Tag Archives: social innovation

Where the Magic Happens: Highlights from Social Innovation Summit

Key learnings from places of vulnerability, emergence & gratitude


c/o KoMedia

During the close of the seventh annual SIX Summer School, 150 bright-eyed participants chatted excitedly in a room overlooking Vancouver’s False Creek, a scenic inlet separating downtown Vancouver from the shores of Vanier Park and Fairview. The organizers shared their final words. Six ambassadors — participants chosen to witness key themes — offered concluding insights on empathy, empowerment, courage, beauty, power and love, and generations. The room’s energy was almost palpable. Things were coming to a close.

As the coordinator of the Summer School and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had the opportunity to offer my own final words. The thoughts I shared were those of boundless gratitude. I admitted that the largest event I could recall organizing was my twenty-fourth birthday party. The jump from local social planner to lead coordinator of an international conference was not part of the career plan. And yet the faith my supervisors placed in me opened up the opportunity for me to dive into something completely unknown. As I stood overlooking the crowd, knowing that my team had co-piloted this event to success, I felt deeply humbled.

Two months following, my sentiment of thankfulness is the same. In this post, I offer four of my personal highlights from the global conference and the week’s flurry of concurrent social innovation events.

Creating the Conditions for Social Innovation


c/o KoMedia

Our visionary maestro, Al Etmanski, guided the SIX organizing team on a journey to “get social innovation into Canada’s water supply.” Al, along with Tim Draimin and Cheryl Rose, perceived the global SIX Summer School as a unique opportunity for Canada – our nation’s time had come.

The SIX Summer School created the conditions for an international group of radical doers and thinkers to convene with local and regional changemakers. From government and activist organizations through to businesses and foundations, Canadians of all stripes participated in SIX, gaining new connections and insights. It was through intentionally linking local Canadians with global practitioners that some of the greatest value of SIX and Social Innovation Week was realized.

Vulnerability is the secret sauce

In the early days of developing the conference program, the Canadian team was bent on creating something different. Our team had the privilege of attending numerous conferences and we knew we didn’t want to simply create a container for the same conversations. We wanted to shake things up! We wanted people to feel a little uncomfortable. That is where the magic happens…

Where the magic happens

Although the conference program had three themes – society, sector and self – “the self was our secret sauce,” as BCPSI partner Ken Gauthier identified.

During the first full day of SIX, participants were welcomed with the local traditions of the Musqueam People, involving a purifying cedar brushing ceremony and evocative song and dance. The opening plenary was a deep exploration into vulnerability, led by two of Canada’s leading social innovation thinkers, Frances Westley and Vickie Cammack. The visceral cultural experience and thought-provoking morning dialogue were designed to open participants’ hearts and minds to vulnerability. Empathy, humility, and honesty with oneself lay the groundwork for understanding how to make change.

“If we are afraid of our desert places then we become more afraid of the vulnerability outside ourselves — of the other” – Frances Westley 

Putting Faith in Emergence

In order to execute on Al’s grand vision for SIX Summer School Vancouver and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had to put great faith in my team, our 22 partner organizations, my own abilities, and the elusive magic that is emergence. I believe emergence is about letting go of control and expectations and allowing ideas and actions to happen organically. When you make room for people to animate a space, you empower them to create something awesome – truly awe-inspiring. It was our team’s responsibility to highlight the opportunities of SIX for innovative organizations, embrace ambiguity, and allow the cultural norms of our partners to inform the week’s direction.

Boundless Gratitude

Most importantly, what stays with me is the gratefulness I feel for working with so many incredible people. Our partner organizations could not have been more creative, thoughtful, positive and driven to make Social Innovation Week the success that it was.


c/o KoMedia

As I move on from my role, I will reflect fondly on the time when hundreds of Canadian and international leaders came together to celebrate social change. Now, more than ever, I believe that we can learn more together by learning from one another. Together we can start to understand where to leap next.

