The ABSI Evolution

ABSI Connect emerged as an experiment to explore and discover the pulse of social innovation in Alberta. In Phase One, the Fellows determined some of the patterns and pathways that exist in the province from our two largest cities. There’s a series of resources you are welcome to check-out, use, and adapt that capture this pulse.

Since Phase One, Melissa, our Northern Fellow, has joined. She has expanded our understanding of what innovation can look like by weaving in the story of indigenous innovation in Northern Alberta.

ABSI’s sense of the social innovation ecosystem is growing into the North and now creeping into rural Alberta with the addition of Annand, our Journeyman Partner with Volunteer Alberta. Annand is supporting our collective story by testing out a new partnership model that goes beyond Fellows to connect with champions within Albertan organizations.

What is happening now? 

I like to think that the expanding scope and support for ABSI Connect is a signal of systems readiness. During the last year, we explored and learned by intentionally putting social innovation in the middle of our desks to help cultivate a culture in Alberta that actively nurtures social innovation for systems change.  

We were like frogs jumping from one lily pad to the next, discovering deep roots to a common purpose of social innovation: to collectively strive to address social and environmental problems at their root - stopping them from existing in the first place.

Each lily pad taught us a lesson. Each lily pad added a meaningful insight to our understanding of Albertan social innovation. As we make our way around the pond, we have started to see and sense the pulse of the system around us.

The collection of lily pads is a constantly growing and a powerful signal of a thriving social innovation ecosystem, yet we continue to  feel disconnect. How we are connected, and how we are nurturing each other, remains largely under the surface.

Some social innovators are focused on learning and developing tools that support innovation, while others are focused on taking a systems approach, combining tools with organizational culture change to support sustainable spaces for social impact. And all are tackling various complex challenges or the intersections between challenges: poverty, racism, climate change and so on.

So what is happening here? We have a shared opportunity as a province to continue to adapt how we pursue transformational outcomes and impact together. We are already doing it and we have a legacy of leading the way. We have so many of the elements in place needed to shift the systems creating our problems in the first place. But, we must continue to be open to changing the status quo of how we go about doing it: with whom, why, and in what way.

Whatever we do, we must do it together

Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

What I do know is that we have the readiness and a willingness to try in Alberta. We see so many examples of social innovation thriving in Alberta. Just look at this emerging map.  

We are ready to dive into the water and see the whole beauty and complexity of our change work and collectively enrich it above and beyond what we can do alone.  

Readiness or Preparedness

With that readiness to dive in, we need to also be prepared to see the patterns that make us uncomfortable, but are critical to getting to our shared vision. For me, I am seeing such patterns are around leadership and power. In the last few months, I have discovered that a critical factor for advancing on our change work is related to leadership and the awareness of power within our current structures.

Systems change is ultimately about shifting and transforming how relationships of power welcome, empower or disenfranchise those who pursue or desire change. Imagine how these relationships determine who speaks for whom, who gets to have their voice heard and who doesn’t. These relationships can amplify voices or invoke silence. We are aware of the importance of shifting these relationships, yet this is often where we get stuck - trying to figure out how to effectively navigate for the impacts we seek  when these relationships are some of the most entrenched of our mainstream culture.

Social innovation lab processes are a space to explore this deep challenge and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so as a lab steward for the Edmonton Shift Lab. I do not have the answer for what it takes to move systems, but what I have learned is that we may need to creatively subvert our own positions to create meaningful and diverse collaborations that recognize and challenge assumed structures of power, take a systems approach, and balance field building with ecosystem thinking to find out how to move into a new normal.

So where do we need to go next? 

From our ongoing exploration, it is now evident that Alberta has shown us a sense of systems readiness. How might we combine all that exists in Alberta to spark meaningful systemic change? How do we bridge to action, co-creating a robust, visible, and active Albertan ecosystem to build sustainable capacity for future systems change? Does it require a sustained space or team for the continued development of social innovation in the province? Or are organizations willing to support this work in creative new ways?

Riddled with all these questions, what I do think I know is that “until more ways are found to get deep into mainstream institutions and to integrate community deep into social innovation, ecosystems for systems change will not thrive” (K Spitz. SiG Paper). And this is ultimately our task in Alberta. ABSI Connect is committing itself to stewarding answers to these questions as the next evolution of this ABSI experiment.

So again: What do you think? 

How might we create deeper connections for social innovation to thrive in Alberta? 

This is where we call on Albertans to help us move towards action to support us in figuring this out.

By Aleeya Velji