Social Innovation – Many Ways Forward

Yesterday I attended the Panel Discussion through the Ryerson MBA at the Ted Rogers School of Management with incredible speakers on the subject of Social Innovation. The event was moderated by Susan Pigott from Ashoka Canada. This topic always gets me thinking in new and exciting ways and I found the session engaging and insightful. Some of the topics covered included defining social innovation and entrepreneurship as well as looking at the relationship between corporate interests and social benefit.

Ric Young is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson and he spoke about ways of understanding the meaning of social innovation. Although it has become a buzz word in the past few years, many people still don’t know what it means. Ric focused on the contradictory relationship between innovation and conservatism. Innovation then is anything that challenges the established order. Disruptive technology, like the mobile phone, is a good example of new systems replacing past trends at high speed. The way the world communicates today is so different than it was even a few years ago. Other examples of quick social innovation are the changes in public perception and legislation, like the regulation of smoking laws. If you had suggested this way of thinking twenty years ago, people would have thought you were insane.

What makes these changes effective while others seem to get stuck on the way to realization? For example, what keeps us from developing better environmental practices at a large scale? With all the effort and growth in this area, why are industries still based on resource-exhaustive practices like oil-extraction? These are the questions that entrepreneurs ask.

The next speaker was Allyson Hewitt from MaRS and she suggested that the answer to these questions can be better accessed by ensuring that socially innovative outcomes are facilitated by socially innovative practices and processes. She wants to know why we get stuck on “either-or”’ instead of using the word, “and” more often. This means that the traditional approach to problem solving needs to be re-invented to include stake-holders from all areas of society. That is why she works within MaRS to bring together diverse disciplines from government to industry to artists to entrepreneurs. The challenge lies in finding a way to communicate between them based on their vastly different experiences and perspectives.

The other two speakers on the panel were a perfect example of this type of beneficial relationship. Michael Hyatt is a successful businessman from BlueCat Networks working with Raju Agarwal, a social entrepreneur who has created a system for improving the lives of farming communities in poor areas of India through drip irrigation. Although they come from two very different worlds, Mike and Raju work well together towards a common goal. They have overcome preconceptions that big business and social purpose cannot mix and instead have found a way to successfully communicate the shared value for both sectors. Although many discussions of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy have aimed to re-evaluate the relationship between public benefit and corporate interests, these men have put it into practice.

Obviously I was quite moved by the gathering of these special guests and speakers. I would have been happy to sit there all day talking about what makes real change valuable and effective. I still have so many questions and ideas to add to the conversation. Luckily there will be more opportunities to do so through Ryerson MBA’s many innovation initiatives.

Shira Gellman works with start-up companies to strengthen and grow their business.
Twitter: @shirasecrets 

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