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Min Specs: Getting the best bang for your buck (and not the same old)

September 8, 2015

by Marilyn Struthers

Principal, M. Struthers & Co.

I recently took part in a RECODE adjudication panel for a major Canadian university. Our task was to assess faculty submissions and award $10,000 grants for projects that meet RECODE’s goal of creating an ecosystem that fosters social innovation. The experience provided lots of food for thought on just how we get from here to there in change-making in Canadian higher education.

I had many years of grant-making under my belt at the Ontario Trillium Foundation before I joined the university. Most of the $4M per year portfolio I managed was spent supporting innovation in the social service sector, so perhaps naturally, I approached my tasks on the adjudication panel as a funder. Assessing opportunity to invest in innovation is harder than you might think. Almost everything that happens in a post-secondary institution has the potential to support new and everyone can think their work is innovative – and perhaps they are right. The proof is in the pudding. Only after the work is delivered and the finished product sets in the bowl, can we know if we have bet on the right ingredients to meet granting goals.

This panel had great projects to choose from, but no prior agreement on what we would rank as innovative or on what activities build an ecosystem. Not at all unusual, the call for submissions was lightning fast, the panel assembled late in the process, and the applications were many. As with most panels of this nature, we had each read and ranked some of the submissions, but no one had read all of them, and the range of proposed activities was very wide.

There were the extremely well written applications – so well written that it wasn’t hard to see that they were recycled SSHRC applications. Funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is, of course, the bread and butter of academic career development, but not necessarily key to the goal of RECODE. There were the exciting environmental ideas, and adjudicators quickly formed a shared opinion that environmental work could be linked to innovation. There were the intriguing, but not entirely well thought out great ideas — clearly conceptual works in progress that might be going somewhere interesting— but no one was certain of the capacity to implement. And there was a fabulous project or two where the budget lines for travel to remote conferences didn’t quite reconcile with the intent of the project. So, how to sort for the best potential—projects that meet both the university’s emerging picture of social innovation, and RECODE’s objectives?

SIX Global Council Ideas for the Future: A new mission for universities?

September 7, 2015

by Mark Anderson

Head of European Programmes at Glasgow Caledonian

NOTE: This article was originally published on July 2, 2015 on the Social Innovation Exchange website, and has been cross-posted with permission.This article is part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future.


Universities’ defined mission has in recent decades been founded on a combination of three intrinsic elements: teaching, research and what has loosely been called knowledge exchange, the process by which universities innovate and externalize the knowledge that they generate. This latter element traditionally involves a combination of various processes including intellectual property management, spin-off creation, licensing, access to funding, entrepreneurship and consultancy. It depends on a supply chain that ‘is multi‐dimensional, it has to be sustainable, and it has to have quality, strength and resilience. These attributes can only be secured through close collaboration, partnership and understanding between business and universities.’ (
Wilson Review “A Review of Business-University Collaboration” – 2012). But if this is how universities orthodoxly support innovation, how do we support social innovation? Can universities do more to support social innovators and is there a way of structuring this support to make it more effective? Universities have certainly begun to adopt the terminology and embed it within their teaching and research programmes but how much is social innovation considered part of the third mission of universities, or should there be a fourth mission defined at an institutional level?

Back in 2010 the study on Social Innovation prepared by SIX and the
Young Foundation for the Bureau of European Policy Advisors underlined the problem: “Civil society and the grant economy have long been rich sources of social innovation, but they are not well-placed to develop rigorous methods for innovation, lack R&D capacity, and find it hard to spread risk.” The report categorized four key barriers to social innovation: Access to finance; Scaling models; Skills and formation; Networks and intermediaries. Clearly, universities represent ideal partners to help break down or at least mitigate against many of these barriers. Most importantly, they can serve as intermediaries between the subversive nature of SI and its need for institutional and political recognition. They can provide appropriate R&D for robust, empirical evaluations of the effectiveness of SI, offering an understanding of what can accelerate and scale-up SI, beyond the anecdotal. Just as technical expertise in specialized areas can support commercial businesses and give them the means to help grow and expand, the same technical expertise can be offered to social innovators. But in addition to this, Universities are providers of a range of logistical support to their community that can provide real added value to SI: through the exploitation of their tacit and codified knowledge (including Open Access); through capacity building, mentoring and training; through the use of specialized equipment; through the provision of real and virtual spaces for networking, hot-desking or more formal incubation facilities; through selection and evaluation expertise; through lobbying. Just as social innovation has existed as an ill-defined, undervalued phenomenon for decades, universities have always supported civil society through a variety of activities without necessarily being able to categorize them under a unified terminology. However, I believe there are two interrelated, fundamental characteristics of university support for social innovation that need to change: i) social innovation support activities tend to be ad hoc and largely altruistic, universities have not recognized or systemized a process to measure the social return on investment; ii) as a result, while commercial innovation is recognized and institutionally supported by well-established knowledge transfer offices, there is no professional support function within universities for supporting social innovation.

