About Us

The Social Impact Lab is a collaboration between United Way of Calgary and design firm J5. Together, we aim to find human-centred solutions that help to address complex social issues.

Our Missions and Purpose


The Social Impact Lab exists to design new and or reimagined solutions to persistent social problems. The Lab is a place where concepts for the future and the realities of the present come together to bring bold new ideas to life to fuel positive social and economic impact.

We're all about trying new approaches to complex problems. We value experimentation, creativity, transparency, equity, and empathy. We combine physical spaces and digital tools to foster collaboration and storytelling to develop new ideas and keep ahead of the curve.

We love partnering with organizations, individuals, and the community to make things happen.

How It Got Started


Established in February 2018, The Social Impact Lab was created in response to disruption in the social sector, to innovate and develop strategic partnerships to address those challenges. United Way of Calgary and Area recognized that large-scale issues were beginning to overwhelm the community, as demands for services and funding steadily increased. While United Way had been working on local issues such as poverty reduction, mental wellness, financial empowerment and boosting high school completion rates, there was no formalized methodology or dedicated team within the organization to design these solutions. 

The Social Impact Lab became the space to work on those causes, and shifted how United Way invests in the community. While United Way continues to disburse its funds through grants to local agencies, The Social Impact Lab has pivoted United Way’s community investment model to include investment categories focused on collaboratives, initiatives, and innovation. The Lab brings together both non-profits and businesses working on similar issues to develop new solutions together. 

The United Way Calgary and Area and J5 Design launched The Social Impact Lab with a focus on: 

  • A physical and virtual innovation space to design new or reimagined solutions to persistent social problems
  • Inspire: a training program to guide agencies through business models and design thinking tools
  • Consulting: The Lab leads project teams through complex challenges by using innovation tools and methodologies, design research and data synthesis.


What We Value

Knowledge-sharing and collaboration
Diverse, inclusive and equitable solutions
Innovation for good and purpose-driven change


Meet the Team

Beth Gignac

Chief Impact and Innovation Officer, United Way of Calgary and Area

Beth Gignac joined United Way of Calgary and Area as chief operating officer in 2016. With over 20 years of leadership experience working across government organizations in Alberta and Ontario, Beth is a high-energy, collaborative leader dedicated to building resilient communities.

Beth’s passion for collaboration and strategic visioning has made her an exceptional facilitator of change and catalyst for action. Her mission-based, emotionally-intelligent approach to leadership combined with an entrepreneurial approach to strategic planning and service development make her a great asset to United Way.

James Gamage

Director of Innovation and the Social Impact Lab, United Way of Calgary and Area

James leads the Lab and guides the United Way of Calgary & Area in its development of a broad range of innovative solutions that aim to solve some of the most serious social issues affecting the citizens of Calgary. 

James has led corporate innovation teams for over 20 years and, prior to United Way, did so in financial services organizations in the UK, Europe and Canada. As a proud intrapreneur, James’ expertise lies in building the cultures, processes and methodologies that drive transformation and innovation in large organizations. 

Outside of work, James is a sports enthusiast and spends his spare time in the mountains skiing, hiking and camping with his family. 

John Vardalos

Chief Executive Officer, J5 Design

I'm a highly creative and visionary person, unafraid to take risks in pursuit of a kinder, more beautiful world. My fastball is working alongside CEOs, boards and executive leadership teams to explore new customer experiences and disruptive business models. 

In addition to my role as CEO, I enjoy speaking at conferences, events and podcasts on topics such as future trends, design and the importance of creativity in the workplace. 

Kevin Drinkwater

Managing Director, J5 Design

I believe our team is changing the world. As a pragmatic optimist, I see opportunities everywhere and have a knack for figuring out how to see a path forward on seemingly impossible problems and issues. My teammates, customers and partners know they can always count on me to show up and take on the next challenge, overcome the next roadblock, or solve the next puzzle on the road to building a better future. 

When things get really hard, I'll be the one with a smile, coming in early, sketching ideas on the whiteboard, and helping to make our dreams real. 

The Social Impact Lab is a collaboration between United Way of Calgary and design firm J5.