Patterns & Progress: Social Innovation in Alberta Today

By Naomi Mahaffy

This fall, I’ve had the privilege of meeting with over 100 change-makers, thought leaders, and community builders in our province. Thank you for warmly welcoming me into this role and sharing your perspectives and experiences. You are a diverse group, ranging from social innovation gurus to tireless grassroots organizers (some of whom cringe at the term “social innovation” but embody many of the same values and ideals). You work in government, businesses, nonprofits, and academic institutions. While the initiatives you work on may be unique, what you have in common is a desire to get better at addressing the complex social and environmental problems your communities face, including poverty, homelessness, environmental degradation, domestic violence, racism, and climate change.

 Alberta's social innovation ecosystem as depicted by the ABSI Connect Fellows in 2016.

Alberta's social innovation ecosystem as depicted by the ABSI Connect Fellows in 2016.


Two years ago, after an in-depth exploration of social innovation and change-making in our province, the ABSI Connect Fellows released a report titled “The Future of Social Innovation in Alberta.” They summarized six “patterns and pathways” describing how Albertans were innovating to create social and environmental impact, and what we can do to strengthen our “innovation ecosystem.”  These six patterns and pathways focused on:

  1. How we work together

  2. How we take risks

  3. How we plan

  4. The tools and processes we use

  5. How we fund

  6. Our social policies.

Many of you mentioned finding the six pathways valuable--both in 2016 and today--for framing how we can get better at addressing the complex challenges our communities face. In this post, I use the ABSI pathways to summarize what I’ve heard from you about what’s working well today and what’s still needed to help us build healthier and more resilient communities. I then give a brief preview of what’s next for ABSI Connect and how you can get involved as we collectively respond to these patterns and pathways.

This is not a rigorous or comprehensive environmental scan. The observations I share here are my subjective understanding of how these patterns are unfolding, coloured with examples from only some of the organizations and people I’ve spoken with. I have yet to discover and share many of the incredible stories happening in sectors and communities across the province. Please reach out to me if you have initiatives, events, ideas, or news you’d like to share with this network.


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Pathway 1:
How we work together

What’s working well:

Albertans are recognizing that systems change can’t be accomplished alone. Increasingly, we are doing the slow but important work of building relationships, brokering partnerships, and working for collective impact. The Energy Futures Lab has engaged an incredibly diverse cross-section of Albertans, sparking important collaborations and conversations about energy transition in our province. In Edmonton, government and community partners are working together towards improved mental health service delivery, system integration, and evidence. In Calgary, the financial empowerment collaborative is a city-wide initiative to keep people from experiencing poverty and to support those living on low incomes. In Red Deer, the Climate Leadership Lab is convening community leaders to develop initiatives that will help Red Deer thrive in a low-carbon future. These are only a few examples of countless partnerships and coalitions that are driving forward agendas too big for any particular organization to take on alone.

Connections matter; innovations often emerge when people, organizations, and sectors are exposed to each other. Hubs like the Trico Changemakers Studio at Mount Royal University and the Roundhouse at Grant MacEwan are bringing academic, business, and nonprofit agencies into the same spaces and conversations. Numerous networks and communities of practice, both formal and informal, are helping change-makers connect, learn, and work together. Canada now has an emerging national network of systems change and social innovation practitioners, which ABSI Connect is engaging with as a regional node.

What’s still needed:

Partnerships are hard work; we don’t always appropriately value the time and skills required to cultivate relationships with the diverse people and organizations influencing the systems we seek to change. Many organizations treat relationship building as a “nice to have” addition to their service delivery work, rather than a critical ingredient for innovation and impact.

We aren’t as well-connected or as deeply connected as we could be. Many of you commented that we’ve moved from siloed organizations to siloed networks, and the communities of practice or capacity building opportunities you need aren’t always easy to find. Some of you are hungry for like-minded people with whom you can safely discuss the tensions, assumptions, contradictions, and challenges inherent in systems change. The social innovation community remains predominantly white and urban; many of you expressed a desire to engage more deeply with leaders and initiatives rooted in rural, Indigenous, and minority communities in Alberta.


