Making Urgent, Deep Change for Sustainability – The Emergence of Social Innovation

I stand at the US customs booth in the airport on my way to Chicago using my best “sustainability” elevator speech on the Agent.  “I am going to a conference on sustainability,” I say.

“Really,” he says studying my passport more closely, “what’s sustainability?”

“Creating a flourishing world through environmental and social responsibility,” I say trying to sound business-like and earnest.

He peers at me more closely; perhaps I am one of those eco-terrorists, it sounds subversive at any rate.  He waits for me to go on.

I sigh.  “Making businesses and communities greener,” I say lightly.

“You mean,” he says warily, “like planting trees”.  I look at him knowing that it will be impossible to properly convey the importance and urgency of the sustainability movement in this short moment.

“Yes,” I say, deflated, “like planting trees.”

He hands back my passport and waves me through.  As I walk down the empty corridor a great sadness washes over me.  Just yesterday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that CO2 measurements in Hawaii surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 3 million years. We have so far to go and so little time.  What on earth have I done to my children?

Making Profound and Lasting Change

If you are a changemaker for sustainability you are probably looking for new ways and examples of achieving urgent and lasting change.  Frances Westley, author of Getting to Maybe, notes that we are living at a point in history when the need and desire for change is profound. Our current trajectory is no longer sustainable.  We cannot ignore the compelling environmental and social challenges that vex today’s world because they will undermine us all.

She asserts that we spent the last 200 years perfecting our skills of making things and now

we spent the last 200 years perfecting our skills of making things and now  we must become equally adept at making change; deep social and environmental change.

Westley says – we spent the last 200 years perfecting our skills of making things and now we must become equally adept at making change; deep social and environmental change.

we must become equally adept at making change; deep social and environmental change.

She points to the rapid emergence of social innovation as a response to this need for proficiency.   Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.  Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact. These processes are successful because they shift complex systems. (see more on the SiG Knowledge Hub)

SES08 – What is social innovation? from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo.

Playing with Social Innovation

Chad Park, Executive Director, The Natural Step says this field is growing rapidly and having a lot of influence on policy and programs.  For instance, the concept of  “Collective Impact” has had a lot of influence on the way NGOs, foundations and governments think about their work.  In our own project, we are considering Collective Impact as a basis for working with 4 NGOs, 2 utilities and a municipality.  Other social innovation models include social finance, impact investing and transition labs.

Social innovation has inspired The Natural Step Canada to chart its new strategic course focused on enabling collaboration – specifically through the Sustainability Transition Lab program.  TNS recently released a Call for Expressions of Interest for groups who might want to use this change process.  Social Innovation is also a huge part of the TNS Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference, June 10 & 11, 2013 in Guelph.

Learn from Thought Leaders on Social Innovation

Learn from thought leaders like Tim Drahmin at the May 16th Webinar.

Learn from thought leaders like Tim Draimin at the May 16th Webinar.

So what is a sustainability changemaker to do if you want to shift complex systems in an urgent and meaningful way?  Time is running out, no room left for false starts or ineffective processes.  We need to “lean in” to the thought leaders, learn from examples in this field and get going.

Start now by registering for the May 16th Free Webinar : The Emerging Social Innovation Field with Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation.   And then join a host of social innovators at the Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference.

Here is what you can do to learn more:

Register for the Pre-Conference Webinar: The Emerging Social Innovation Field – Tim Draimin, Executive Director, Social Innovation Generation , May 16th, 12-1 pm (

Join us at the Conference: Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference, June 10 & 11, 2013, Guelph, ON (



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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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