From the Bush to the Airwaves: CFWE Radio Hosts ABSI

When I was young, I used to admire disc jockeys and their ability to send their voices above hills and over tree tops. I don’t think they realized the isolation they countered in Treaty 8 territory. For some people in rural communities, listening to the radio not only provides a peek into urban areas but is also a form of social interaction. Radio Bingo for example, gives rural community members a chance to ‘win some big bucks’. And calling the request line to ‘dedicate a song to an aunties’ ex-boyfriend’s brother from down the road’ gives people a sense of inclusion and, even more importantly, a voice.

 Dry meat bandit.

Dry meat bandit.


That being said, I was excited to reflect on a year of being a Northern Fellow on 91.1 the Bridge.  For a half an hour, my friend and mentor, Russell Thomas and I explored my path on a segment called Impact Radio. It was then that he told me I was the first ever guest to return for a second interview. With cameras rolling and microphones live in the studio, we caught up with each other. And there we were, sending stories of resiliency and traditional lifestyles over hills and treetops —doing our best to counter the isolation sometimes felt by Indigenous innovators in rural communities by their echoing voices.


I feel like every time Russell and I connect the most profound things happen. For example, the time spent with him on Impact Radio resulted in him connecting me with CFWE, a provincial Aboriginally-owned and operated radio station. Within days, I was sharing stories about a gathering at Little Big Lake, outside Janvier, Alberta, sending them back over the water and to the shores where they originated. Who would have thought that our meat drying, tee pee creepin, medicine gathering adventures would make it full circle!


CFWE is the kind of platform ABSI Connect was waiting for. This partnership provides access to a province wide and pan-aboriginal audience in which we can make a call out to innovators; who are the innovators making a difference in your community?! How are they making a difference and where can we connect to make a more collective impact?! I can’t wait to be the first guest to return for a third time to see where Russell and my connection take us next.

By Melissa Herman

Foraging in the Social Innovation Ecosystem

In my early years at Volunteer Alberta (I’ve been here for over 5 years now), I spent part of my time presenting on volunteerism statistics. I would speak to nonprofit sector leaders about the volunteerism rates by age and demographic and the reasons why people volunteer and why they don’t. The whole purpose was to provide people with information that challenges assumptions and inspires new actions. After one of these presentations, in a smaller rural community, a couple of participants approached me, thanked me and then proceeded to let me know that as valuable as the presentation was, they did not see how the information applied to their experience or how it was going to help them. These community members were worried because it had become increasingly difficult to engage their neighbours, especially in volunteer opportunities. From their perspective, youth and young families were not volunteering, traditional institutions were losing funding, the volunteer base in the community was aging, and no matter what strategies these community members applied, nothing changed. I empathized with their challenges, but,  at the time, I did not have anything of value to offer them that would make a difference.


I returned to the office confused and concerned. I was confused as to why we were presenting information to communities that seemed to make no difference in reality and I was concerned that communities were asking for something that I did not have.  It was at that moment  that I started on a journey to explore and unearth the root causes of volunteerism and engagement challenges facing rural communities.  This has lead me down a number of paths and shaped a lot of my work over the years -- and it continues  to shape me.


One of the things I’ve learned is that there are limiting mindsets/paradigms/ways of thinking that pull the levers of what is possible in community. They are often hidden from our view, in the back of our minds and hearts,  yet  inform us all at the same time. It is often called ‘the status quo,’ but is more accurately the operating assumptions we don’t think to challenge; the established way that doesn’t have to be the only way. Where communities are stuck or struggling, our operating assumptions are often an unchallenged stumbling block to change.  I’ve learned that there are effective approaches to disrupt and disconnect from our set  mindsets and that transforming  community with new perspectives and mindsets can make all  the difference.


I am excited to be joining ABSI Connect as the first Journeyman Partner. I am privileged to be embarking on an adventure to surface, advance and grow the Alberta social innovation ecosystem by bringing in the perspective of rural Alberta. I will be connecting with community and organizational leaders from Alberta’s diverse communities who are challenging, reshaping and transforming their communities. There are leaders throughout Alberta who are champions for mindsets and actions that are renewing and transforming communities. By illuminating the ways Albertans are addressing the complex challenges faced by rural communities, I hope to uncover unique patterns and approaches to amplify, expand our collective perspective on social innovation in the province and intentionally connect leaders across the province.

I look forward to meeting you!


