You’ve probably heard of social innovation, but what exactly does it mean? While there is no universal definition of the term, one can think of it as an innovative approach to creating a positive impact on society and the natural environment.

“When we think of innovation, we tend to think of things like stem cell technology or sending a rocket to the moon,” says Geraldine Cahill, the Manager of Programs and Partnerships at Social Innovation Generation (SiG), a national collaborative partnership. “But social innovation is really about innovation that can be applied to change all or part of a social system that is no longer working.”

Many of our social systems, like our health care, social safety net, and environmental protections, are under intense strain in a globalized economy. “Social innovation combines new ways of designing these systems with the wisdom, contributions, and experience of the past so that they can flourish today and in the future,” says Cahill.

“Many of the things Canadians are most proud of started their life as social innovations,” says Jamie Biggar, the Director of Communications and Campaigns at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a cross-sectoral social innovation hub with offices in Toronto and New York City. “Compared to our previous system, universal health care is an example of a major social innovation that made lives better for millions of people.” National parks, public libraries, and the World Wide Web are other examples.

Removing barriers

SiG and CSI were set up to help remove many of the common barriers that social innovators face, such as lack of funding, regulatory limits, and lack of training. “CSI is a co-working space, community, and launch-pad for people who want to change the world,” says Biggar. “Innovators get to collaborate with peers across sectors and tap supports that accelerate their success.”

Fostering a culture of social innovation is essential to Canada being able to meet its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include ending poverty, ensuring food security, and creating safe communities. “If we don’t include social innovation in our broader innovation agenda, we will not succeed in building a healthy, prosperous, and resilient country,” says Cahill. Both Cahill and Biggar consider Canada 150 an opportunity to stop and reflect on our country’s history and actively engage in meaningful work toward reconciliation. Both see social innovation as a useful way to engage all communities in designing the next 150.

What sets Canada apart from the rest of the world when it comes to social innovation? “I think cooperation is an important value to Canadians,” says Biggar. “It sets us up well for community-based and cross-sectoral social innovation.” In addition, Canada’s federal structure has allowed Canada’s municipalities and provinces to be incubators and drivers of social innovation. “Now there’s a real opportunity for federal leadership to build off that momentum that’s coming from the bottom up and help to support and accelerate this process across the country,” says Biggar.

Bring forth your great ideas

“The first step is to find people who share your spirit and have some experience. The social innovation ecosystem is developing in many parts of Canada, so if you have a good idea you can look for a local innovation hub that can receive and hear your idea and point you in the right direction,” says Biggar.

In addition to the wealth of online resources made available over the past decade, there are a growing number of social innovation and entrepreneurship programs.

“This includes social entrepreneurship-focused courses within business schools and a maturing impact investment marketplace, where foundations, governments, and some of the major banks are setting aside funds for social entrepreneurship,” says Cahill.

This means that aspiring social entrepreneurs need not be shy about bringing forth their great ideas.