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.