The Social Impact Lab

Social innovation labs bring together a diverse group of organizations and individuals, including people with lived experience, to address complex problems. Often combining systems thinking with human-centered design processes, labs generate new services and business models with the potential to transform communities.

In this post, Talia Bell and Cindy Lam share how the Social Impact Lab in downtown Calgary is working to understand and address challenges related to mental health services, and is helping organizations apply design thinking to their work. To learn about other examples of social innovation labs in Canada, see this recent overview from Kyle Shantz at Social Innovation Canada.


The Social Impact Lab

By Talia Bell and Cindy Lam

“There is a demand for new ideas, products, services, stakeholders, and relationships to overcome pressing societal challenges, and yet, demand for support continues to outpace the supply of funding and services.” In February 2018, United Way of Calgary and Area, in partnership with J5 Innovation, launched The Social Impact Lab to co-create new products, services, and business models with the potential to transform community.  

Social Issue Work

A report commissioned by United Way of Calgary in late spring of 2018 drew our attention to access as a multi-faceted problem for children, youth, and families seeking mental health services and support. This problem spurred us to delve into this social issue as the very first project of the Lab.

Phase 1 of this project involved deep listening and facilitated workshops with citizens, corporations, philanthropists, community partners, and persons with lived experience to better understand the problem as it impacts different touchpoints in the journey for children, youth, and families. From our insights, we identified the need to improve access to mental health supports for individuals and caregivers (natural supports) who are supporting children and youth experiencing mental health concerns. With this understanding, we worked to uncover potential ideas and are about to launch several experiments to validate the many ideas that have emerged in early 2019.

The Social Impact Lab is greatly influenced by the principles of human-centred design. By placing humans at the focal area of our work and designing to solve their unmet needs, we can achieve impact through innovation. However, this work cannot be done alone. Children and youth mental health - no different from any other social issue, impacts people on a global scale. Without system-level efforts of the broader community, we cannot create the impact needed. With this in mind, The Social Impact Lab invests in innovation and creates strategic partnerships that support the social sector to not only serve, but solve social issues.


While the Lab has been focused on large scale change on social issues in Calgary, we also learned of the desire for non-profits to explore their own organizational pain points and learn how to test new business models, products, and services.  

There was no shortage of problems worth solving, but what became evident was that people were dedicating valuable time and resources to ideas that might not get them the impact they desired. Missing from their process were the steps of understanding their customer’s pain points and rapidly testing ideas with those customers to validate whether a potential solution will make a ripple or fall flat.

The Inspire Program is a unique learning experience that teaches individuals and organizations how to apply design thinking as a tool for problem solving on actual projects that are happening within their organizations.

Over the course of the program, participants learn how to:

  • Set the stage for their success

  • Truly understand their “customer”

  • Design new value propositions

  • Build foundations for new relationships

Inspire participants working on applied group projects.

Inspire participants working on applied group projects.

Talia Bell is the Director and Co-Founder of the Social Impact Lab. Cindy Lam is a Service Designer with the Social Impact Lab. To learn more about their work, visit or contact Talia (

ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Let us know.