Ep. 2 - The Lab's Story

March 8, 2023

Karen Young, CEO & President of United Way of Calgary and Area, and John Vardalos, CEO of J5 Design, sit down to discuss their collaboration in creating The Social Impact Lab, which combines the expertise of a social impact organization and a design firm. You will learn about the motivations behind this unique partnership and the challenges Karen and John faced along the way. Through the conversation, you will gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to create real, meaningful change. Karen and John will share their experiences, best practices, and lessons learned as they work together to drive social impact in Alberta and beyond.

Listen to this episode

Mar 3, 2023; The Lab's Story



OK, so I'm delighted to welcome you to this episode. My name is James Gamage and I’m The Director of Innovation and the Social Impact Lab at the United Way of Calgary area. If you listen to our first episode, you will have heard myself, Monique, and Sydney talk about the Lab, the work that we do, and its evolution from our point of view. But today we're talking to two very special individuals. John Vardalos, CEO of J5 Design and Karen Young, President and CEO of United Way of Calgary area, who are the leaders of the organisations involved in the development and evolution of the Social Impact Lab. So welcome to you both.

We wanted to ease you into this podcast with a starter question, so this is a question designed to help our listeners get to know you a little bit better. So if you could tell us beyond your bio, tell us a little bit about yourself, what do you want our listeners to know about and what are you passionate about?


Yeah, I really deeply believe in creating a kind of more beautiful future and a lot of it's based on my own lived experience. I was raised by a single mother. We were in a poverty type situation when I was younger. I've had other things in my life that have happened there, so there's been a lot of things in my life that have happened to me and I've kind of always thought growing up, what would it be like if I could actually be a part of maybe helping others that are going through similar things. And so for me, the business J5 started more with a focus on corporate innovation because that's the world I came from previously working at companies like Xerox, Dell, Ernst and Young, getting a lot of great, you know, more traditional business experience. But I always yearned for an opportunity to start to help people and for me, I just feel blessed that I've arrived at a place now where I get to work on these really important community type problems because it makes me feel like I'm not a victim necessarily in my life from these situations and I'm actually doing something about it.

02:27 JAMES: Thank you. And Karen, what do you want our listeners to know about and what are you passionate about?


Sure! Thanks for that, James. For me personally, I really grew up working in the recreation field. And part of that work was really being out in community, getting to know the residents, working with community associations and really learning how to empower people to lead change for themselves. And so what really appealed to me about a United Way and the work and innovation is the power of bringing people together with the collective voice to really make a difference. And the fact that people can come together with lived experience like what John shared or people from corporate Calgary, our social agencies, businesses, we can all really come together to get at those big hairy problems. The other thing that people sometimes don't know about me, most of my career, I was in recreation and so I really believe in the value of active, healthy lifestyles. So for me, I'm happiest when I'm out at Panorama, skiing and being in the fresh air and being able to really enjoy the beauty of the land around me, or if I get to be up my elliptical at the end of the day.

As a CEO, I actually work out every single day, and so I really believe in that healthy mind, healthy body, and how we can use the challenges with mental health that we have in our communities. And really role model as leaders in our sector to make sure that people are thinking about their whole self and what it takes to be to be healthy.

04:13 JAMES: Thank you. Thank you.

04:15 JOHN: If I could jump into that, I think that it's interesting you said that because one of the projects that, as J5 we're working on right now is a project for caregivers of people with the Dementia Alzheimer's. And we've been working with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and one of the doctors there and he was sharing with me that one of the strategies around prevention for cognitive decline for things like Alzheimer's actually starts at a much younger age. Because if you develop these habits of things like sport... if you actually focus on a healthy heart, it results in a healthy mind.

So a lot of the physiological benefits that go into exercise and eating well that are habits that we learn at a very young age. They actually contribute to prevention as it relates to cognitive decline as you get older. And if you built those habits at a young age of like playing competitive sports or being active or being artistic or creative, they become things that you carry on throughout your life. So I know one of the things that Karen is very focused on too is earlier intervention in different areas and I think that's something we have very much in common in terms of taking a more prevention-based approach to a lot of this problem solving than a kind of more traditional intervention-based approach.

05:25 KAREN: Yeah, really getting upstream. If we're going to talk later, I hope about some of the work we're doing with Planet Youth, which is really getting into that early intervention at a young age. Being about prevention, but really having, “it takes a village to raise a child” kind of mentality, so I'm really hoping that we're going to get to dive into some of those topics.