By Annand Ollivierre

The ABSI Evolution

ABSI Connect emerged as an experiment to explore and discover the pulse of social innovation in Alberta. In Phase One, the Fellows determined some of the patterns and pathways that exist in the province from our two largest cities. There’s a series of resources you are welcome to check-out, use, and adapt that capture this pulse.

Since Phase One, Melissa, our Northern Fellow, has joined. She has expanded our understanding of what innovation can look like by weaving in the story of indigenous innovation in Northern Alberta.

ABSI’s sense of the social innovation ecosystem is growing into the North and now creeping into rural Alberta with the addition of Annand, our Journeyman Partner with Volunteer Alberta. Annand is supporting our collective story by testing out a new partnership model that goes beyond Fellows to connect with champions within Albertan organizations.

What is happening now? 

I like to think that the expanding scope and support for ABSI Connect is a signal of systems readiness. During the last year, we explored and learned by intentionally putting social innovation in the middle of our desks to help cultivate a culture in Alberta that actively nurtures social innovation for systems change.  

We were like frogs jumping from one lily pad to the next, discovering deep roots to a common purpose of social innovation: to collectively strive to address social and environmental problems at their root - stopping them from existing in the first place.

Each lily pad taught us a lesson. Each lily pad added a meaningful insight to our understanding of Albertan social innovation. As we make our way around the pond, we have started to see and sense the pulse of the system around us.

The collection of lily pads is a constantly growing and a powerful signal of a thriving social innovation ecosystem, yet we continue to  feel disconnect. How we are connected, and how we are nurturing each other, remains largely under the surface.

Some social innovators are focused on learning and developing tools that support innovation, while others are focused on taking a systems approach, combining tools with organizational culture change to support sustainable spaces for social impact. And all are tackling various complex challenges or the intersections between challenges: poverty, racism, climate change and so on.

So what is happening here? We have a shared opportunity as a province to continue to adapt how we pursue transformational outcomes and impact together. We are already doing it and we have a legacy of leading the way. We have so many of the elements in place needed to shift the systems creating our problems in the first place. But, we must continue to be open to changing the status quo of how we go about doing it: with whom, why, and in what way.

Whatever we do, we must do it together

   Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

What I do know is that we have the readiness and a willingness to try in Alberta. We see so many examples of social innovation thriving in Alberta. Just look at this emerging map.  

We are ready to dive into the water and see the whole beauty and complexity of our change work and collectively enrich it above and beyond what we can do alone.  

Readiness or Preparedness

With that readiness to dive in, we need to also be prepared to see the patterns that make us uncomfortable, but are critical to getting to our shared vision. For me, I am seeing such patterns are around leadership and power. In the last few months, I have discovered that a critical factor for advancing on our change work is related to leadership and the awareness of power within our current structures.

Systems change is ultimately about shifting and transforming how relationships of power welcome, empower or disenfranchise those who pursue or desire change. Imagine how these relationships determine who speaks for whom, who gets to have their voice heard and who doesn’t. These relationships can amplify voices or invoke silence. We are aware of the importance of shifting these relationships, yet this is often where we get stuck - trying to figure out how to effectively navigate for the impacts we seek  when these relationships are some of the most entrenched of our mainstream culture.

Social innovation lab processes are a space to explore this deep challenge and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so as a lab steward for the Edmonton Shift Lab. I do not have the answer for what it takes to move systems, but what I have learned is that we may need to creatively subvert our own positions to create meaningful and diverse collaborations that recognize and challenge assumed structures of power, take a systems approach, and balance field building with ecosystem thinking to find out how to move into a new normal.

So where do we need to go next? 

From our ongoing exploration, it is now evident that Alberta has shown us a sense of systems readiness. How might we combine all that exists in Alberta to spark meaningful systemic change? How do we bridge to action, co-creating a robust, visible, and active Albertan ecosystem to build sustainable capacity for future systems change? Does it require a sustained space or team for the continued development of social innovation in the province? Or are organizations willing to support this work in creative new ways?

Riddled with all these questions, what I do think I know is that “until more ways are found to get deep into mainstream institutions and to integrate community deep into social innovation, ecosystems for systems change will not thrive” (K Spitz. SiG Paper). And this is ultimately our task in Alberta. ABSI Connect is committing itself to stewarding answers to these questions as the next evolution of this ABSI experiment.

So again: What do you think? 

