Ep. 5 - The Social Impact Lab Alberta

April 5, 2023

Monique Blough, who is inspired by the future and understands the importance and value of community in social innovation, talks with James Gamage about The Social Impact Lab Alberta. She discusses the region's key players, community connections and why collaboration is important to this work. This episode of Responsible Disruption aims to spark conversation, collaboration, and action!

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Apr 5, 2023; The Social Impact Lab Alberta



Welcome to this episode of the Responsible Disruption Podcast. My name is James Gamage, Director of Innovation and the Social Impact Lab. This week I am joined by my co-host Monique Blough, Project Director of the Social Impact Lab Alberta. Today's episode will sew together the past and future of the Social Impact Lab, as we discuss with Monique, the expansion of the Lab across Alberta and learn what that means for Albertans. There are some really exciting things happening to build capacity for the social sector across the country and here in Alberta, the Social Impact Lab Alberta and partner organisations are making a real impact, so Monique, welcome on this slightly chilly but beautiful Albertan morning.


Thanks James! I'm glad to be here.

01:00 JAMES: Cool, so we're gonna get into talking about what the Lab is and what the Lab in Alberta will be in a moment. But just to kick things off. Could you briefly give listeners an outline of what Social Impact Lab Alberta is an what brought you into the role of leading the project.

01:19 MONIQUE: I'm glad we're gonna have a lot of opportunity to talk about this, so I won't go into too many details to kick us off, but the Social Impact Lab Alberta is an initiative focused on scaling the Lab. And as we talk later about what that actually means, we can talk about the history and how we're transforming that into what our future might look like. As to how I was brought to this role.... it's a really good question because it took me a moment and I really wanted to pause and just think about it. And the reality is, is that community building has been central to my work for a really long time. And I first witnessed the power of community building when I was working on a project with Oxford many, many years ago, which we were bringing together, diverse groups of people from academia activists, we worked with local communities, farmers as well, and that work really taught me the importance of helping people find common purpose.

And when we think about what that means to find common purpose, it really means to honor all the processes and to honor the agendas that exist. And this is really the nature of community building and I would offer it's in fact one of the most important tools we have for solving complex social issues and to add to that, I had the privilege of working in the Social Impact Lab in Calgary in its inception in 2018 and I led the operationalization of the Lab and was a member of the team that developed the Lab to what it is today in collaboration with yourself and so many other players. So that's really what led me to this opportunity and to the path that I'm on today.

03:14 JAMES: And look, I know because I work closely with you that you're really passionate about this work and I think it comes across in the way you talk about it. But why are you so passionate about it?

03:25 MONIQUE: Well, there's so many things. One is because it's really about this belief that people are better together and communities are stronger together. I'm really lucky because my joy comes from helping to connect people to community and I find passion in helping to kind of unleash the untapped power that so many of our people serving organizations and institutions have, and by doing so, I think we can really create positive social change. So what it is? I really think the work that I do, I mean, I hope so, contributes to something bigger than myself. And that hopefully the impact we have today will have long standing impact in the future, so that's what I'm passionate about. That's why I do this.

04:18 JAMES: And how does that make you feel when you do that kind of work?

04:22 MONIQUE: There's two things. One that it's a very big responsibility. We have a tremendous responsibility in the work that. And with that responsibility means that we have to build trust and find, like I said earlier, common ground and common purpose. Overall, the feeling is of I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for being in this work. Tremendous amount of responsibility and a great deal of privilege as well.

04:55 JAMES: OK. Thanks for sharing that.

04:57 MONIQUE: That was pretty deep question, by the way. [Laughs]

04:59 JAMES: No. Well, it's so early in the podcast... Let's get down to the real detail and deep questions first, so, but anyway, perhaps a lighter question. So we've talked in previous episodes of this podcast. We've talked about the genesis of the Lab in Calgary, how it grew up from 2018. And its growth in innovation and capacity building since then. But how did that evolve into Social Impact Lab Alberta? What we're talking about today. This sort of expansive project in innovation and capacity building and how did that happen?

