CKX Presentation: Guideposts of LEDlab Practice

On November 22nd 2016, LEDlab Manager Kiri Bird spoke at Community Knowledge Exchange’s CKX City Series: Vancouver. A transcript from the presentation is below. 

I have spent the past two years working in the DTES as the Manager of the Local Economic Development Lab. This lab is a three-year initiative by Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU that aims to build a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city. We do this by incubating enterprises that put money in the pockets of DTES residents, as well as working with and on some of the drivers of the economy in order to produce a different type of economic development pattern: one that builds community prosperity.

The DTES, located in the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tseil-Watuth Coast Salish peoples, is a neighbourhood with complex social and economic challenges (mental health, addictions, homeslessness, poverty), but the lesser told story is that it is a community of incredible innovation (activism, social enterprise, resiliency).

So the question is…How do we add value in this already innovative community?

In preparing for this talk, I have tired to distill our practice down into what I’m calling our four guideposts. They are guideposts because they help to keep us aligned with our values, and connected to the issues that matter to communities while venturing in service of systems change.


1. Community-led

To us this means something very specific, it means that we think of innovation happening ‘in the community’, not ‘in the lab’.

Anyone who has worked in a community setting understands that no new initiative starts with a ‘clean slate’. There are people, living together, with relationships, politics, histories. The community is constantly bubbling with new ideas, and leadership to move forward with those ideas.

We don’t see our role so much as a facilitor of a process in which ideas take shape, but rather we embed ourselves in existing community networks and group processes, and as ideas are formed we work with those ideas and community leaders to test, build, and scale new and innovative community-led solutions.

But we have to be careful: in terms of how ideas or projects ‘come into the lab’ we ask ourselves: Whose idea was it? Who will lead it beyond our involvement? What would happen to this idea if we didn’t exist?


In this photo we see Davin, who is a binner and now a staff member with the Binners Project, speaking to a table of non-profit and government representatives. The work of grassroots organizations like the Binners Project and many others, to ensure that resident voices and ideas are heard, is essential because ultimately residents themselves are in the best position to understand their unique needs, as well as how to address those needs.


2. We Actively Work to Build Trust

My biggest lesson about systems entrepreneurship is that the most meaningful work can sometimes feel menial. When trying to cultivate collective leadership, no task is too small. Ask yourself, How can I optimize the relationships in a system so that we can work better together? Or simply, How can I increase the level of trust?

I have done a lot of work over the last two years with the Vancouver Urban Core Community Workers Association, a network of more than 100 non profits in the DTES. We recently moved our email list, which previously lived on the server of our administrator, to a listserv – which enabled these inner city organizations to more easily share opportunities and celebrate each others work.

Other examples of meaningful/menial tasks include sending personal thank you notes, facilitating introductions, or sending personal invitations to participate in events.

These small acts of service build trust and enhance information flows in a network, in order to lay the foundation for future collaboration.


3. Work at Multiple Scales

The Local Economic Development Lab has been in a very unique position last two years in that we are a community-university partnership, operating in a sort of intermediary space. We’ve been able to take a whole systems view, as well as work on both the community and systems levels.

Working at multiple scales, I believe, we’ve gained a fairly nuanced understanding of the system we are working in. The opportunity in working at multiple scales is finding those moments in which to align grassroots innovation with top down strategic priorities in a way that stays grounded in the realistic constraints of all parties.


The DTES Market, pictured here, is a platform for individuals who participate in the survival vending economy to earn some supplemental income and make ends meet. For individuals on basic income assistance or ‘welfare’, legislation stipulates that you can earn $200 a month on top of your monthly cheque. Everyone in this room knows that $200 doesn’t get you very far in this day and age, in particular in Vancouver, but we believe that it’s just as important to support the innovations that put $200 in someone’s pocket, as it is to work on policy innovation with our government partners.


4. Bridging

Because our work is happening with a large and diverse array of stakeholders, and has feet in multiple sectors, then we are learning that our role is really to bridge. In order to ‘heal the divide’, we must go out of our way to make connections.

That’s what we are all here to do tonight: to share the insights from our work, and hear from others with different perspectives. Bridging asks us to hold our assumptions lightly, until we can ask others what they know and don’t know.

It sometimes requires us to sometimes use different language, to translate – and to see systems change as a process, rather than an outcome.

So, what can you do to add value to the community? 

Well that depends on who are you are what you want your role to be, but if this talk has made you curious at all about how you can contribute to a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in the DTES, please reach out. We would love to hear your perspectives, needs, and limitations. I’m sure that there is a way for us to do more together.