How might we create deeper connections for social innovation to thrive in Alberta? 

This is where we call on Albertans to help us move towards action to support us in figuring this out.

By Aleeya Velji





From Moose Hunting to Moosehide

There is something about hunting with my uncle that makes me feel safe and protected. And no, it’s not because he is carrying a rifle. I think the determination in his eyes reminds me of how important it is for him to provide for my aunty, little cousins, and whomever else may need a meal. Or maybe it is the way he beams with pride when something familiar in the scenery sparks a memory about my grandpa, stories he can’t help but tell. Or maybe it is because despite his artillery and warrior-like stance, he still needs the delicate touch of my aunty and I to cut the meat just right so that it dries in the smoke to perfection.  Whatever it is, it reminds me that I deserve to feel safe.

This year’s theme for Alberta’s Family Violence Prevention month (November) is Reach Out. Speak Out. A call to action to end family violence and support survivors. This aligns perfectly with the time of year because indigenous men are already mobilized -- as the moose hunting season is winding down, it is the best time to shift men's efforts. The Moosehide Campaign is  a new movement for men to use and join on their journey to end violence against women. It will not be easy because a once matriarchal way of life has been turned upside down as one of many impacts made by residential schools.

From moose hunting to moosehide

There is something about moose calling with the rising sun and crisp fall air that makes going to bed the night before feel like Christmas. The smallest chance of seeing moose around the bend provides enough hope to keep your eyes peeled for hours. Even when the sun is at the highest point of the day and the tip of the gas gauge is dipping below empty, you still believe there is time to get what you came for. Knowing there is a small chance to lay eyes on your prize is all the hope you need to carry on. Rallying ambitious providers and protectors is where the Moose Hide Campaign comes in.

The Moosehide Campaign involves men at a grassroots level and has proven successful in other areas of the country so ABSI Connect, the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre and Waypoints (formally the Family Crisis Society) wanted to nurture its growth here in Fort McMurray. There isn’t an Indigenous man in northern Alberta who doesn’t appreciate a conversation about moose hunting. After all, when you are silently hunting moose for hours on end, there is a lot left unsaid and the Moosehide Campaign gives the men a safe place to share their thoughts and feelings. To make the connection between moose hunting and taking a stand against violence towards Indigenous women, we explore the many reasons of why moose hunting is so essential to us as Indigenous people in the first place.  

More and more, conversations are taking place about violence against women, the quality of life of Indigenous women in the region and the country, and barriers for survivors because of the Moosehide Campaign. The passion in the eyes of the men involved is easy to see. Having a safe place to talk about something so difficult is important because everyone who has experienced violence needs to feel safe in order to be honest.

Having Waypoints at the table removes any barriers of accessibility to counseling services. Having healthy men who were once perpetrators and/or survivors  of family violence at the table puts at ease any sense of shame or judgment that anyone might have. We hope to continuing to foster this environment with the tools of the Moosehide Campaign. A couple years ago I bought a large piece of moosehide for my failed attempt to make moccasins that is going to be made into the centres first batch of moosehide squares for everyone involved to proudly wear. Proof that everything happens for a reason.   

What began as Paul Lecerte and his daughter, Raven, hoping to spark a discussion about missing and murdered Indigenous women has turned into a national campaign. There are many Indigenous men trying to protect and provide for their families. Individually, they are accomplishing small feats and with organization and support, deep and meaningful impacts will be made.

The rate of abuse for Indigenous women is three time the national average. And now more than ever Indigenous social innovation is needed to reach men at a grassroots level here in Fort McMurray. The stress of May 3rd wildfire has resulted in a spike in domestic abuse in the region and the communities, Indigenous and non, are calling for men to stand up and speak out about the violence being committed. The Moose Hide Campaign can act as that hope that keeps you looking around the bend for a moose with tired eyes and together we will protect and provide.

By Melissa Herman


Where the Berries Still Grow

It is so easy to forget that there are old cabins along the shore of Cowpar Lake, south of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Often, and understandably, when people think of northern Alberta, they think of pollution and destruction. But that doesn’t mean when blueberry season comes around in the summer that the blueberry patches aren’t ripe with traditionally knowledgeable berry pickers. That doesn’t mean the Dene language isn’t used to tell stories around a fire, as meat cooks and potato skins burn. In fact, it happens all the time.