05:42 MONIQUE: Like with any opportunity that exists, there has to be something in the past that has made it possible. And our evolution and the opportunity that's presented to us today with scaling the Lab across the province is only possible because of the track record that we've had in the city. So since 2018, the team and the Social Impact Lab, United Way of Calgary and area and J5 have worked tirelessly to impact the lives of Calgarians and for those of you that haven't listened to earlier podcasts, we established the Social Impact Lab with this notion of moving from serving our communities to solving right, to supporting our communities and so that track record is what led us to where we are today.

And I'll also share, James, that when we started in the Lab, we always spoke about what it would mean to collaborate with nonprofits in the province to really enable the sharing of information across sectors, communities. We would ask ourselves what would happen if we could bring groups of people together like the example I gave when I worked with Oxford. Academia, organizations, anyone that is extremely passionate about an issue. What would happen if we could actually bring them together to solve a complex community issue? What if we could bring a human centered design practice to how we look at problems and how we collaborate in solving? And honestly, I think those questions, the track record and this desire for momentum gave us this opportunity to move into what it might be to scale across the province, around innovation and capacity building.

Now, fast forward. OK, we're April 2022 and United Way of Calgary and area received 1.75 million in multi-year funding from the Ministry of Culture and the Status of Women under a program called the Creative Partnerships Alberta Program. And we received those funds specifically with the intention of scaling the offerings of the Social Impact Lab to all the nonprofits and charitable organizations across this province. So essentially taking everything that we've done in Calgary, all our methods, practice, our takeaways that what we've learned and scaling that across the province and so if we think about the Labs in 2018, we've really ran an awesome prototype. We piloted, we've come to this, and now we're at that next scale, which is scaling and we're really fortunate to have the investment from the GoA and the Creative Partnerships program to be able to do that.

08:47 JAMES: And if you think about three years time. Say, what are you hoping to achieve in communities around Alberta with this project?

08:58 MONIQUE: There is not a simple answer for that. If we think about what our objectives are, which is increasing capacity and thinking about capabilities in the space of design thinking, for example. We can certainly add a check mark to saying we've done that through programs like Inspire, which we can speak to at another time. And if you're interested, of course, we'll include it in our show notes because it is open. But that said, the reason there's not a simple answer is because what each community needs will be different and so what I'm hoping will happen in three years time is that there is an adoption of working in a way that's human centered that's inclusive, that's focused on enabling communities to think through what it might mean to prototype and test ideas that their communities would like to see.

10:06 JAMES: And this kind of work, rural innovation work, if I can call it that or a community building work must have been done elsewhere in Canada or elsewhere in the world. Have you learned anything from other jurisdictions, other areas that might have done undertaken this work?

10:26 MONIQUE: Yes, individuals that work in this space that are focused on innovation that are focused on, human centered design. It's important that we look around us to see what's happened, right? What are other organizations doing? What are other municipalities doing? And based on our research, there are no initiatives that are exactly the same as what we're doing in the Social Impact Lab Alberta. That said, there are many individuals and organizations working together who are focused on increasing capacity, connecting for systems change, and are focused on a rural design community of practice and in fact, in October, the Social Impact Lab Alberta team was in Brooks.

So Brooks is one of our rural communities that we are collaborating and co-creating with. But we connected with the national Rural Design Conference, which was held in Corner Brook, NL. That was such a great opportunity to connect on design and innovation for what it might mean to consider rural settings or rural futures. So, at that conference and during that time in our connection, we really explored the role of design, what social innovation looks like, and what it means to come together to co-create the futures of all these communities, whether they're small, remote, rural. But the most important thing coming out of that was really centering on the needs and the realities of the people that are involved, so I'm excited that there are organizations out there like the National Rural Design community and in fact, we will continue to build those relationships and learn from each other as we move forward.

12:25 JAMES: What kind of discussions were had at that conference? Well, what are the kind of themes that that came out?

12:31 MONIQUE: It's interesting. Some of the themes were, well actually not some, a really important theme that came out was how do you design for trust? Because when we work in communities. Pardon me, when we work alongside communities, we need to be really cautious that … and I'm just going to say it this way. The Big City people are coming into the communities and think they know better and that the reality is that is not what we believe. That is not how we see our experiences and the reality is that our community members in these real communities might be seeing us that way.