05:46 JAMES: Yeah, yeah, of course we will. So that was meant to be a starter question, but I loved your answers, both of you and those are probably the most important answers that you're gonna give this afternoon I think, because it's really giving our listeners an insight into you as people. So thank you.

I am gonna talk about the Social Impact Lab though, and I'm gonna ask you questions about that. We know there's a collaboration between United Way and J5, but I’m interested in what the origin story of the Social Impact Lab is. Where did the idea for the Lab begin and how did this partnership between United Way and J5 come about.

06:24 KAREN: Well, maybe I'll start with that. Given I became the CEO in 2017 and I had the opportunity to do a new strategic plan for our organization, which isn't that great. You know, John, when you get to lead a strategic plan, when you come in, in an organization and not have to implement one that's already halfway through. But what we did with that strategic plan is we went out and we talked to Calgarians, we talked to agencies, we talked to indigenous communities, cultural communities, we had 615 inputs. And people said to us and one of our board members, Bill Welch said it best. He said, what if we became a community where instead of just serving the problems over and over, we actually solved them?

And so my belief in social innovation, coming into United Way, I kind of made a promise to myself that I would look at creating opportunities and change in new and different ways and luckily through some contacts of mine at EY, including my own brother Scott Young, who’s now in Arizona. He introduced me to John. And so John and I started having some conversations about, well, what would it look like if we were really going to make a difference in Calgary? What if we were really thinking about solving these issues? How would we go about using design thinking and human centered approaches to really make a difference?

So we kind of had a handshake and we kept talking about what those opportunities were and John really came in and helped me think about my culture and the organization that I had internally. And we started doing some cultural workshops about the benefits of design thinking. I remember some of those first charts that you were drawing for us, really reminding us about the importance of putting the human at the center and really talking about sort of the journey that a person might have in a lifetime and so from there, a pilot kind of became born. I think that was in 2018, John, when we did that and then all of a sudden, this Social Impact Lab was born from there.

08:49 JAMES: And it seems like it was sort of serendipitous, cause that resonated with you, John, around where you were wanting to move J5.

08:58 JOHN: Yeah, like I said, I've had a lot of my own lived experiences and as I'm getting older, we were joking about it before the podcast started, but I'm gonna be 50 this year, which is pretty scary. But I have two children that are in school. I have an aging parent, that I'm a caregiver to. So as I'm getting older my view into what matters is getting bigger.  It's not just about me now. It's about how safe are my kids? Every day, like my friends, that own businesses. Family members that are aging. And so when I started J5 ten years ago, my focus was different. My focus was building a company and the path, the easy path, the easy button for me, at the time was go work for corporations because that's what you worked at when you worked at all your other jobs.

I never really worked in the nonprofit sector before, so I didn't really understand what they did. I just donated money every year and said well, they got that under control, you know? And so for me, we had the opportunity to work with social housing provider in Edmonton, and we did a project with them. This was prior to getting connected to Karen, but we worked with them and the Chief Operating Officer at the time said we want to start to look at the people that we serve not as clients but customers, because sometimes in the nonprofit sector, when we start thinking about clients, we think about marginalized people. We think about underserved people. We think we have to take care of these people because they can't take care of themselves.

And he wanted to look at them as customers that had choice, because if we start to shift the mindset of people that work inside these organizations, that the people they serve actually have choices. Then it starts to create a different way of approaching problem solving and delivering service. So and to Karen's point, it starts to encourage a more of a move from a serving to a solving place. So after that project, we ended up doing a project for the CEO of Center for newcomers, which just so happens to also be one of the agencies that United Way partners with. And that really was the turning point for me to say, you know what, the stuff that we do in the corporate space, we can do for the nonprofit space, but how do we do more of it? So when I got connected to Karen, that was my motivation. My motivation was, how do I do more of the work that my employees are telling me matters and makes them feel differently than the work that we do in the corporate sector.

Now, that doesn't mean today that we don't still do work in the corporate sector, but we look for different problems in the corporate sector to work in. Problems like systemic racism, problems like how do we create more inclusion in the workplace? How do we create more safety? How do we improve mental health and workplace? We're still working with them, but we're coming at it from a different place, very much inspired by the things I've learned working with the United Way in the Social Impact Lab, so it's a blessing for me and it's really helped me take my business and grow it in many different ways.