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Pathways 2 & 3:
How we take risks
and how we plan

(I’ve grouped these pathways together because many of you described risk taking as a critical component of how you’re learning to plan differently).

What’s working well:

Taking risks and failing is part of the innovation process. Organizations and collaboratives I spoke with are learning to plan more iteratively, taking risks and incorporating lessons learned along the way to achieve their desired impacts. Gatherings like the recent Failsafe Conference are creating safe spaces for us to acknowledge and learn from our failures. Several rural leaders told me about risky, weighty, and important conversations that helped their communities address deep-rooted issues and transformed how they worked together. Initiatives like the Edmonton Shift Lab (a collaborative approach to understanding and addressing the complex intersections between racism and poverty) and the City of Edmonton’s RECOVER initiative (a social innovation experiment to improve urban wellness in the downtown core), are modeling how we can document, share, and learn from the risks we take while working together in new ways.    

What’s still needed:

Culture and leadership matter. Several of you mentioned your organization’s leader or culture as a crucial factor that either fostered or inhibited innovation in your work. Those of you attempting to innovate within highly bureaucratic or conservative organizations mentioned feeling lonely and unsupported at times.

I also heard that Alberta’s nonprofits and social enterprises could be doing more to learn from research and development practices in the corporate and academic sectors. Many of you mentioned gaps in your ability to generate evidence that can inform your next steps and demonstrate the value of social innovation to decision makers. You also expressed a desire for more stories and evidence from others, particularly those who are adept at risk-taking and adaptive planning but may not be doing enough to capture and share their lessons learned, or are not sharing their lessons in places that are easy for “outsiders” to find.  

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Pathway 4:
The tools and processes we use (our social innovation craft)

What’s working well:

Compared to a few years ago, more Albertans seem to be applying innovation tools and processes, including but not limited to systems thinking, human-centred design, social finance, strategic foresight, and social enterprise. Agencies like Chrysalis Society in Edmonton and the Canadian Mental Health Agency (CMHA) in Wood Buffalo are using human-centred design to better understand the individuals they serve and to co-design more impactful solutions. Social innovation labs are increasingly common, and are creating new norms for how agencies can work together to create and prototype ideas. Some of our province’s better-known social innovation labs include the Government of Alberta’s CoLab, Skills Society Action Lab, and Calgary’s Social Impact Lab.  

We’re making progress in equipping students and leaders with the tools, mindsets, and attitudes required to innovate for social change. This is thanks in part to programs like the social innovation certificate program, jointly offered by MRU and MacEwan, the Banff Centre’s Getting to Maybe program, and other formal and informal capacity building opportunities. Budding social enterprises are finding community and building their skills through accelerator programs including the one offered by Thrive in Calgary. Communities of practice like the Systemic Design Exchange (SDX) in Edmonton provide safe spaces for practitioners to build their social innovation skills.

What’s still needed:

Social innovation is seen as a buzzword—one that holds different meanings for different people. We lack the standards to say who’s doing social innovation well, and many people struggle to understand social innovation tools and processes until they’ve experienced them first-hand. I also heard that we are getting better at generating creative solutions through lab processes, but we haven’t been as successful as we’d like in moving from prototypes to pilots to scale.

Many of you raised concerns about the rise of the “hero-preneur” and the tendency for innovation to become an end instead of a means to social change. You wondered aloud: Are we consistently making sure the right people are in the room? Have we become so focused on becoming innovative that we have lost sight of the changes we ultimately want to create with and for our communities?


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Pathway 5:

How we fund

What’s working well:

Funding opportunities and patterns are shifting. The federal government’s recently announced social finance fund will give more nonprofits and social enterprises access to investment capital that can further their social and environmental purposes. Various government agencies, including the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the City of Edmonton, have started experimenting with social procurement. Organizations including—but not limited to—the Social Enterprise Fund, Suncor Energy Foundation, Trico Charitable Foundation, the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, and the Edmonton Community Foundation, are funding aspects of social innovation including systems exploration, important community conversations, and the development of social enterprises.

