Phillip Smith

Social tech meets the Social Innovation Generation

Photo of Kirsten Jordan (Taking IT Global) and Andres Dussan (Askoka) by Michael Lewkowitz

How often have you sought to answer questions like "how can new technologies support social change that has impact, durability and scale?" or "is it possible to foster collaboration, sharing, and even co-development of technology solutions rather than everyone building their own or working in isolation?" Well, last week, I was surprised to find myself in a room with some of Canada's brightest minds when it comes to social innovation and social technology (that is: technology in support of social innovation). We gathered early in the morning on July 26th at MaRS to do some brainstorming on how best to support innovative organizations to leverage appropriate technology, execute technology projects successfully, and how to build capacity for ongoing innovation and sustainable technology operations.

The session was convened by SiG@MaRS -- one node of Social Innovation Generation -- a new collaborative initiative of the McConnell Foundation in partnership with the University of Waterloo, Plan Institute for Caring Citizenship and MaRS Discovery District to foster and support social innovation in Canada. Jason and Michael did a great job bringing together a wide range of practitioners and a good dash of innovators, which helped keep the conversation focused (mostly) on practical opportunities to evolve Canada's social technology landscape.

In preparation, I'd made some good progress at slogging through the book Getting to Maybe, which features a lot of stories from Canada's social innovation "scene." Michael also asked us to think about our burning questions and existential dilemmas in this space, and to come prepared with a story from personal experience that has the potential through social technology (tools and/or thinking) to catalyze or facilitate systems change in the social sector. So here's my story:

Technology is a trojan horse

It can be used to bring organizations together around a purely pragmatic need -- like sharing costs, knowledge, or human resources -- and then, as if like magic (well... maybe with a sprinkle of intention and facilitation), it becomes a slippery slope toward more radical collaborations. Anyone who knows me well knows that I've been saying that for years, and thanks to some great collaborative organizations and talented colleagues, I even have an opportunity to practice what I preach from time to time. Most recently that's been through the two-year old Canadian Independent Media Alliance, and the recently launched Electoral Data Consortium initiative. Honestly: there's nothing more "viral," than the infectious passion of working with people who are committed to what they do (and doing it well).

A key to successful technology projects is intermediaries

In my experience, at the core of most successful social technology initiatives is intermediaries. These are the folks that are in the trenches every day living and breathing everything that is what we understand to be important social technologies -- e-mail campaigns, Web services, mobile applications, online fundraising, social networks, etc. -- and sharing their experiences out to innovative organizations. These are the circuit riders, the non-profit technology assistance providers and implementors, the civic data libertarians, and the progressive software development providers and developers. Lots has been written on this topic in the US -- like this, this, and this -- and I still feel that we desperately need some of these concepts explored in the Canadian context. Time and again I've experienced socially innovative organizations trying to take on the role of software development managers (often unsuccessfully). Intermediaries are the shepherds that can alter the course of this familiar story.

A key to successful collaborative technology projects is network leadership

Now, if having an intermediary is one promising strategy toward technology playing a supportive role in social innovation, what would be the potential of a whole network of intermediaries on the entire field of innovation? Network theory teaches us that the value of a network is increased exponentially with the addition of each new node -- and social network theory says that we'll only need a handful of "connectors," "mavens," and "salespeople" to make this happen in Canada. However, that's not enough. I feel that the next level for both social technology and social innovation movements is network leadership. I think that Mark was getting at this when he spoke of "organic leverage" -- the combination of emergent intelligence, and network influence -- and I would take that even one step further; I would say that we need to find ways to support intermediaries to find leadership development opportunities that focus on openness, sharing, collaboration, and a commitment to setting those intentions in their work, and in their network.

At the end of the day, the questions that I hope I was able to share clearly were: How do we develop more intermediaries, How do we develop more network leaders, and How can Canadian grant makers play a bigger role in catalyzing the necessary networks, and helping innovators build the necessary relationships?

Maybe you have a few ideas? I know I do...


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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