11:50 JAMES: Cool. Good. Thank you. And that was 2018 and five years almost have passed since then. So tell us how it's been different to how you expected at the start. How's the Social Impact Lab evolved from your point of view?

12:10 KAREN: Sure. When we first started, it was obviously like, what are the answers, right? And we were trying to solve these problems. So we kind of got in the product development business, I guess you could say. And so we were like pumping out different experiments and I kind of gave the team clearance, and I said that the team, go forth, have fun for a year, just kind of spit ball and see what kind of sticks after. So there was a lot of opportunity for creativity and being innovative and just trying a few things.

And so we're launching some products. I know we did a lot of work on Natural Supports YYC, because we had done a white paper and we really found out some of the struggles around youth mental health and that people didn't really have access to services or they couldn't really navigate the system. And so we started to work on developing products, which it was all good and all great. And we had prototypes for that and then we kind of thought, well, how do we even launch it into the market?

So yeah, now we got this product. So now what are we going to do with it? And so we did learn a lot about the whole product life cycle from beginning to end and how to actually launch it. And then we started thinking a little bit bigger. I found around tying it to some of the bigger problems that we were trying to solve in community and started to take more of a systems change approach. You know, looking at some of those systemic barriers looking at diversity, the challenges with equity, the lack of belonging and inclusion, and started tying some of the work to our bigger initiatives like Community Hubs and the resident work that we do All In For Youth and some of those other bigger game changers, I call them. And so now I really feel that we started small, tested a few things, but have really evolved to thinking about how we can bring people together around the larger systems change and how we can convene, innovate and create so much bigger than a product.

14:36 JAMES: And why was as CEO of a large nonprofit, why was that important to you and the organisation that we moved in that direction?

14:47 KAREN: Well, as we started to think about our own community impact framework. As you know, James, really trying to move from a grantor fundraiser to a more social impact organization. And so, yeah, we can give out grants. That's wonderful. We have amazing agency partners, but how do we, in that social system of care work more together and be more integrated in terms of the system that we're trying to create, but ultimately, how can we influence the system to make it better for people and so that we don't have some of these issues prevailing over time, but we can actually, as John said earlier, prevent them in the first place by going a little bit more what we call upstream, up the river, as opposed to going downstream and trying to pull people up out from those challenges.

So that was a real conscious decision that we made with our strategic plan and our board and gave us an opportunity to think about innovation in everything that we do, not just as part of the Social Impact Lab, but how does that become part of our culture? How does that become part of our culture, both internal and external, in terms of a way of doing business differently by doing different things.

16:17 JAMES: I’m intrigued. Can I just ask you, John, a question about evolving the organisation and the team because we work with the great team that you have here at J5. How did the evolution of J5 more into the social space and through the Social Impact Lab? How did that resonate with your team?

16:38 JOHN: I think the way Karen was explaining it to be honest with you is like exactly I would have said almost the exact same thing. I think what's really interesting is that we went on this journey, four to five years ago, before social innovation, quite frankly, innovation was even a word. There were no Directors of Innovation, there was no budget that was being allocated towards design thinking. Fast forward four to five years. It is much more common now. But we're so much further ahead. So in a lot of ways, I feel like the United Way made an investment that and quite frankly broke ground for a lot of others and created permission for a lot of others to start thinking and doing and working in these ways.

And what's exciting for me about that is, yes, we did start in the product side and we recognize that maybe as an organization, even J5, we are more well suited to service based innovation and systemic type innovation than product innovation and that the world around us has grown up and been and starting to participate more. So if you look at organizations like Platform, the University of Calgary with UCeed, you look at all these organizations that are encouraging and working with startups and social entrepreneurs that are more well suited to creating products really fast. That they can get to market and can do these things, but somebody has got to be focused on these more systemic challenges and working with organizations on more complex problems, complex and chaotic problems, not just hard problems, you know, really wicked problems and problems that don't have solutions.