“Hello Melissa and Matt, I can't believe I get to introduce the two of you - two creative, committed change makers,” Al Etmanski wrote in an introductory e-mail. Al is the author of Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation, which I am using as a guide on my journey as Northern Fellow. Our discussion about the resilience of Indigenous people catalyzed the strength of our connection. His email introduction to Matt Hern, an open minded thinker and doer, and his friend Am Johal, the explorer type, was inspired by their upcoming trip to Fort McMurray.

Matt and Am are writing a book about ecology, decolonization, and global warming. Most of the time, I question the intention of anyone exploring these topics in Fort McMurray, but they were more interested in learning more about the parallels of how people are treated and how the territory is being treated. Besides, it's far too easy to write a book on the infamous oil sands. 

I invited them to visit Janvier, south of the city, where some of my family live. We almost hit two moose standing in the middle of the highway on the way there. I swerved to the shoulder of the highway to avoid them. Before I knew it, they were gone and I couldn’t help, but get out the car and run to the treeline like I was going to do something; pretty silly of me considering I don’t own a gun. I didn’t think I would see a moose this year because of the May 3rd wildfire, so the sighting gave me hope.

When we got to the reserve, I introduced Matt and Am to my uncle Dennis, an avid hunter, fluent Dene speaker and proud father of 3 boys and a girl. He took my aunty, his two youngest sons, Matt, Am and I from the reserve’s gravel road to the trail through the bush to Cowpar lake. My aunty and I bounced in the bed of the truck on the way there, frequently getting out to pick berries that looked too good to pass up and made the regular stop at a stream to drink the filtered muskeg water. Matt and Am looked impressed by the crisp and clean taste of the water. My uncle explained how the muskeg acts as a filter. I hoped between the scenery, the stories and the elements that the other side of the territory surrounding Fort McMurray would be seen.

I wanted to introduce a balanced story of a region many refer to as ‘Mordor’. Nine times out of ten the damage being done to the land by industry is all that is reported. Matt and Am’s visit gave us a chance to put a spotlight on the berry pickers, hunters, storytellers and the sometimes forgotten residents still living on the shores of Cowpar Lake in Treaty 8.

When we arrived at Cowpar Lake, my uncle began to cook steaks over the fire. We usually eat while we are here so that there is no rush to head back. Fish could be heard jumping and two pelicans floated on the lake, in their glory. An elder shuffled over from the cabin next door to join us around the fire. My aunty Diane laughed at the stories he told of his comical love life.

 Storm clouds rolled towards us as we were making an unspoken agreement of who would risk getting wet and sit in the back of the truck on the way home. My uncle gave the elder the food that wasn’t cooked to take home as he began his way back on the trail. We all gathered our things and made our way to the truck

“Am and I will jump in the back,” Matt offered. “You sure? It looks like it is going to rain,” said my aunty. “A little rain never hurt anyone,” he replied. As I sat in the back seat with two little ones falling asleep on me, my aunty said to my uncle, “I like those guys”.

Many people sit around that same campfire throughout the year. Usually, our thoughts and experiences stay in this area, inadvertently. Visitors like Matt and Am give us the privilege to share an untold perspective: one that promotes a healthy and organic conversation about land, people and industry. Quietly, traditional lifestyles are being lived in the bush. The tenacity to survive in environmental uncertainty is resulting in new ways of thinking. “Mixing the old with the new with a dash of surprise” as Al would say.  

Side Effects of a Level Social Playing Field

When it was time to evacuate with the rest of Fort McMurray, some of the city's homeless were shoulder to shoulder with volunteers. And when the last of the residents were on their way out of town, it was very hard to tell who was where on the social totem pole. That blindness seemed to run through the month's chains of events. I noticed the demeanor of some of the shelter’s past clients when they returned.

Tony, for example, was chronically homeless. Clean. Timid. Soft spoken. I know him from the ‘wet’ emergency shelter here in town, known as the Mat Program. It’s located in the basement of the Salvation Army and was only open during the winter. It has since unlocked it's doors because of the wildfire. Tony was a regular client there and had his ups and downs. It seems like the Wildfire changed all that. Since reentry he has been working, thanks to some strings pulled through the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre. He has been sober and glowing with pride lately. The disaster must have leveled the playing field for him. For a minute. Maybe something that happened during the evacuation sparked his idea to build. I was posted at the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre upon reenty and brought in my abalone shell and sweetgrass, so that I could pray before having my morning coffee. I left the sweetgrass by the front entrance so that anyone could smudge. 