So how do we start by designing with this lens of trust so that we can be invited into the communities versus showing up in a community? So we discussed that theme during this event on the National Rural Design Conference. We also discussed the role of municipalities in community co-design, whether it's from funding or all types of resources. And then we also looked at the lens of, as a broader system. When we're thinking about rural design or community co-design, who needs to be at the table and can we ensure the most inclusive approach to that practice? And I'm sure there were many other themes because we didn't participate in the whole conference. But maybe we can add a link in the show notes for those that might be interested.

14:06 JAMES: That's really insightful and really useful context, because you're talking a lot about the role of government or municipalities of sort of government at various levels, but you've also used the word collaboration about ten times since we started speaking. So, clearly you're working with other players in this endeavor, whether it's the United way or the GoA (Government of Alberta) or other local community partners. Can you tell us a little bit about that, the importance of collaboration and who you might be working with on the ground?

14:36 MONIQUE: Yeah, nothing is possible without collaboration, especially in the context of community complex problems that we're working on. But collaboration... here's the reality: people are simply better together. I think I even might have opened into one of the reasons I love this work. Collaboration is essential for problem solving and as soon as we start to collaborate, it starts to kind of give fuel to what we're willing to try, right? Our willingness to understand each other. Our willingness to try other things. I think it also creates space for trust, absolutely without question. And I'm a I'm a real believer that this notion of people who are part of building a change will adopt the change, and so in order to be a part of that, that means you need to collaborate, right?

Collaboration in the innovation process ensures that those that have bought into it will be able to continue to do the work afterwards, right? It also makes sure that we make gosh time better decisions. But who are all the players and it's interesting because collaboration is so key and there are so many actors or players that are part of this work. We need to go at the pace of those collaborators and our community members and I think that's sometimes a hard thing to accept in many ways. We want things to go faster, like inherently as humans, we want to see results. How quickly can we go? What are the results going to look like, but the reality is, is we can learn a lot from our Indigenous friends that we need to take time, right?

We need to make relatives. And so even in this notion of collaboration, it is not something that's built overnight. I stated earlier. We need to start from a place of trust to be invited. And so the road to collaboration is paved with many conversations and many different experiences and a willingness to put aside this notion of I have a deadline that I need to meet and I'm going to achieve XY and Z. And so we're really fortunate to have partners that are along this journey with us that understand that, are key players. Like I mentioned, the Government of Alberta, the Creative Partnerships Alberta Program, United Way of Calgary and Area. This would not be possible without them. The Social Impact Lab Alberta team that we get to work with. J5, the United Way Alberta network. They have played a huge role in this.

If we think about scaling across the province, we are looking at Fort McMurray with Buffalo. United Way up there is collaborating with us. The United Way Capital Region in Edmonton. So there are so many players across the province and within each community that are enabling what we're able to do, and in fact we're actively building a co-creative design Lab with the community of Brooks. And we're working closely with social impact champions in Brooks business owners, City Council and a number of nonprofit organizations, everything from back to Global Village to be CIS. I had an opportunity to speak at the Rotary Club so this collaboration and as I mentioned earlier, this notion of being inclusive, means we're looking at the entire landscape of a community to create space for all the voices to be heard. But only possible with great partners.

18:33 JAMES: Absolutely, absolutely. I think you've painted a great picture there of sort of a model of going into communities to how to and also how to prevent that sort of sense of big city design team descending on a community and then leaving. So you've talked a little bit about what that looks like in Brooks. Is that the kind of model that you're hoping to roll out across the province is that close working with community leaders and community members? Is that what other municipalities and locations can expect from Social Impact Lab Alberta?

19:13 MONIQUE: It is in fact, and I would even take it a step back to say that even before those conversations start, we’re reaching out to groups like FCSS or the Alberta Rural Network, anywhere where we can get a deeper understanding of the community before we even reach out to champions and leaders in the communities because we need to have a sense of what's been happening. Because communities take care of themselves, they always have, and so we need to have a deep sense of respect for that and a deep understanding, which means research helps with that. So are there community assessments that have been done? What's available through our government website? Anything. We really become sponges to what's happening in the community before we even begin to have conversations. But yeah, what I've outlined really the approach and the process we take is what other communities can expect. And I would offer though that we are also very adaptive. And so if we're in a community and someone were to say it to us that there's a group here that you've missed; these are the first people you should go speak to. Then we will adjust. We will adjust and adapt to what the community needs in order to ensure the best results or outcomes are met.