When you're working on mental health, there is no one answer. So if you've got a product mindset where you think that your product is the thing that's going to solve that problem, you're gravely mistaken because working on mental health requires collaboration with government, nonprofits, corporations. No single entity should own that problem, so I think to Karen's point, we've realized and J5 has realized too, how impactful and important that is and how well suited we are to work on those types of problems. If you come to the Social Impact Lab and you meet with any one of our employees, you will have a very different conversation about innovation and why innovation and how innovation than you will if you go to an innovation department inside of a corporation or you go talk to an entrepreneur about what innovation is to them. Innovation to them is about their product. They're in love with their product. To Karen's point, we're in love with the problem. That's the thing that wakes us up every day and says, how do we work on that problem?

19:14 JOHN: Albert Einstein has that unbelievable quote, right? If he was solving a solution, he would have spent 55 minutes understanding the problem and 5 minutes solving the problem, and I think for most people, innovation is about really getting to that answer fast. And I think we went through that at the beginning as well, but we've matured our practice alongside the United Way as they've been maturing theirs and their understanding of innovation. And that's why I think of this more as a partnership than us as a vendor.

I really think that we are connected together and we're working on this together and that's really important when you're working in this kind of work. If you feel like a vendor with an organization, whether it's in the corporate work we do or the nonprofit work we do, you're not going to come to work and really care as much as you would if you feel like you're working on it with each other. Not for the company, working with the company. So I think that's a really big thing that I feel every day when we work with the United Way, is working together as partners.

20:17 JAMES: And you talked a little bit about the community and the ecosystem. I'm interested, Karen, about how the Calgary community, you must sit at some pretty high level tables and how the community of Calgary have moved their perception of social innovation in the last few years and and maybe the role that the Lab or the United Way can play in that.

20:37 KAREN: Yeah, it's been a real great journey just watching our community evolve. We've been through some economic downturns. We've just gone through a pandemic together. And so I think the attitude of Calgarians that can-do, a spirit that this city is known for in our roots. Even innovation has been part of the Calgary vibe and in terms of our fabric as a city. So it only makes sense that the social fabric has some of that spirit. And what I've really seen is that willingness, especially during COVID, you saw some of our agencies come together in new and different ways to really wrap, supports around our most vulnerable that were experiencing COVID and making sure they were safe in the rapid access care and the hoteling space.

Our agencies really came together and it's amazing when you do have a situation like a pandemic because we proved to ourselves that we could do it. And I see so much ownership from our community around, no one can do it alone and that it does take all of us coming together and that we can use platforms like the Social Impact Lab to inspire that creativity, that problem solving, and to really use that space. The energy of the Lab staff to really help us get underneath those problems or those issues to see what those solutions are. And so the Lab has also become such a wonderful engagement opportunity for folks as well.

So at first, we were convening our sector and working together with the government. We looked at our whole Community Hubs project and really use the Lab to help us with that. But I would say that as we come out of this pandemic, this idea of, the importance of social purpose, and John, you talked a little bit about that in terms of your company and J5 and what you cared about as a corporate company, but your own personal belief in the importance of empathy, caring, treating others with dignity and respect That's who you are and it's one of the reasons I chose someone like John to partner with United Way because you got to have some of that DNA. And so now we've been able to use the Lab as an opportunity for corporate Calgary to come in and to really think about their social purpose. What is important to them? We've had companies like Nutrien, for example, or EY, thinking about the food security issues that are going on in our community, donors thinking about it, and the evolution of the pay what you want market, where we're testing and trying things in the food security system to see if we can bring some innovation into the system. And so I'm really inspired about what I'm seeing around Calgarians corporate Calgary, our social agencies, government really wanting to think about things differently.

Our newest initiative, Planet Youth, we're looking at an Indigenous parallel and really bringing elders and youth together through this innovation space at the Lab to really ask questions about what this might be, what might be possible, what can we co-create together and really listening to those voices of our youth, putting our youth at the center to really help design a solutions is really going to make a difference. And I have to tell you, not only just here in Calgary, but the opportunities to scale the Lab provincially, which I'm sure we're going to talk about, but even around the world, by being at this Planet Youth table out of Iceland, we're already being called upon about how we're doing the youth parallel because of some of the design thinking and innovation that we're using.

24:56 JOHN: One thing, I'd like to build on some of that corporate trend and work that I see happening just overall. I think in the past, corporate innovation was about becoming more competitive. It was about differentiating yourself from your competition. Going faster, selling more, making more and social innovation has always been about creating better outcomes for communities and citizens and people. What's happening right now that I'm seeing is that those two worlds are coming together because corporations are realizing that to operate and have the license to operate, they have to be thinking about their impact on the communities because their customers live in these communities.