RECODE STORIES: Geography at Ryerson: Your Social Innovation Powerhouse

September 2, 2015

by Dr. Claus Rinner

Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson University

Originally posted on the GIS2 at Ryerson blog. Cross posted with permission from the author.


Innovation in higher education and scholarly research has always been a hallmark of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson. Recent faculty and student achievements underline our position as a social innovation powerhouse on campus.

In the competition for “RECODE at Ryerson University” grants, @RyersonGeo faculty are leading three of the eight successful applications. That is 37.5% of these social innovation projects across campus, a proportion even more impressive if you consider the competitive process with eight grants selected among 33 applications, a success rate of only 24%.

With her RECODE grant, Dr. Claire Oswald, in collaboration with Dr. Claus Rinner and 3D printing startup company Think To Thing, plans to use “A 3D elevation model of Toronto watersheds to promote citizen science in urban hydrology and water resources”. Undergraduate students from our Geographic Analysis and Environment and Urban Sustainability programs will help with processing geospatial data to create a tangible model of the Don River watershed.The model is to be used for school and community outreach on pressing urban water issues.

RECODE STORIES: Interview with Travis Clements-Khan

August 22, 2015

by Travis Clements-Khan

CEO @NextGen_Labs; Co-Founder, CEO @Allerzen; HELIXer and SENECA College graduate

Launched in September 2014, Seneca’s HELIX project provides stimulation for the design thinking required to develop innovative personal health products and services by students, and works to foster the entrepreneurial potential of students and of youth in the community at large.


By winning the EuroPITCH2015, Travis Clements-Khan, one of Seneca’s HELIXers, won the right to participate in the European Innovation Academy (EIA) held in Nice, France. The EIA is a 15-day startup weekend on steroids. There are 500+ students, from 65 different countries that participate. Students come from institutions such as London Business School, Stanford University, Oxford University, UC Berkeley, and Cambridge University — Seneca being the only participating Canadian College.

At the EIA, Travis pitched a complementary idea to his hand held allergy detection tool, Aller(tec), which he works on at HELIX. The idea? allerZEN — a social platform for food allergy sufferers to connect. It would allow them to scan barcodes off food items and alert the user to allergens, as well as allow users to review and find restaurants that offer allergen free dishes.

His idea was selected as one of 80 companies to be developed during the academy. Travis and his international team of co-founders developed the app over the 15 days of the European Innovation Academy. At the end of the Academy they competed against the other 79 companies and placed in the top 15.

Below, Travis answers a few of our burning questions on how this all came about:

Competition Makes us Faster. Collaboration Makes us Better

August 21, 2015

by Tom Ebeyer

Co-founder and Project Lead, RECODE Collaborate

Tom Ebeyer is a Global Studies student at Wilfrid Laurier University and has recently joined the team to work on RECODE Collaborate, a national student engagement initiative designed to foster a collaborative approach to complex problem solving.


“Students can be more in-control of
their education than they know.”
Sir Ken Robinson

The primary goal of post-secondary education is to best prepare young people for their future. Specifically, it is to create effective citizens who can propel our civilization forward, while instilling the skills and mindsets that will be required to tackle the complex global challenges the coming generations are set to inherit. Climate change, poverty, food and water security…the list is seemingly endless.

Developing highly functional global citizens is critical to the planet’s sustainability, but are we accomplishing this goal? The assumption that the traditional, standardized, and highly competitive ‘read, write, memorize, test’ approach to education is apt for students of the 21st century is deserving of a critical review.

How to grow your institution’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem

August 12, 2015

by Victoria Matthew

Co-leader of Epicenter’s Pathways to Innovation Program

Note: This blog post originally appeared on Epicenter’s blog. Reposted here with permission from the author and Epicenter.


Epicenter’s Victoria Matthew shares nine insights she gathered from educators across the country.

Do you ever wonder if there’s some secret sauce you can add to your campus and
voila, you’ve got a fully formed innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) ecosystem? Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with faculty and administrators from across the country who have decades of experience integrating I&E into engineering education on their campuses: Ray Vito from Georgia Tech, Nathalie Duval-Couetil from Purdue University, Liz Kisenwether from Penn State University, Andy Singer from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, David Whitney from University of Florida, John Ochs from Lehigh University, Phil Kaminsky from UC Berkeley, Brent Sebold from Arizona State University, and Tom Byers from Stanford University.

As you may have guessed, according to these educators the “secret sauce” perfect solution doesn’t exist. Every school is unique; a technique that may be successful at one school may not be as effective at another. However, the group did identify nine key things everyone can do to help spread I&E on your campus:

Identify and empower faculty champions

Many successful programs begin with an inspired and charismatic faculty champion. Empower and celebrate your current champions, and identify new ones. The discipline they come from isn’t as important as the passion, energy and charisma they bring; the more disciplines and diverse backgrounds involved, the better.