20:45 JAMES: How do you choose your communities or...  you've mentioned Brooks, Lethbridge, Athabasca, For McMurray. How have you chosen those places or? And is there, like a call to action for listeners to this if you want to be involved? How does that work?

21:06 MONIQUE: So selecting our communities was a very complex... we used a complex approach for that and what I mean by that is that we spent a great deal of time understanding where communities are. And so we looked at elements such as the social determinants of health to understand the health of these communities, of all of our communities in the province. We also measured communities across an innovation spectrum. And so we have communities in this province that are highly innovative and have a willingness to be innovative but may not have had the tools to put it in place. Whereas we have others that have this desire to be innovative but haven't yet figured out either, not only the tools, but may not have the support or resources to be able to make that possible.

So looking at all the data then we mapped the communities across this spectrum and have identified communities on both ends because with our work and with the work that we are doing with communities around capacity building, we wanted to be able to create space for both groups. Those that already have high innovation capacity but may not have the tools to implement and those that have a desire to get there which is haven't figured out the road map. And so ideally at the end of three years, we can create a bit of a road map so that many communities can adopt the processes and or skills for their own communities to implement or take on this way of working.

22:46 JAMES: Also, the United Way and the Social Impact Lab always tries to create an Indigenous parallel in the work that we do. Whether that's sort of the Planet Youth work or some of the programs in the United Way, or the work that we've done in mental health in the Lab. So how does that play out in Indigenous communities? What's that going to look like for Indigenous communities across the province?

23:11 MONIQUE: It's a good question. It reminds me of the question that you asked. What is the outcome and what we hope after three years. And I said, each community is different. In fact, in our Indigenous work, it's also different and the first thing I did was connect with Joanne Pinnow. She's the director of Akak’stiman Strategy at United Way of Calgary. So I've connected with her on what our process should look like, right? Because she is truly the one that can guide us down this path. And so, together with her and elders, we're going to begin to explore how we might collaborate with Indigenous communities. In the process I outlined around beginning with a place, designing to a place of trust, being invited into the communities. I imagine some of these principles will ring true, but when we consider collaborating with Indigenous communities, we want to do it in a way that's appropriate. And so even exploring language, I know we're going to be talking about Planet Youth at another time, but the language we use is based on our experiences. And so we want to start from a place of … what are the concepts of innovation? What's the role of innovation? Does that language resonate and mean anything? And once we can identify that, then we'll start to figure out what that path forward might look like.

24:36 JAMES: You've talked a little bit about the impacts at a community level. I’m interested in sort of the lasting benefits. What's your utopian vision for the legacy of Social Impact Lab Alberta on and perhaps a social effect on communities around Alberta.

24:54 MONIQUE: That's a big question. So OK, so I think there's a few things. One, I hope that we can see an increase in the capacity and capabilities of nonprofits and charitable organizations across the province. And what do I mean by that? I mean, have we've been able to see a shift in how problem solving has occurring? Have we considered new ways of approaching those problems, whether it's through design thinking, business models? Have we shifted that needle? The other one is, have we created space for cross-sector conversations? You and I work actively in the social sector, right? The reality is, when we think about Social Impact Lab Alberta, it is for all nonprofits and charitable organizations. So can we create? Have we created a space for cross-sector collaboration and cross-sector sharing? And the last would be, have we improved the lives of Albertans? Have we been able to do that by empowering social impact champions and change makers in communities so that the work that they're doing can be shared, that they can learn from each other. And so there's a bit of a network effect that exists.

And lastly, I'm hoping that we find more investment and more funding. Many of these communities are going to be developing prototypes and those prototypes will improve the lives of individuals in those communities. And in order for that to be scaled, there needs to be further commitment and the 1.75 million that the Government of Alberta, through the creative partnerships program have invested show that they care about what's happening. But I'm excited and hopeful that other communities, municipalities and cities will not only see that commitment from the government, but say we want to invest in what our community is going to do as well. And so there's sustainability around it.

27:12 JAMES: I love that vision and that's great.

27:16 MONIQUE: Then it’s a great thing you're part of it then. [Laughs]

27:20 JAMES: Well, and you know, I'm always a great believer in attaching to a vision and your work to a vision and absolutely, that's a great one. So talk to us about the timeline and what you're trying to create in Alberta from a timeline point of view and what people might be able to expect in the next few years?