"Can I pray with you?" Tony asked.

"Of course," I said. "That's what it's there for."

Trying to avoid eye contact and with a little smirk on his face, Tony slid the abalone shell towards him. 


He picked up the turkey feather with the beaded shaft, took off his hat, closed his eyes and began to fan the burning sweetgrass. It was almost like the healthy smoke was lifting a weight off of him. He cupped his hands over the shell, trapped smoke in his palms and washed it over his face. After a heavy breath he opened his eyes, and with the return of the smirk on his face, he put his hat back on.

“That is a nice feather,” he said confidently.

He is staying at a hotel free of charge because of the Wildfire. I knew his days there were numbered.

“Thanks,” I said. “Hey, I made some macaroni and tomato soup earlier. Do you want some?”

“Sure… but… it says ‘staff only’ on the door,” he said quietly. “Or else I would go into the kitchen and have two big bowls of soup.”

The soup kitchen wasn’t open yet. Neither was the Mat Program. Regardless, he looked better than ever.

“I got you,” I told him as I walked into the kitchen, only to find out that someone emptied the pot.

I quickly poured another can of tomato soup into the pot and dashed in some macaroni noodles.

“I am just warming it up,” I told him.

“No, it’s okay. Don’t go out of your way,” he said making his way to the door, still standing tall. I wasn’t going to chase him.

When the soup was done he was nowhere to be seen but I still filled the biggest bowl I could find with soup and left on the table where he would see it. Sure enough, he walked back in moments later.

“Your soup is on the table,” I said nonchalantly, pretending that I hadn’t noticed he left.

He sat down at the table, grinning childishly.

“Hey,” he said looking up at me. “You made this just for me?”

Everybody deserves a full belly after a long day’s work,” I replied.

He nodded his head proudly and brought a spoonful of soup to his lips.

“Yeah eh?” he said with a smirk.

I couldn’t help but wonder had happened during the evacuation that brought back his sense of confidence and hope. Was it because the Wildfire leveled the social playing field? Everyone in Fort McMurray was homeless for over a month. Was he treated with such a sense of camaraderie during this time that it revived him? Did this motivate him to give back to his community and in turn give him a strong sense of purpose and appreciation?

I feel like the Sweetgrass was there because he needed it. It was like his prayer officiated his dedication to staying on the right path. That’s why he confidently walked out with a full belly.  








By Melissa Herman

Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the client.

How I came to be an ABSI Connect Northern Fellow

By Melissa Herman

I was at work on January 22nd 2016, when an online news headline caught my eye. “Breaking News: School Shooting in La Loche, Saskatchewan.”  I struggled to read the words that seemed scrambled on my computer screen, and I heard my co-worker gasp and say, “oh my God, there was a school shooting in La Loche”.

La Loche is a small, isolated Dene community in Northern Saskatchewan. The annual winter road from Fort McMurray to La Loche is about 200 kilometers. Everyone in my department knew that I had distance relatives there.

The tears that were welling in my eyes fell as my coworker softly said, “I’m sorry.” That day my aunty and a close friend of mine decided we would make the trip to La Loche. “What do we bring?” I asked myself. “Flowers? Cards? Water?” I didn’t know what the community needed. At that moment, everything that I could think to bring seemed so useless. I found moose meat to offer. We raised money to buy nice flowers and a wreath with the victims’ names - Dayne, Drayden, Marie, and Adam - to lay at the school. It wasn’t good enough for me. There will always be moose meat, hopefully. Flowers eventually die. Fake flowers fade. A picture of Drayden on Facebook caught my eye. He looked so happy and I didn’t want that to fade. As a mother, that’s what I would miss the most. I wanted to bring that to his family. I thought it was impossible.

Russell Thomas is a well-known artist, actor, and writer here in Fort McMurray. He is also the Director of Communications at the local United Way. Worrying about how much it would cost and how little time I was giving him, I asked in a private Facebook message: will you paint these pictures for me, please. Attached were images of Dayne, Dreyden, Marie and Adam. Russell assured me he would do what he can to get the paintings done in time, at no cost. They were done in time and were the last thing I picked up on the way to La Loche. “I hope they like them,” I thought.

