A Journey Through the SFU Social Innovation Certificate Program
Ara Beittoei is a Project Manager at the LEDlab, working to support the lab community partners and the cohort of Project Coordinators. Ara has professional experience working in sustainability research, student development, community engagement, and designing experiential learning curriculum.
In September 2017 I enrolled in the eight-month Social Innovation Certificate program offered by SFU. The intention of the certificate is to provide knowledge, practices and frameworks for professionals in the public, private, and non-profit sectors who want to find effective and sustainable solutions to complex social problems. One of the main reasons I wanted to take this on was the incredible team of instructors who have a great deal of knowledge and experience in working on important environmental and social issues.
The program consists of six modules modelled on the innovator’s journey in dealing with tough challenges and the Theory U process. Core concepts and building blocks of social innovation are introduced to expand our understanding of this emerging field (moving down the left-side of the U), while ensuring that we explore our deep self and to personally connect with inspiring visions for what’s possible in our own contexts (bottom of the U). Throughout the certificate we are provided with mentorship, coaching, and applied learning opportunities as we test and prototype initiatives on a personal innovation project (moving up the right-side of the U).
Entering the program I was somewhat familiar with introductory content around complex adaptive systems, systems thinking, human centered design, and ‘containers’ for risk taking (e.g. lab approaches) as a result of our work at LEDlab. I was keen to learn more about frameworks and practices for implementation and collaborating with diverse stakeholders, but I ended up deepening my understanding of all the different topics. I cannot capture all of the rich insights in this blog post, but below are a few personal learnings and key experiences that particularly stood out:
- The Adaptive Cycle: although I was familiar with this framework, which describes the stages of growth, conservation, breakthrough and reorganization of systems, it was helpful to constantly have the opportunity to apply this framework to the various projects that LEDlab was a part of in order to appreciate and understand why certain work can seem stuck at times and what may be needed to move it forward.
- Scaling: one of the outcomes I wanted to achieve at the start of the program was to learn about scaling small initiatives, but I was not fully comfortable with the expectation of needing to scale every project that holds promise. I was pleased to be reminded that scaling is a choice! You don’t have to scale, but it’s often relevant and necessary for systemic change, since “a poor system will trump a strong program every time” (Jeff Bradach, Bridgespan), and others could benefit from it or you realize that they are doing something similar. Additionally, scaling does not always need to look like getting more people involved, as there are various types that overlap:
- Scaling Out: spreading useful innovation – replication, number of people or communities impacted
- Scaling Up: impacting institutional roots – changing policies or institutions at higher levels
- Scaling Deep: impacting cultural roots – changing cultures or organizations and addressing norms and values
- The Light and Shadow Sides: throughout the different modules a reoccuring theme was to acknowledge the light and shadow side of various theories, frameworks and processes. It was a good reminder to be aware of who may lose out and what may get lost in any innovative change process.
- Becoming a Systems Entrepreneur: a valuable part of the modules was hearing the personal journeys of the instructors and other participants, and the experiences that influenced them to be doing their current work. A takeaway from these was the importance of the personal work needed in order to find the agency in yourself to initiate any system shifts. We are directly connected to the many issues we see around us, hence, we are also the problems that we are trying to address.
While I’ve enjoyed deepening my understanding of these theories and concepts, I decided to take my practicum project in a more personal direction. For my practicum project I focused on addressing an issue that I have slowly become more aware of as I’ve spoken to different people: social isolation in the city, particularly among men. There are very few spaces available for men to authentically connect and share themselves, and be able to explore their relationships, roles, and sense of purpose.
I am glad to have chosen this issue as I have been able to draw upon the mentoring and coaching from the program to test and prototype a project that I likely would not have started otherwise. As a result I’ve been able to make new connections with people already working on this and have created a team among my friends to work on this challenge.
Our practicum presentations are on Saturday, April 21st and I’m looking forward to learning about all the different projects!
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