27:44 MONIQUE: In our initial funding, this project, this initiative will take us to December of 2025. So we are now in February of 2023. So we have a couple years to start to meet some of those long-term outcomes that I've outlined earlier. But what they're going to see in fact this year in particular is we are active in Brooks. And our work have already started, but we'll be more active in Athabasca. And so we have a couple of communities that have been identified this year. And so if you live in either of those communities and would like to engage with us I would invite you to send us an e-mail and I'd be happy to connect with you, but what we will see. We'll be working through a design process and what that means is we'll be having conversations with community members again, like I said, creating opportunities for exploring what matters to the community and then we'll move into what types of ideas that the community have. How do they want to test those ideas and can we support the building of something that can be tested, so tried and then left in the community by those that built it so that it can continue to run whatever that might be.

It could be something from a program that we could do in partnership. It could also be a new service offering. It could be inclusion of more green spaces. I mean the list is endless. The possibilities I guess, are endless of what it could be. And in addition to that, we also have a program called Inspire and so Inspire has been a program that we ran in Calgary for the last four years that is focused on capacity building in the space of bringing a design lens to problem solving. And so we will be scaling that program across the province and we'll be running our first cohort at the end of March for individuals and for organizations, that cohort will start in April. And so as well, if you're interested in learning how to look at problems with the design, lens or human centered lens, I would encourage you to explore the Inspire program. So that program will be launched and we're hoping that by the end of the year that will have a number of individuals and organizations that will have gone through it.

30:32 JAMES: That's great. And I'm also assuming, based on the undoubted success of the program or the project in the next few years, the funding sustainability beyond December 2025 is also a goal as well.

30:46 MONIQUE: Oh 100% yes. Yeah, absolutely. This work is only possible with other investors and funders at the table. And so as we look at all the different strategies and our work streams, I think there's opportunities to consider, not only the Indigenous work, the specific community work, the opportunity at a systems level, but this notion of really thinking about the ecosystem as a whole. If we are to... when we start considering the opportunities available across the ecosystem, so all sectors. Imagine the impact we could have and if we brought funding together or investment to consider some of those complex issues unified, well, I think the possibilities are endless. Like the scale, the impact, the outcomes. Like yeah, I can't even begin to wrap my head around what that could mean, but it could mean cost savings in so many other areas. And I think that's the key here too, is when we're thinking about investing in funding and what the sustainability might look like after three years, is the work that we do and the work that we've done in Calgary and the work that we are doing in collaboration with, you know, partners and community members, ultimately has an impact on other things, right? So if we can reduce the cost of certain supports if we can think about it in that context, then it really does make sense to look at investing and funding in a potentially unified approach.

32:28 JAMES: Love that. Brilliant. We've come to the end basically, but this is your opportunity to give us your final thoughts. Thanks so much for sharing everything by the way that you have done over the last 40 minutes or so, but give us the listeners, your final thoughts about the project and what you want to share with them.

32:48 MONIQUE: So if you're interested in any of our work like I suggested, please reach out to us. Our e-mail address is info @ the Social Impact Lab dot com, but I bring a deep sense of responsibility. And privilege, like, I feel extremely privileged to be able to do this work, and I'm lucky to be able to do it with the people I get to do it with every day. But I would also say that none of this is possible without the people that we work with in communities, with our partners. I am simply someone that's had the opportunity to bring the voices together and so your engagement, your collaboration is in fact what's going to make the change possible and ultimately improve the lives of Albertans. So if you look at your neighbor and you want to help improve their life. So then maybe you need to consider how you might be able to work with us.

33:43 JAMES: That's a great way to end. Monique, thank you so much for that.

33:49 MONIQUE: Thanks James!

33:50 JAMES: You can clearly hear the passion you have for the work and thank you for sort of deep diving into the work that you're doing with Social Impact Lab Alberta. So that was really appreciated, so thank you.

34:01 MONIQUE: Thanks for the opportunity! I enjoyed the conversation.

34:04 JAMES: And thank you to our listeners for choosing to spend time with us today. Please keep an eye out for our next episode where we'll be looking more deeply into the social innovation mechanisms that work in Alberta and how they will affect your community. Thank you and goodbye.

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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 at Social Impact Lab dot com or follow us on social and until next time, keep on designing a better world.