It was dark when we arrived. Our first stop was the brothers' home - Dayne and Drayden - on Dene crescent to drop off what we had brought for them. Their mother, Alicia Fontaine, wasn’t home so we left some moose meat and the paintings with the man that was there. “That painting is from an artist in Fort McMurray,” my aunty explained in Dene. “Merci” (thank you) the man replied. We left to make our way to my Great Aunty Marie’s for the night. We passed by Marie Janvier’s wake on the way there. We didn’t go inside so that there were more seats for her loved ones. The silhouette of a cross could be seen through the living room curtains. Sounds of Dene hymns were carried by the cold, crisp air.

We laid the flowers outside the school and retreated back to my Great Aunty’s house on Semchuk Trail. That night, I knew that I did what I was supposed to do, nothing more. The next morning the Prime Minister arrived. My Great Aunt and I were looking out her front window at Saleski Lake.  The street was quiet, except for the Black SUV’s rushing down the road. There wasn't another vehicle in sight. Just the lake. The calmness didn’t last long. We watched as reporters, camera-men, police, and community members gathered to listen to the Prime Minister speak. The window acted as our television. Eventually, the streets went quiet again. The show was over. “I bet you that street never saw traffic like that before!” my Great Aunt joked.


While all this was going on, in an effort to weave the social innovation ecosystem in Alberta, ABSI Connect and their platform of support, SiG, were seeking someone to fill the roll of Northern Fellow. Kelsey Spitz, Senior Associate of Social Innovation Generation, happened to ‘cold email’ my newfound friend Russell Thomas, who then directed her to me.

“Thank you for referring me to Kelsey for the Northern Fellow position being offered by ABSI Connect,” I wrote Russell a couple of months later. “I hope you and  your family are doing well since returning home from the (May 3rd Wildfire) evacuation”. “We are doing as well as could be expected,” he replied before saying “but thank you. Our connection to the tragedy in La Loche had a profound impact on me. In the madness of the evacuation, I got a message from someone in La Loche, Alicia Fontaine. She was making sure that I was okay”.

“Portraits of La Loche shooting victims a ‘gift to the community’ says painter” reads one CBC news headline. “Portraits pay tribute to victims of La Loche shooting,” says News Talk 650; the list of related articles goes on. A small gesture of comfort ended up having an unimaginable ripple effect, creating powerful connections.

I have been a Northern Fellow for a little over a month now and since beginning this role, I have learned how to spot social innovators from a mile away. Funny because two months ago I couldn’t define social innovation for the life of me. The May 3rd Wildfire has drastically shifted some realities in Fort McMurray, making it easier to plant seeds of innovation, while being able to recognize what’s working and just as importantly, what is not working. The more I explore and learn from this experience, the more I hope to capture and share the strengths of the place that I call home.

What I'm learning from the SDX

By Aleeya Velji

Twelve months ago, I wandered into the world of social innovation as an ABSI Connect Fellow. I landed in a really hot “hot desk” at Skills Society. Ben, who has a role fostering and developing both a culture and craft of social innovation with Skills, instantly took me under his wing and without hesitation threw me in. I remember walking into the Skills Society Action Lab thinking: this is where I am going to learn awesome new things.

Ben is the guy that walks the talk. He embodies the concept of learning through action and deep collaboration in everything that he does and he seeks to creatively infuse, learn and engage with all concepts around social innovation. This culture - or way of doing - is now deep in the bones of Skills Society, radiating out  in projects and with the people Skills works with. Ben taught me that in order to work in complexity, we must sometimes stretch ourselves and be uncomfortable in the unknown; we have to simply try because the act of trying pushes us towards a new normal, working with, not against, emergence.

Recognizing that action supports learning, as well as my desire to learn some tools that support the craft of social innovation, I was invited into co-create and participate in the Systemic Design Exchange (SDX), an Edmonton-based Community of Practice* that convenes individuals from across sectors interested in learning about Systemic Design as a methodology for addressing complex, real world issues!

In response to our  learning during phase one of ABSI Connect, we Fellows suggested 6 pathways that could empower a uniquely Albertan way to put social innovation to work for our Province. I see four of the six ABSI Connect pathways colliding in the formation of SDX:

At SDX we are building off of these ABSI Pathways:

  • Working deeper together

  • Making room for risk taking and experimentation

  • Replacing strategic plans with adaptive processes

  • Mastering our Social Innovation ‘Craft’: refers to an ability to understand the various tools and process from social innovation (think: human-centered design, social labs, prototyping, social finance etc.)