So as an example of that, there's a utility that we've been in discussions with that's helped me see that one in five customers of utilities are in energy poverty and they have no strategy in place to serve that customer based on their unique need. So the risk in their business is that 20% of their revenue is at risk if they don't support those customers properly. So who owns that problem? Is that a problem to be solved by a nonprofit, or is that a problem to be solved by that corporation? Or is it something that the two of them could work together on? So in my mind, we're moving from a place of there's corporate innovation, there's civic innovation, there's social innovation into it really is one thing and the way that we solve that problem is we start working together to solve those problems. So that's what I really see about a big part of, kind of what Karen was alluding to of these starting to engage differently with these corporations and actually helping them build their businesses while at the same time doing good in the community.

Whereas I think previously a lot of these corporations might have felt like their relationship with the nonprofit was we donate money to you. That’s great; let's keep doing that. But I think they're also saying now, how can you help us better understand some different types of customers that maybe we don't understand as well as maybe you do and let's work together to serve them. And I imagine my goal, my dream is that there is no difference. That companies are creating products and service responsibly and they're serving all needs. So LGTBQ plus indigenous BIPOC groups, all these groups, all the corporations that deal with them, whether it's a bank, an insurance company, hospitality, whatever they are stepping up every day and making sure that they're addressing the needs of those customers. And for me, that's the real goal. It's the collaboration and the partnership, but we're still at a place to be honest with you, where the line is still there. And I think one of the goals of the Social Impact Lab that we... I think, we have an opportunity to be even more intentional about in the future is helping people really start to bridge that gap and work together.

27:54 JAMES: Yeah, I love that the concept that social issues are business issues. The other thing that resonated from what both of you said was the we say often in the Lab, that innovation is a team sport and the importance of getting diverse opinions and diversity around the table to try and solve those problems.  Very rarely does the solution come from an individual sitting in a darkened basement. It comes from the community coming together, diverse perspectives and everybody with the same intention to try and solve these big social issues that we have.

28:30 KAREN: Yeah, I really want to build on the stakeholder engagement because we have stakeholder engagement strategies and the social sector civic engagement strategies corporate. But we also know that employees that work for companies are also part of that engagement strategy. So that whole idea of companies staying relevant and having that sense of purpose all the way up to the ESG goals that they have and the opportunity through our partnership with the Lab to really help organizations think about their S in ESG and even in the G in Governance around that value add and how we can design engagement opportunities and volunteer opportunities. How we can really design initiatives that tackle the values and the purpose of the organization but are making a difference with the stakeholders, those equity deserving communities, those employees that are looking for equity. So we really have this opportunity right now to really think about how we can partner and we've been talking to some of our companies who would really like to pilot some ideas around that. We're already out there doing campaigns. It would be so easy to help report and tell the story. Because at the end of the day, it's really about telling the story about the impact we can make collectively together.

30:02 JAMES: Yeah, lovely. Thank you. They're fascinating insight from both of you. I want to sort of wind the clock forward now to 2023. So looking back on the first five years of the Lab, what do you think the highlights have been? Whether that's organisationally or around specific projects and what have been some of the challenges as well?

30:31 KAREN: I think for me, one of the opportunities is always around how do you scale stuff, right? So how do you start planning things with the intention to scale right from the beginning? And that was kind of a lesson learned for me in the process. And how do we help build capacity, how do we help build capability, and so for me, one of the most exciting things that we've done in the Lab is around Inspire. And that capacity building program in terms of really getting together with agency partners, helping to build their innovation muscle and thinking and to really help them address a business model problem that they're trying to work on. And to me that evolution of that program, getting people through the original prototype, being honest to us with their feedback during the pandemic, being able to scale it and turn it into a digital opportunity so that we could get it more out en masse. It is really helping spread the word of the importance of design thinking and human centered approach into the community. And so now it's exciting for me is through the government of Alberta, with the creative partnerships. A division being able to use the learnings of the Social Impact Lab and Inspire in particular and scale that across Alberta. Well, heck, I want to scale this all across the country if we can, because I really believe it's a gem. It really aligns with my community development thinking where you're really empowering people to do things for themselves and for me this is one of the greatest ways that we can spread the word and the value of design thinking and the approaches that we're trying to take us through this Inspire program.

