How an innovation mind-set can lead us to “Good and Full Lives, for Everyone.”
Prior to 2009, innovation tended to be more system-centred—new pilots and programs that relied on service infrastructure to deliver them. But if we were serious about people becoming part of community life, we needed to get better at building and nourishing community, and at facilitating connections. And to be more “of” the community ourselves.
As our Director of Innovation, Gord Tulloch, recently shared in our 2019 Annual Report:
“For the past several years, we have been really serious about things like trying to figure out how to ensure there is a place in community for those we serve. We’ve been wrestling with the decades-old problems of segregation, social stigma, and how to fill people’s days with meaning as well as things to do. How do we provide opportunities for them to lead good and full lives, whatever that means for them, because they deserve that chance, and because we have a moral and existential responsibility to do our very best? It’s been a long road, filled with lots of learning, and we’re still not there. It’ll be a ten or twenty-year journey, probably…”
Our first attempt to do so was by spearheading an inclusive community gardening project called Can you dig it! Partnering with MOSAIC, Kinsight (formerly Simon Fraser Society for Community Living), and presently with the Provincial Health Association of BC, we sought to build neighbourhood gardens on properties we owned or leased, as well as community gardens on lots controlled by municipalities or developers. We envisioned community gardens with intergenerational, multicultural, and all-incomes households working shoulder to shoulder, and building their own support networks. Over the following six years, we became expert at building gardens and developing resources for food-growing, but relationships among the gardeners were slow to develop. The gardens weren’t as animated as we had hoped they would be, and the networks were more at the coordination level, rather than at the gardener/neighbourhood level.
We could bring people together, but that wasn’t enough for them to connect.
So we wondered if we could introduce new and enduring roles into the social service system that would both build and nourish community as well as result in people with disabilities becoming encircled by others. This meant having places to go, things to do, and people to do them with, and having people that they could count on, and who counted on them.
“At the same time that we try to make our professional services better—more responsive and person-centered, we are also trying to catalyze the power of natural community to care for each other and to celebrate diversity. How do we create more conditions for reciprocity and engagement? How do we embed people who are socially isolated into their neighbourhoods and communities? How do we foster hospitable spaces and natural friendships?”
We were as resolved then as we are now to figure this out, as are the organizations with whom we’ve been partnering. Starting in 2014, Gord and our CEO, Fernando Coelho, began to deepen the collaboration with Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion and Kinsight in order that we could more significantly co-invest in solutions.
We began a starter project with a unique social design shop called “InWithForward” (IWF). IWF’s mantra is this: “We turn our social safety nets into trampolines, to enable people on the margins to flourish.” As social scientists and designers, they provided ethnographic research that gave us rich insights into the everyday context of people with disabilities, including new problem definitions and fresh ideas for better outcomes.
For example, we learned that folks with cognitive disabilities lacked exposure to novelty. Their everyday routines and service expectations were unchanging, and this resulted in keeping them stuck. So we began to design, prototype and test a service that could function like a trampoline: Kudoz. This online platform connects people with and without cognitive disabilities through hundreds of splendid learning experiences, all hosted by community volunteers. It’s either won or been short-listed for several awards and has received considerable international attention.
From this experience, we learned that we needed to flip our approach from systems-driven to consumer-lead design. We also learned that social services are not designed to innovate or do research and development—that this requires fundamentally different roles and methods.
And InWithForward wasn’t wanting to play a consultancy role, they wanted to partner with organizations that were serious about change. We were. And so, our four agencies formed a partnership in 2015, and BACI, Kinsight and ourselves began to co-invest in social R&D.
At the same time, BACI, Kinsight and ourselves entered into a new partnership and established a website and collective called Degrees of Change. The name is based on the hypothesis that change will come from a series of small changes, from the aggregation of new local solutions, conversations and interactions. We hoped that we might become an engine that could develop new things.
Out of this experience came 6 new ideas, one of which moved forward to prototyping (Real Talk, an accessible sexual health education initiative). However, we also learned that it is difficult to perform these skills inside of one’s everyday role because the social service ecosystem thinks differently. It is about being consistent, fair, clear and predictable. It is about order and universal processes, conformity and compliance. A system would not function, otherwise, and reliable services could not be delivered. But trying to come up with new solutions requires a different mindset. It is about risk and failure, contesting values and assumptions, being comfortable with ambiguity, and being creative.
The conditions required for disruptive innovation and for service delivery are completely different.
We wondered if we might cultivate two operating systems inside of an organization: one for delivery, one for development. Grounded Space 1.0 was a one-year project involving about twenty-five staff across the three agencies. Not only was it about upskilling staff in social R&D methods, but it was also about trying to cultivate and curate the conditions for experimentation inside organizations. Out of this experience came 3 new ideas, one of which moved forward to prototyping (Meraki, a boxed experience service that is about positively disrupting routines, optimizing personal agency, and bringing learning and joy). But we also learned that creating the right conditions inside of organizations was exceedingly difficult. It’s hard to live in two worlds, with two very different sets of imperatives, rhythms and cultures.
In October 2020, Gord Tulloch and Dr. Sarah Schulman (cofounder of InWithForward) published The Trampoline Effect: Redesigning our Social Safety Nets. The book summarizes our learning and consists of 12 “stretches,” or strategies, that the Degrees of Change collective believe will bring about better service outcomes for persons with disabilities. The stretches involve refocusing some of the work we do so that we are also addressing things like “soul”—meaning, purpose and beauty, for example—and “identity,” which tells the story of who we are and what is possible and desirable for us. It also involves additional roles around activating community and bridging people to community. And it involves additional strategic functionality, like research and development, influencing popular culture, and focusing on upstream solutions rather than just responding to current crises and priorities.
We refer to the patterns/ideas as stretches because it’s about gradual movements in particular directions, and about not stopping many of the things we do now. We don’t think there is any one program or solution to the “good and full lives,” it will be all of us pulling in new directions, bit by bit. That’s our hunch, anyway.
The last several years has been about intensive experimentation and learning. Today, we have a strategic vision for 2028, a theory of change, and a series of “stretches” that we hope will put us on a path that leads to good lives and full lives for people with disabilities.
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