Who organizes SIX Summer Schools?

Since 2007, each Summer School has been co-organized by the global partner, Social Innovation Exchange, and a local in-country partner. This year, there were two local partners – BC Partners for Social Impact (#BCPSI) and Social Innovation Generation (SiG), representing British Columbia and Canada respectively.

Watch the Best of SIX video on Vimeo

This post was originally published on the SiG blog.


Getting to maybe: a practical guide for the social innovator

As part of my exploration deeper into Social Innovation, I read Getting to Maybe

Getting to MaybeFor the social entrepreneurs, the skeptics or the merely curious, Getting to Maybe offers an inviting introduction to social innovation. Practical, poetic, interspersed with grounded case studies and humble advice, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton illuminate the path to getting to maybe.

Let’s cut the jargon – or at least define it – What is Social Innovation?

My personal definition:

“Social innovation is a new product or process that improves human welfare by generating a more effective, efficient, sustainable or fair outcome to an unmet social need.”

Click here for a more complete definition.

Why the title Getting to Maybe?

If you make a conscious effort to follow steps to social innovation, you might just get there; however, there are no promises and outcomes are never guaranteed. Making change, particularly at the systems level, is dependent on a variety of factors, most of which are out of any one individual’s control. And yet the book presents real stories of successful social innovations.

Below are some of my favourite takeaways

Social innovation can be initiated by someone feeling like they have no choice but to act in a way that rejects the status quo. They experience a kind of call to action that is a compelling juxtaposition of opportunity and conviction.

Social innovators are flawed people – not destined individuals, saints or do-gooders.

Social innovators are able to combine reflection and action; they couple analysis and contemplation with vision and commitment.

“Unless we release the resources of time, energy, money and skill locked up in our routines and our institutions on a regular basis, it is hard to create anything new or look at things from a different perspective”
-C.S. Holling: Resilience & the Adaptive Cycle


C.S. Holling’s Adaptive Cycle

To know and be known by the Powerful Stranger. Al Etmanski’s recent speech at the Social Enterprise World Forum unpacks this idea.

When we behave in way that is only good or only bad, we are repressing a part of ourselves, which drains our ability to empathize.

My initial take on it all

There is something satisfying in reading these texts, a kind of deep resonation to emotions I struggle with, like:

  • My conflicting desires to be free and autonomous, while desiring to belong and be directed and approved of. Similar to complexity theory’s paradox of independence and interdependence
  • The comfort of failure. Somehow, when we experience repeated success over time, we lose the very essence of what made us capable of success. We are much more likely to become rigid, egotistical, elitist and lose our capacity to empathize with the less fortunate. We feel urged to protect what we have ‘earned’, and can be consumed by the fear of losing. Success builds fortresses of perceived safety and security that can end up destroying us.
  • When we play in a space of uncomfortable, we are awkward. This is where real opportunity is created
  • I frequently return to the concept of Balance. What does it mean to live a balanced life? How can we keep our Earth in balance? How can we best try to offer equal opportunity for all? Leading a life of balance is both a daily and a lifetime challenge
  • The ability to let go while holding on

A New (& Innovative) Beginning

Although my departure from Ethiopia was filled with bittersweet farewells, I have new opportunities emerging on the Canadian horizon. I recently signed a nine-month contract with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based out of Toronto. SiG is a nimble nonprofit collaborating between four partners to actively cultivate social innovation in Canada.


courtesy of brandeewine

My journey with SiG started in May. A month passed and I still can’t shake the jittery excitable rush I feel every morning. It’s a complete privilege to be able to work directly in social innovation. In essence, social innovation enables change to our current systems with the purpose of improving human welfare. Social innovators oppose, test and attempt to solve society’s intractable problems like homelessness, addiction, and vulnerable populations. It’s quite the daunting task but what better way to challenge yourself?

New to social innovation? Watch this video
Want to read my first blog for SiG? Read it here