LEDlab was a platform to support community-driven social innovation projects for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s DTES. We partnered with local organizations and leaders, resourcing them with talented full-time graduate students, and working collectively with experts in a ‘Lab’ format to develop shared skills and knowledge, collaborate, and test new ideas to change the local economic system over time.
Within this model key elements for future consideration include:
- Graduate student project coordinators, who added capacity to community-led projects and reduced risk in innovation and collaboration, funded by matching grants for graduate students from Mitacs Accelerate Canada;
- Use of a cohort model to enable cross-pollination of ideas and identify systemic barriers and leverage points;
- Work at multiple scales to engage the whole system and align grassroots innovation with government and institutional strategic priorities.
LEDlab was intentionally designed as a 3.5 year initiative, in part because the DTES has one of the largest concentrations of service delivery organizations in Canada and we didn’t want to compete with our partners for scarce resources for an extended period of time. The time-bound model created impetus for action and a new approach, and forced LEDlab to stay committed to emergence.
Each year’s annual cohort of project incubation was supported by continuous learning through developmental evaluation. Lessons learned from each annual cohort were used to design the next year of work in collaboration with community partners.
1. Increase personal incomes of DTES residents
This was the primary metric of concern to our community partners – Were we putting more money in the pockets of DTES residents?
2. Create new income generating opportunities for DTES residents
Emerging literature suggests that low-barrier employment can provide an important anchor for vulnerable communities and individuals. Vancouver’s Local Area Plan (LAP) for the DTES sets the ambitious target of creating 1,500 new local jobs by 2025. We proposed to contribute to this target by activating high potential economic alternatives to create ~45 low-barrier income generating opportunities in unique projects with cross-cutting themes.
3. Enhance the capacity of local people, organizations and networks
Our society does not adequately see or value the importance of networkers, connectors, linkers and facilitators. The Lab created and held a formal space for co-learning and collaboration to take place, and documented the impact of this function as it related to change-making.
4. Develop graduate student talent for social innovation in Canada
A suite of learning objectives developed the capacities and talents of graduate students as Team Members in the Lab, supporting a next generation of leadership in the field of social innovation and social entrepreneurship.
5. Prototype new models of community + university partnership
As a deep collaboration between Ecotrust Canada Capital, RADIUS SFU, Mitacs Accelerate Canada, and a number of community partners, we explored the university’s role in supporting and enriching community-led economic innovation.
We created and held high trust environments where people’s ideas were valued and validated.
We recognized that as a community, we are stronger when we work together, and that we rarely have all the answers. We constantly asked our partners, How can we add value? What can we do together? Is this meeting your needs?
By focusing on the ‘bright spots’ we explored where there was potential for breakthrough. Complex systems offer multiple points of entry, and often surprise us. It was therefore necessary to keep our awareness and actions focused on ‘the possible’.
Through human-centred design, we kept a consistent focus on those with lived experience at the core of our work.
Ecotrust Canada + RADIUS SFU Partnership
The Local Economic Development Lab was a unique partnership between Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU. Ecotrust Canada is a registered charity with mandate to design and demonstrate economic solutions that benefit people in places they call home. RADIUS SFU is a Social Innovation Lab and Venture Incubator at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.
Based on principles of mutual interest, mutual respect, and trust, the LEDlab married Ecotrust Canada’s 20 years of community development practice and RADIUS SFU’s venture and talent incubation skill in service of improving the lives and livelihoods of inner city communities.
Under the banner of a Memorandum of Understanding, both parties were committed to:
- Designing, deploying and developing innovative solutions to complex social and economic challenges;
- Promoting examples of an economy that balances financial, environmental, and social interests;
- Supporting a next generation of leadership in the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship; and
- Reporting, publishing, and speaking on the subject of social innovation to advance the field of practice.
Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU hired a full time Lab Manager, who was accountable to and participated equally in both organizations.
Relationship to the wider Simon Fraser University community
LEDlab represented a new model of community-university partnership. The Local Economic Development Lab inverted the traditional research lab model and placed community needs at the centre of the research agenda.
Our vision was one wherein meaningful university-community partnerships served and enhanced community-led solution building and not the other way around. Our theory of change posited that multi-sectorial collaborations between academics, non-profits and the public and private sectors will indeed build better solutions to complex problems.
Graduate Student Interns
Over a 3.5 year period LEDlab provided 17 graduate students with 30 full-time 4- or 8-month paid internship opportunities, which advanced the work of the lab in strategic ways. Students were supported through training, mentorship, and a peer-based learning program.
Graduate students supplied research and prototyping support to our various projects, while adding rigour to our analyses of what worked, and what could be shared. This model helped LEDlab to responsively add capacity to community-led projects, while addressing a talent gap in Canada’s social economy through training and development opportunities paired with real-world community experience for high-potential graduate students.