It is emerging and unfolding as a community where deep collaboration is:

  • truly drawing on and valuing diverse skills;

  • bringing together various perspectives;

  • allowing and looking to tackle all challenges through the assets that those around the table bring together; and,

  • creating spaces for inclusive experimentation, adaptation, and a readiness to move together in response to emergent, radically impactful outcomes.

So what is the SDX?  

With a bias towards learning by doing, and a desire to further develop the craft of social innovation in Alberta, the Alberta CoLab - a permanent, standing design team within the Department of Energy - and Action Lab - a space to think differently and make ideas happen - have come together to create SDX.

Together, we explore systems thinking, design thinking, and change lab approaches as pathways to get at the root causes of our city and province’s complex social, economic and ecological challenges.

SDX aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.

The beauty of bringing together the Action Lab, the CoLab and community is the creation of a space for community and government to design and learn together by sharing expertise that honours the diversity in social innovation approaches.

 SDX is infused with a strong community and rooted in action-oriented experiences to advance our learning around social innovation.

SDX is a safe space for learning together and opens up the opportunity to share and understand what levers can be tugged on to support systemic change in our communities and institutions.

"In my 17 years involved in quite a few collaborations and communities of practice, SDX is the first where I'd say it's really a true collaboration where Community and Government really dig into working together."  Ben Weinlick

Hopes for SDX

  • Connect and strengthen networks in the community and across sectors;

  • Getting clearer on the what and the why of systems thinking and design to navigate complex problems;

  • Good mix of theory and learning by doing;

  • Solve World Hunger!…maybe not anytime this year at least…

  • Work hard, have fun, connect, collaborate, spark spin-off projects

Practice communities are formed by people who engage in processes of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour.   (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)

So where does meaningful collaboration really get us?

I am beginning to think about SDX as a systems change catalyst; as a platform that is able to facilitate, build partnerships and create coalitions to engage a wider audience in embedding systems thinking, systemic design, and change lab approaches into their work. SDX is sparking a process and pedagogical shift in how people across sectors consider  social, economic and environmental problems and design pathways to solutions (via inclusive innovation) and outcomes.

SDX respects our communities as dynamic, interconnected, living systems and therefore focuses on building an action-oriented space that facilitates the conversation between government (the space maker) and the community (the knowledge hub). I think government is creating a space for change and community has the opportunity to create innovative solutions that fit in the space that is being created.

When these two spaces collide at the grassroots level, concerns get amplified or heard. Collisions of diverse perspectives bring new energy to bear on the problems we are trying to solve. Collectively, our understanding of a system or a problem deepens to embrace complexity, shaping our work as both a community of practice and in our daily jobs. For those who have a platform to contribute to policy redesign or new programming, exposure to previously unheard ideas or lived experience leaves an indelible impact on their understanding, while learning by doing opens up a world of processes and approaches to co-creatively turn that understanding into meaningful action.

This makes SDX more than a space for new projects, prototypes or programs, but also a  possibility for culture shift, as we share, seed, and cultivate our learning, perspectives, and tools with colleagues, fostering cultures of social innovation both inter- and intra-institutionally. Perhaps this is the next challenge/hope/mission for SDX.

Where have all the tomatoes gone?

The meaning and purpose of our community of practice could be likened to a tomato plant. Community collaboration doesn't try to tug on the seedling to get it to grow faster, it seems the only way forward in focusing on the whole: the water, sun, nutrients, companion plants, air, soil, and everything else that interacts to create a ripe fruit. By hosting the space and

inviting cross-sector groups to learn and grow together, we are cultivating something special…

I recently read a medium article where the author wrote; “at the heart of systemic change is the assumption that it cannot be achieved alone.” Our ABSI Connect phase one report similarly reflected that in Alberta, a unifying call to action is: “Whatever we do we must do it together!”  

#SDXCoP is an example of true collaboration in action. Together, we are creating a safe space to co-create knowledge, begin infusing systems thinking and human-centered design into our work, and take action on specific challenges.  If we think about our work through a systems lens, we can only wonder what might get cultivated at the watering hole.  

What are some patterns of interaction that Communities of Practice engage in?

– They problem solve;

– Seek experiences and start projects;

– Get to know the strengths of each member's;

– Allow ideas to collide and build on each other’

– Discuss developments;

-- They transcend sectoral and professional barriers to bring their whole self to the table

– Map and keep track of knowledge artifact.