(Not) Just Semantics

August 10, 2015

by Danica Straith

Social Innovation Fellow

As RECODE comes to the end of its first year and we start to think about the fall semester, we are taking time to reflect on national strategies for engaging the wider RECODE network into something larger than the sum of its parts.

One theme surfacing from conversations with our various stakeholders is the contested terrain of language. Whether we intend it or not, invariably, there is a lot of meaning attributed to the words we use. This can be problematic when terms such as social innovation and social entrepreneurship do not have agreed upon meanings.

In the true spirit of our work, the challenge we face with maintaining the complexity of the language is also the creative tension necessary to further our collective efforts.

It may be a good time now to hit the pause button and round out these terms from different angles to understand how they have been used, in what contexts, and where they could grab people and where they could rub people the wrong way. In doing so, I hope we can understand how the language has evolved over time, picked up new meanings, associations, and facades, to allow for more sophistication and precision when using them going forward. In the true spirit of our work, the challenge we face with maintaining the complexity of the language is also the creative tension necessary to further our collective efforts.

How Startups are Prototyping The Future of Business on Fogo Island

August 5, 2015

by Vinod Rajasekaran

The HUB

NOTE: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 on the SiG blog, and has been cross-posted with permission from SiG.


Uncovering the keys to resilience in one of Canada’s oldest communities

A social entrepreneur, an artist, and a fisherman walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not. These days, collaborations are vital to mesh old ways of knowing with new ways of business – one that holds community resilience and prosperity at its core. Social entrepreneurship has become one of the fastest growing sectors worldwide and we’re just beginning to see the potential here in Canada. This new frontier of business lies in our ability to collaborate, support impact-driven enterprises, and combine our country’s diverse assets.

So, what does a more purposeful approach to capitalism look like? Some of the answers may be found in the unlikeliest of areas – the remote coastal community of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, for example. A recent visit uncovered a new economic model that may hold learnings for communities everywhere.

My journey to Fogo began with an invitation from Shorefast Foundation, a Canadian charity building a new model for economic and cultural resilience to experience a bold new way of doing business that blends a 400-year old hosting and craft culture with reimagining business principles as a force for good.

On Fogo Island, the Shorefast Foundation approach to community revitalization has been to focus on three distinct elements: The development of a geotourism industry, with the construction of the Fogo Island Inn; Fogo Island Arts, an organization that facilitates artistic practice that is local in context and global in scope; and a micro-lending program where entrepreneurs can establish and grow their own small businesses.

In my observation, these Shorefast Foundation startups are going beyond classic business notions of keeping shareholders’ interests top-of-mind, optimizing value chains, protecting intellectual property, growth and scale as paramount aspirations, and so on – and shaking up the startup process. Two contextual pieces seem to form the bedrock of this new way.

Music Entrepreneurship

July 22, 2015

by Milo Johnson

Graduate, McGill University's Jazz Performance program

Milo Johnson is a recent graduate from McGill University’s Jazz Performance program. Just this past year, Milo incorporated his nine-person electrosoul/hip-hop band—Busty and the Bass, named “Canada’s top university band” by the CBC in 2014—as a registered business. In this post, Milo reflects on how interdisciplinary coursework in social entrepreneurship and innovation heightened his capacity for success as a musician during and after university.


As a student in McGill’s Jazz Performance program, I was immersed in an environment that heavily emphasized practice and study. Curriculum relied on classroom-based learning and focused on the academic side of musicianship, leaving us to navigate the realities of the music industry on our own.

For me and many of my peers, this resulted in an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, so much so that most people chose not to think or talk about life after graduation. I understood that business skills were important in making a living as a musician, but to me “business” meant the pop world.

I began to understand that honing my
business skills did not mean selling out;
it meant paying rent.

Real Talk with Ryan Little from the BMW Foundation: Expert Tips for Social Entrepreneurs

July 20, 2015

by Ryan Little

Project Manager, BMW Foundation; Co-Founder, CanadaHelps

NOTE: This article was originally published on July 14, 2015 on The Changer blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from The Changer.


These videos are presented in collaboration with the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG).

Ryan Little is a seasoned social and environmental entrepreneur, Project Manager at the BMW Foundation, and co-founder of the Canadian charitable giving platform, CanadaHelps, the country’s national resource for online giving, capacity building, and social media best practices. The organization has facilitated over $600 million in donations since its establishment in 2000. At the BMW Foundation, Little heads the venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship initiatives, does extensive across-organization advising, and coordinates for social startups at the German Startups Association.

In these videos, you’ll find Ryan’s personal tips and tricks for creating and sustaining a viable social business, from securing funding for your venture to forecasting trends in social entrepreneurship and responding appropriately to the ever-shifting landscape of the social sector. Watch and learn!

1. How to Get Funding for Your Social Business

In this video, Ryan offers valuable tips on pitching to investors and fundraising for your social business. He emphasizes that it is essential to have a clear and succinct story that focuses on your unique solution to a problem and lays out why you are the right person for the job. For more insider tips, watch the video.

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