strengthened by indigenous values?

To explore the issue, I was excited to try out a new exercise where participants rate images posted on the wall positively or negatively. We then separated the positive and negative images into clusters to elicit reflections, reactions and a conversation around values. Little did I know it would lead to such a deep, frank discussion.

Our values inform our every move: A collective ‘aha’ moment

We collectively realized the extent to which our values informed the process. And that our values inform our every move.

For example, three of us selected the ‘random’ images ahead of time, acting as a filter or lens to the process itself. It was also a binary process – one participant said he could see positivity in each image and that a more circular process (where we don’t distinguish along binary lines, but try to see the complexity of tensions in each image) would itself be more aligned with indigenous values.

Participants also interpreted and rated images differently, depending on their context and what they considered ‘meaningful.’ A number of participants rated a photo of a CCTV camera negatively, seeing it as a representation of an invasion of privacy, whereas another rated it positively, because they can identify with living in a community where people watch out for each other. It’s not about the object itself, it’s about the meaning attached to it. Values turn images into symbols. And when we discussed what each picture symbolized, we exposed not only our values, but also our perception of each other’s values.

The exercise also taught us about normative perception. Participants were swayed by how other participants ranked images. Yes, we’re all under social pressure (and for good reason – this is what sociologists call norms and mores – we need them to coexist). But we should to be aware of our values (and how they influence our actions, thoughts and behaviour), rather than react to what others are doing, if we are going to bring about social change together.

Follow the energy in the room

As a facilitator, a few more learnings were deeply engrained. While in the taxi on the way into Winnipeg, Al Etmanski shared with us: “always follow the energy in the room.” I couldn’t agree more – but it isn’t always easy. Energy was high throughout our reflection conversations. And while I would have loved for participants to continue actively discussing indigenous values and social innovation tools, we had to follow along with the summit schedule. Of course, people need to go for lunch! Meanwhile, you can’t rush these conversations. Somehow I felt there were things left unsaid, hopefully to be unpacked in new ways another time.

Quality over quantity

We had a relatively low turnout to our lab (somehow our session timetable didn’t make it into the agenda). But it’s not how many people are in the room, but who is in the room (and what perspectives/ experiences do they bring), as well as the quality of discussion. Diversity of voices and opinions is critical. Even with a low turnout, I realized that the people in the room were the right people to be there. The WBP ended up with fresh ideas for their challenges and participants shared very insightful, pensive reflections on social issues.

Adapting our language

The honest timetable mistake was not the only barrier to participation for Summit attendees. The design thinking and systems change field is full of jargon. We need to speak in ways that resonate with our communities – so we don’t alienate anyone through our language. For that very reason, the Winnipeg Boldness Project refers to prototypes as “proofs of possibility.”

Someone in our final reflection workshop said, “I wonder how this conversation would be different if we were all speaking in our native language,” whether it be Cree, Anishinaabe, Mohawk and so on. I completely agree. Language is a window to the world – a way of attributing meaning – and I have no doubt that if we were to speak using a different (language) lens, our conversation would be different. We should be adapting our language to make sure that our words resonate with our communities.

In the field of social innovation labs, a lot of our focus is placed on process. Co-facilitating the social innovation lab at the Indigenous Innovation Summit in Winnipeg was an opportunity to take a step back from, and learn deeply about, the richness of reflections on this process. Including how it is affected and informed by our own values, lived experience and contextual meaning we attribute to things around us. This deeper understanding of our own work is extremely valuable – and we should take more time for this, to connect on a human level. Healing as a nation can’t happen otherwise. And we need to heal together, as reconciliation is not just an indigenous matter.