From Olivia Clark-Moffatt

In June, donkey wheel foundation, sent a group of leaders from Australia’s social innovation sector to draw insight from the Canadian social impact ecosystem.  The trip visited Montreal and Toronto (some participants also visited Winnipeg or Atlanta), experiencing some top examples of grassroots initiatives through to big organisations and their role in the ecosystem.  TDi Principal, Olivia Clark-Moffatt, was one of the 12 journeymen (and women).  These are her reflections and insights from the trip.

What I felt

Canada is familiar and yet foreign. It seems to be a nation with a strong social agenda and greater depth to its shared responsibility for social innovation.  In this way, it feels similar to New Zealand’s national social agenda, and different to Australia’s, which perhaps takes on American influence of individualism and protectionism, making social outcomes feel like a ‘favour’.

I returned with a feeling of envy for Canada’s national spirit of generosity and how established the ecosystem is.  The complexity of developing a generous narrative and building a story of wealth through diversity is a significant challenge for social innovation in Australia.  Perhaps summed up by the Chinese Proverb the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second-best time is now.

What I saw

True to TDi’s own belief that business is an important driver of systems-change, the social solutions we visited were driven by entrepreneurs.  Organisations or project teams would proactively solve genuine problems, and then seek reinforcement and mainstream support from Government or research partners.

The MaRS centre in Toronto, which we visited, is a great example of this.  It was started in 2000 by 14 civic leaders with a vision for a downtown innovation hub.  They pooled together $14m and garnered support from Government and their networks to build a ‘co-habitation’ space for innovation.  In their own words, it’s a place where innovators – whether in business, research, education, startups – are able to meet, connect and collaborate to solve the biggest problems facing Canada and the world.  Like a living organism, the solutions that have been dreamed up in this environment have created more businesses, jobs and dollars for the economy, self-proving and expanding the centre’s site.

At a grassroots level, the initiatives and businesses felt much more commercially sustainable than Australia, while the big players in the system had bigger pools of money, more sophisticated outlooks, more influence (through policy in Government), and more depth (through research partners) all of which amassed to more agency for change.

For example, the McConnell foundation, a philanthropy foundation at their heart, who take on so much more than that in order to make change in the eco-system.  In their own words:

“Re-designing systems calls for new financial arrangements, policy innovation, new relations between government, civil society and the private sector, equitable and effective engagement with affected populations, and alignment with values that foster social creativity and mutual respect.”

Then, there were just the completely new ideas that Australia does not yet have.  We visited Wasan Island, which label themselves a social innovation retreat.   Wasan is a private Island where teams and collaborators go to disconnect from the world and quietly, spiritually, in conversation and peacefully solve societal problems.   The seclusion and spiritually of the island give it it’s point of difference and some of the world’s most prominent businesses and thinkers have been invited to have a facilitated conversation.  We talk a lot about ‘slow-thinking’ at TDi – the opportunity to step back and plug into the bigger picture.  I like the idea of a space that provides a different energy for that than the corporate three-day sprint.

So, where are Australia’s gaps?

As mentioned at the start of this reflection, I think that Australia has a long way to go in terms of creating and nurturing a culture and environment that believes in social inclusion rather than seeing it as a favour.   We need a better balance of competition and cooperation – less American influence, more Eastern philosophy.

For me, the other piece that missing is a maturity in thinking around upfront investment.  We’re a typically risk averse culture which is inhibiting our ability to prove out successful, socially-driven businesses and create momentum in the ecosystem.   We need the opportunity to get a couple of runs on the board to make a dent, generate interest and trust, and to start building tomorrow’s ecosystem, now.

A place for TDi in the system

Interestingly, during my time in Canada, I didn’t see anything like TDi in the ecosystem.   There was no body that connected in to both the players at the top end and the grassroots.  I could see us playing the role of aggregator or guild-creator in this system, collating people around ideas, and helping them to build the structures and systems to solve, not just the words (policy and research).  I think this is an under-established area in the Australian ecosystem which presents an opportunity for us. To really think about unqiue ways to bring together social innovators for scale and impact that are true to them (not the charitable nor commercial sectors.)

In sum, the best thing about this time away has been the renewal of the call into the unknown. The future is not waiting for us, it demands to be co-created.