32:32 JOHN: I was going to say the exact same thing. I'm biased because it was really important when we started the Social Impact Lab for Karen and I that we launched something right away. People that are new to innovation, it can be scary in the sense that sometimes you're waiting for that, back to earlier, “What's the solution? When do we get to the solution?” So I think it's really important that when you're working with a new organization, you're delivering some value immediately while you're continuing to work on some other more strategic things, but at the time, Inspire was something we felt like we could build and deliver almost immediately. And so we were building it as we were going. I remember we would create the module for the first session the week before everyone was coming in and then we would do the session and then the next week before they came in for the next session, we would build the content for that week and in a lot of ways we haven't stopped taking that same approach of constantly improving it, constantly iterating it, because, to Karen's point, it's been able to scale and evolve and grow.

For me, the interesting thing about Inspire as well, is that when it started, it was directed at a single agency. So one agency or 4 agencies would come in at the same time and we would work on actual problems that they were trying to address in their agency. So it wasn't a traditional learning program where we were talking about case studies and simulations. We were talking about actual problems and projects that they were working on, so as they're learning, they're actually also advancing something within their organization. What ended up happening though was that agencies started to come together and say we're working on this bigger problem together as a group of three or four agencies. Can we come in and participate in Inspire together? That was an indicator for us around the fact that agencies did want to collaborate and they did want to get creative around how they could work together to attract different types of funding and solve different types of problems. And that's continued to become a real theme in a lot of the work that we do things with Planet Youth.

It is no longer J5 and United Way and a small team in a cool office, off-site with the doors closed. It is becoming much more of an open door - How do we bring the community in. And that might sound really intuitive and obvious, but actually when you're starting something, that might actually slow you down because sometimes when you do a lot of this work, you end up trying to convince every single person that it's the right thing to do and you never actually get anything done. So it's one of those things where you got to sometimes just get started and maybe you're going to have some people that love it and some people don't love it, but at least you got going and then you learn some things and then you got to figure out how to mend some of those fences or bring those people back in once you've got something.

So I think right now, a lot of what we're doing is recommunicating  what's possible, what we can do to the community and I think it's like to Karen's point, it's at a perfect time right now too, because everybody's looking differently at their business post COVID. Everybody's readdressing their strategies, their values. They have to figure out, like, how are we going to bring people back into the office at times for the right types of activities. People are burnt out, they're tired. They can work anywhere. Now you can work remotely. I don't just have to work for the company that's in my own city anymore.

So it's really putting the pressure back on corporations to think differently about their strategies and what a great time to start A, recommunicating what we do and how we can support some of those strategies and also how can we help those organizations that are adjusting their strategies to start thinking differently about the impact they might be able to have that is also not only economic impact, but social impact. I really think we're in a unique position to go work with some of these organizations and not in a way of, hey, “how can you donate money so that the Social Impact Lab can build these products to solve these problems”, but more, “what's your problem? What impact do you want to have in the Community and how can we support you to achieve that?”   really think that that's one of the big, big things I get excited about.

36:51 KAREN: Yeah, and I think the idea of the growth mindset. Some of the predecessors who worked at United Way, they were the trailblazers on the Lab. They had that entrepreneurial thinking. They had to really try a few things and that kind of work isn't for everyone, so I will say that we've had great staff at the right time for sort of the evolution of the Lab and so great job to sort of the people before who were those entrepreneurs.

It wasn't easy trying to figure out, but we had some folks with that real belief in that growth mindset, that learning mindset to really learn how to scale something like the Social Impact Lab and I think we have evolved and we're bringing in developing the teams according to where we are in our life cycle. And the idea of how to be sustainable right now is on every not for profits, mind. Everyone is kind of thinking about what do we need to do and everyone is thinking about collaboration, partnership, innovation and here with the work that we've been doing in Calgary, we've also been thinking about the ecosystem for social innovation. So those partnerships with UCeed around social enterprise programs like Inspire, working as a community around social innovation is really creating that ecosystem in Calgary where this can thrive in the future when we're not here any longer, John.

38:29 JOHN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's true.

