Change Happens at the Speed of Trust: Exploring Social Innovation and Policy

By: Lesley Cornelisse 

Author’s Note: This blog is written with informational intent only. Our purpose is nonpartisan and apolitical. I seek here to provide an overview of recent developments in social innovation related to policy and public innovation. Your feedback and comments are welcome!


As the ABSI Connect Policy Fellow, I have been busily exploring the relationship between policy and social innovation for the past several months. Initially, I set out to investigate two streams of inquiry: social innovation policy and socially innovative approaches to developing policy.

This ‘stream’ approach was intended to uncover two different realms: on the one hand, policies supporting social innovation (primarily at the provincial level, given the provincial scope of the ABSI Connect initiative) and, on the other hand, policy approaches and processes which use the tools, strategies, and acumen of social innovation, particularly around social and environmental policy areas.

I set merrily on my way, seeking to surface the best examples of policy on the books and in the works. What I discovered, however, was that the theme bubbling to the top in my interviews across government and the non-profit sector was less about potentially transformative policies themselves and more about the quality of intersector relationships required to achieve shared transformative impacts as a result of policy.

There are several reasons this trend came through so strongly. The first reason is that social innovation is about transformative social or environmental change, which is often thought to be the domain of the charitable (or non-profit, or social profit, or voluntary…) sector. Assumptions about what is ‘social’ and what is ‘public’ can be hard to challenge. A second reason is that there seems to be a percolating (although rarely acknowledged) belief in Alberta that social innovation happens outside of - or possibly even in spite of - government. A third reason is that the structural divisions of ‘sectors’ we have inherited (and often reinforce and deepen) can make working together, no matter where we may be situated, difficult. Thus, the ecosystem is currently in a relationship-building phase which prefaces the development and implementation of truly transformative policy.

If government is seen as a barrier to social innovation, how then do we collectively pursue transformative change? What about social innovators who want little to do with government at this point? This is a question being asked often. To counteract this narrative of “government as obstacle,” we have seen throughout Alberta a renewed focus on the foundational trust required between individuals, organizations, and sectors to move forward together in the pursuit of a better society for everyone is surfacing.

Change happens at the speed of trust.
— Stephen M.R. Covey

With my neat and tidy “two stream approach” dismantled, how then was I supposed to  make sense of a social innovation policy mandate within ABSI Connect? Certainly - I’m still uncovering socially innovative policy as I trudge along, such as the Alberta Baby Boxes pilot (here, and here). For the most part, however, exploring the ecosystem has uncovered two main opportunities: the importance of relationships for jointly advancing socially innovative policy and the state of Public Innovation in Alberta.

Relationships and Policy and Social Innovation… oh my!

Within the “social sector,” there is early evidence of a shift away from organizations guarding their territory in order to work together in the pursuit of common goals. In Calgary, for example, a non-profit sector Social Policy Collaborative has begun to convene in order to develop a shared agenda and shared approach to policy work in the province. The group is currently 50 members strong, self-organizing into working groups focused on a range of policy issues and opportunities. Representatives of the Government of Alberta have been connected to this group from its inception, with the goal of increasing dialogue, transparency and collaboration from the beginning.

Over the past decade, the relationship between the non-profit sector and the Alberta provincial government has also seen meaningful changes: an example of this is the development of the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative (ANVSI).

The first provincial initiative of its kind in Canada,  ANVSI was formalized through a collaboration agreement in 2004 as a vehicle for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues across four areas (systems, policy, legislation and programs) directly with government officials. Currently four Deputy Ministers and five non-profit sector leaders sit on a Leaders’ Council, within a broader, 60-member Stewardship Forum. The Stewardship Forum allows those outside of the Leaders’ Council to bring issues and opportunities forward, and serves as a key vehicle for government to seek feedback and insight from the wider non-profit sector in the province.

In Edmonton, a radical new type of collaborative,  the SDX, recently surfaced. SDX is an emergent community of practice where civil servants and community organizations looking at systemic design are coming together to explore ways of developing new knowledges and learning with each other. It has been developed through a partnership with the CoLab and the Skills Society Action Lab.

ANVSI and the SDX are also examples of public innovation. The Innovation Policy Platform (an initiative of the OECD) defines public innovation as, “approaches to provide quality public services and better respond to society’s needs” emerging from government at any level. Stay tuned for a more robust Public Innovation Primer, but for now I want to highlight just a few  of the examples of public innovation informing my inquiry:

Public Innovation in Alberta

The Social Policy Framework

The Social Policy Framework was at its essence a robust consultation with Albertans to develop the policy directions and priorities for the province. I classify it as a public innovation because the process was rooted in pre-established principles of engagement: Collaboration, Community Ownership, Integration, and Evidence-Based. Other principles of engagement were Practicality, Shared Responsibility, Transparency, and Outcomes-focused.

The Framework’s Network Mobilization approach drew on existing relationships with community-based organizations to solicit feedback on social policy issues on the agenda, while the Community Conversations approach invited community conveners and connectors to host community discussions (with an accompanying grant for nonprofit organizations to manage the process); 380 community conversations were held across the province. Over 31,000 Albertans participated in the consultations.

The Framework was about a co-created future for Alberta and the establishment of next steps to see the achievement of important social policy goals in the province.  It is worth noting that one of the main reasons the Calgary Social Policy Collaborative has emerged is to keep the momentum from the SPF going, and not lose track of the politically agnostic, amazing work done through this process.

The Social Innovation Endowment Fund (SIE)

The SIE grew out of the Social Policy Framework.  A $1 Billion endowment, the SIE would have been a self-sustaining investment fund for socially innovative ideas and practices across sectors and scales in the province.  While the Endowment was subject to changing political and economic tides, it remains an important development in Alberta’s social innovation history. Indeed, the possibility of an  SIE has in many ways spurred the social innovation ecosystem into action, bootstrapping momentum which has encouraged players across the province to decide whether social innovation is something we will or should “do anyway” in Alberta (so far, the answer has been ‘Yes!’). The sense of urgency the Endowment created is a major reason ABSI Connect was born: out of a desire to better understand, connect, and foster the social innovation ecosystem that the SIE was created  to serve.

The Alberta CoLab

The Alberta CoLab is an example of public innovation in progress. A physical space in the Government of Alberta (Alberta Energy), the CoLab has a cross-government mandate to tackle stuck problems using systemic design and systems thinking. The CoLab team facilitates, coaches, and guides public servants through the tools and mindsets of systemic design. The Fellows will be posting a blog soon about Labs, so stay tuned for more information on the CoLab and social innovation labs emerging throughout the Province.  

Moving Forward Together

The advancement of public innovation specifically, and social innovation more generally in Alberta, is a movement full of promise; it suggests that we are collectively building from our best efforts to work together differently. These examples are interrelated and build off of collective successes and opportunities throughout the province aiming to transform stuck problems, address root causes, and seek to build more efficient systems.

While ‘boundaries’ remain a barrier and perceptions of social innovation may be coloured by sectoral interests and experiences, social innovation is happening between, amongst and across sectors - starting with the examples of public innovation captured here and the relationship-building stage the Fellows are uncovering across the province. When it comes to policy opportunities and challenges, we need to move forward together in the pursuit of transformative social change.

Want to connect with our policy inquiry? Reach me at lesley@absiconnect.ca

Check back for upcoming Policy Profiles, a Public Innovation Primer and a deeper dive into the world of Labs!