What’s still needed:

In their 2016 report, the ABSI Fellows put forward their vision for what funding could look like in Alberta: a collaborative system of coordinated funding to address the root causes of problems and support the evolution of social innovations from idea to scale. While the funding landscape is changing, we’re nowhere near that ambitious vision. Changes in corporate community investment practices have made funds more difficult to access for many organizations. Most nonprofits still find themselves competing for program funding that incentivizes outputs over long-term impacts. In addition, these funds rarely provide adequate space and time for the early steps in social innovation processes (deeply understanding systems and individuals, ideating). While funding for lab processes has increased, few organizations have the flexibility in resourcing to readily implement and then scale up new prototypes that emerge from social innovation labs. And despite promising momentum around social procurement, many social enterprises still find it difficult to compete for contracts in systems that prioritize cost-effectiveness over social impact.  


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Pathway 6:
How policies and innovation intersect

What’s working well:

Government agencies continue to play important roles in Alberta’s social innovation ecosystem, through funding, policy-making, and capacity building. Many of you pointed to recent policy changes--ranging from improved child benefits to reduced barriers for community energy generation--that you believe have created more and better opportunities for Albertans. Social policy collaboratives in Edmonton and Calgary, and organizations like the Max Bell Foundation and Canada West Foundation, are helping change-makers engage in public policy discussions. Groups like Alberta CoLab and Civic Innovation YYC are building internal capacity for government staff who want to apply the tools of social innovation to understand complex systems and co-design appropriate solutions. The C5 collaborative in Edmonton and the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary are two examples in which collective action is being used not only to improve and coordinate services, but also to influence social policies.

What’s still needed:

Despite recognizing the importance of policy for achieving systems change, many nonprofits and social enterprises are still reluctant to engage in advocacy and policy work. I wasn’t surprised to hear that frustration remains--from those within and outside of government--with the bureaucratic and political factors that can inhibit the pace and depth of innovation in public policy. Several of you pointed to specific policies you care deeply about and want more influence over, from procurement guidelines to social enterprise regulations to poverty reduction strategies. Groups like the ANVSI, social policy collaboratives, and the newly forming Alberta Nonprofit Network, coalitions like Enough for All, and  resources like CCVO’s election toolkit are working to help change-makers engage more effectively in policy decisions.


So what’s next for ABSI Connect?

I’ve heard that you—members of ABSI Connect’s community—believe Albertans can be leaders in social innovation and social impact. We’ve made significant progress since ABSI Connect’s 2016 report, and there are many ways in which we can do more.

ABSI Connect envisions a future in which Albertan change-makers are effectively addressing the root causes of complex social and environmental problems, resulting in healthier and more resilient communities. We will continue working to connect, align, celebrate, enhance, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Over the coming year, our partnerships and initiatives will focus on:

  • Building connections and alignment between change-makers

  • Sharing stories and evidence from Albertan change-makers with our provincial and national network

  • Helping people grow in their ability to innovate and create impact

None of this can be accomplished without your help. I would love to hear from you: How can we, a diverse community of change-makers across this province, align our efforts and create opportunities to learn from each other? What strengths and gaps do you see in our ability to address complex social and environmental problems? What stories and updates should we share with others in our province and country? How can we create opportunities for meaningful connection and learning? Reach out to me to share your thoughts, or to get involved in one of the following ways:

  • Help create connections among innovators and change-makers in your community, sector, or issue space

  • Write blog posts, host conversations, or share stories with our network

  • Share events, networks, communities of practice, or opportunities relevant to others in the ABSI community

  • Discuss your ideas for supporting, celebrating, connecting, and aligning Albertan change-makers

Let’s keep growing, innovating, and learning together as we strive to create meaningful change in the face of complex issues.