38:34 KAREN: It's a legacy. [Laughs]

38:34 JAMES: Yeah, for sure. But thinking beyond Calgary. I mean, one of the things you mentioned in your highlights is Social Impact Lab Alberta and the funding that we got from the creative partnerships that the Government of Alberta to scale the Lab across Alberta. So what do you envision the impact of that will be and do you have a vision for the Lab in three to six years time for example?

39:00 KAREN: Yeah, for sure, because how exciting is it to partner with the Government of Alberta coming out of the pandemic when everyone's looking at recovering opportunities. We know where Albertans are at. We know that rural communities are struggling and I'm thinking of this original idea that James had about the bus driving around Alberta and sort of empowering people. And of course now with digital transformation, we've got all these digital technologies as well, but we have a chance like we've never had to really think about building these innovation, capacities and capabilities across Alberta and all of the communities, not just in the big cities.

So we're out in Brooks. We're out in Athabasca. We're out in Fort McMurray and we know through things like the Children and Youth Well-being report, what some struggles are. So now we're going to be able to give communities tools so that they can really design and think about their problems and build their own leadership capacity to solve these problems and that we will be planting these seeds, sprinkling this throughout Alberta so that there is that energy around, we do things for ourselves and we're a community that can come together and work together to really get at our communities toughest issues and so to me, talking with Monique Blough, who is the director of that program, she's just so excited. She came and spoke to our executive leadership team and we've got a great footprint for how we're going to go about scaling that Lab across Alberta. And to me, we should be thinking about scaling it across Canada. I know J5 has shops in Toronto, for example. And so there's lots of big picture thinking that we can do about how we embed design thinking. The only other thing I'm going to add is that we have also learned internally at United Way how to build innovation into our work. So in our community impact strategy, we've now included an innovation rider and so when our organizations, our agency partners, you know we have our multi-year funding. We love all the great work that they're doing right now. Now they have an opportunity to apply for an innovation rider. So if there's something creative or if they want to build their adaptive capacity, we have some extra funding now to really incent innovation in other ways as well.

41:48 JAMES: Thank you. And John, what would you like to see the Social Impact Lab become, say in three to six years time? What's your vision for the future?

41:57 JOHN: Obviously, I have a vision. I'm a visionary person, so I'm always thinking in the future. But one thing I'm learning that's informed a little bit by how we're growing our business right now is J5, one of our fastest growing parts of our business is our strategy practice. And what I'm learning is that people are trying to move away from three to five year monolithic strategies and start to get into more of an adaptive strategy, more like a living strategy. And one of our designers and the company says, “a strategy that you can take for a walk.” And right now we're working with the Cumming School of Medicine on their five year strategy and it's been such an amazing experience and their new Dean is very focused on making sure that their strategy is something that's very usable by their people and something that is informed by their community.

And he does not want to create a monolithic thing that they are going to have to execute on for five years as the entire world is changing around them, because we don't know what's around the corner anymore so these traditional strategies and structures that we've used in the past may not be necessarily as effective. They're also rooted in old systems and old ways of working, and when Karen talks about Indigenous, we can pull from so many different places now to create a different approach to strategy, which is what we're doing at J5, which is what United Way is doing as well, which is what leading organizations are doing. And so for me, when you ask me three to five years, I actually think the answer is we have to deliver on the Social Impact Lab Alberta project well and learn from that, and obviously again, like my vision goes to after we're able to grow provincially, then we grow nationally. But I don't think we tackle that until we've delivered and have learned what we need to learn on how we scale at a provincial level. So that's what I'm really focused on, but obviously I have a vision and an ambition to go bigger all the time. That's just who I am. But I definitely think we need to build these systems, these adaptive systems of strategy versus these more traditional monolithic strategies that people don't seem to be responding to like they used to.

44:08 KAREN: And the whole idea about building the equity, the fairness, the dignity. Really making sure that we're unleashing those voices that aren't at the table right now. Like, wouldn't that be neat? If those voices were heard and listened to. What a great community, we would have to live in, if that was the case.

44:35 JAMES: Absolutely. There's some very fine thoughts about the future there. I could talk to you both all afternoon about this kind of stuff, but we're gonna have to wind it up now. So Karen and John, thank you so much for your insight and thank you for all the work that you do to make Calgary and the world a better place. And I'm going to thank you to the listeners as well for spending time with us this afternoon, so thank you and goodbye.

[Outro music]

That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website @ Social Impact Lab dot com or follow us on social. And until next time, keep on designing a better world.