Natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in South Asia always come as a huge shock and are always tragic. Too many people die, are orphaned, are made homeless. For a week or two, the countries most affected by the force of Mother Nature are thrown into the international spotlight. Millions around the world find spare dollars to send for reconstruction, food, clothing and medicine. For many of us, it is all we can think to do.

The unfortunate reality for Haiti, however, is that it is already one of the world’s poorest countries. It could never have been ready for this earthquake and the effects are exponentially worse due to the poor living conditions. The Haitians need some systemic change after years of political unrest, corruption and foreign intervention. The solution? Social innovation.

Back in 2005, a colleague of mine began planning to build an orphanage in Haiti, specifically for children with HIV and AIDS. He attended the changemaker conference, Web of Change on British Columbia’s Cortes Island in 2006, to seek support for his plan. In late 2008 We can build an orphanage was launched. The concept relies on donations towards the building supplies for the orphanage plus medication and food. The donor can decide what materials they would like to “buy” and in what quantities. On the website you can watch videos describing the multiple hurdles these children have to clear in order to lead a “normal” life. For Luke Montgomery and changemakers like him, he didn’t begin this project to become famous or make himself feel better. He did it because there was a very real need. Last week the orphanage was destroyed in the quake, but fortunately all the children survived. Rebuilding will start as soon as possible.

Luke exemplifies the qualities of a growing number of internationally recognized social entrepreneurs. One organization that has been actively recruiting and supporting social entrepreneurs for 30 years is Ashoka. On January 14, here at MaRS, eight changemakers were inducted as Canadian Ashoka fellows and three were made Senior Fellows. The projects and fields they work in are varied and during all of their presentations I found myself thinking, “Wow… that’s a great idea. Very cool.” Whether it’s Tonya Surman’s Centre for Social Innovation here in Toronto, which provides physical collaborative workspace to changemakers,  Ilona Dougherty’s Apathy is Boring project which aims to engage young people in the political process, or Johann Olav Koss’s Right to Play project which has given over 100 million children the opportunity to play in war torn and impoverished countries around the world. All of the projects address a real need.

Ashoka’s tag line claims everyone is a changemaker. But what does it take? Social entrepreneurship is risky. While the need for social entrepreneurs is great, the road is rough. Added to that, sometimes entrepreneurs are working in places that need far more radical change. Social innovation looks to find solutions to systemic social and ecological problems – like those found in Haiti. As part of SiG’s exploratory work into what ingredients are necessary to realize social innovation, we have unleashed a list of 10 components that are up for debate. I have included the list at the bottom of this post and I would love for you to add to or challenge any of them.

While Canada enjoys a level of freedom and opportunity that Haiti doesn’t have, it’s important to remember that we could do things better. That is the spirit of innovation.

This post is a shout-out to the social entrepreneurs of the world that see innovative opportunities to start projects in communities and countries that are often overlooked or ignored. It’s also congrats to the newly-inducted Ashoka fellows and a call to action for the rest of us. You might be thinking, well sure, but how?

On January 27, 2010, Adam Kahane is delivering SiG@Waterloo’s Lecture on Social Innovation. This lecture highlights world-class thinkers with new ideas on how to achieve significant, durable social change for our most pressing problems. Adam is a leading organizer, designer and facilitator of processes through which business, government and civil society leaders can work together to address their toughest challenges. He has worked in more than fifty countries, in every part of the world, with executives and politicians, generals and guerillas, civil servants and trade unionists, community activists and United Nations officials, clergy and artists. Visit SiG@Waterloo’s website to purchase tickets or watch the live streaming presentation at 7pm on January 27.

Of course if you already have an idea and need advice getting it started, get in touch with us at SiG@MaRS. Here’s SiG’s top 10 list of ingredients for social innovation. We invite your feedback.

  1. Be creative
  2. Leverage market forces
  3. Leverage new technologies like social media and cloud platforms
  4. Drive social innovations to scale to achieve impact
  5. Nurture multi-sector partnerships reaching beyond and across silos
  6. Adopt open-source practices, sharing ideas, learning from successes and failures
  7. Employ systems-thinking, unlocking the secrets of transformative change
  8. Explore how public policy can ensure an enabling environment
  9. Build up the social finance marketplace supporting sustainable business models
  10. Support social entrepreneurship as a critical vector for social innovation

Geraldine Cahill

Geraldine is the Communications Manager for Social Innovation Generation, a group that addresses Canada’s social and ecological challenges by creating a culture of continuous social innovation. See more…