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Resilience, Vulnerability and Social Innovation

Al Etmanski

Al is an author, advocate and social entrepreneur specializing in innovative solutions to social challenges. He is President and co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN).

Like the many writers quoted by Jacques, I too wonder how successfully we will reduce our collective carbon emissions without a corresponding understanding of the social ‘glue’ of belonging.

There appears to be a token admission of the importance of the social in phrases like triple bottom line often depicted as a stool with 3 legs (financial/environmental/social). However this intellectual awareness has not traveled too far from the brain into concrete action.

This should be seen as our collective failure – we are all to blame. It would be easier to blame governments for not integrating the levers at their disposal – policy; taxation; grants; taxation; purchasing power- into a coherent strategy that addresses the challenges of social cohesion as well as environmental degradation. Or to blame business for promoting excessive consumption. Or environmentalists for having a one track mind. But what about those of us within the social/voluntary sector who focus exclusively on our one solution to one social problem? Are we not capable and equally responsible for addressing these challenges? Surely the answer lies within each of us both to understand how our actions can contribute to the problem or the solution and to do something about this. This calls for everyone’s recativity not just those in traditional leadership or positions of authority.

For the past 3 years I have been working with colleagues across Canada to increase our capacity to innovate and be creative. Our collaboration is called Social Innovation Generation (SiG – www.sigeneration.ca ) This is not innovation for innovation’s sake. Rather we believe the only way to deal with our deeply rooted social and environmental problems is to usher in a culture of continuous innovation where we let go of approaches that no longer work; where we understand we are dealing with complex problems that will require deep thinking and exploration ; where we admit that mystery, paradox, ambiguity are constant companions to be embraced not purged; and where we recognize our challenges will require the collaboration of all sectors and the involvement of everyone.

We have developed an intellectual framework which is compatible with the great thinkers Jacques has quoted. Our understanding has been influenced by the Resilience Alliance a group assembled by CS ‘Buzz’ Holling, a respected ecologist and the originator of the theory of Panarchy. (www.resaliance.org). Panarchy arose from a study of how eco systems adapt and respond to external threats and challenges and in doing so become more or less resilient.

Frances Westley, co-author of Getting to Maybe, a member of the Resilience Alliance and a colleague of mine in Social Innovation Generation has adapted the learnings from resilience in eco systems to social systems. (www.sig.uwaterloo.ca ). Here is Frances’ definition of social innovation:

Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact. While social innovation has recognizable stages and phases, achieving durability and scale is a dynamic process that requires both emergence of opportunity and deliberate agency, and a connection between the two. The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to the overall social and ecological resilience.

What is noteworthy about this perspective is the critical role that vulnerable people play in strengthening the overall resilience of society and our capacity to respond to external threats whenever and wherever they come from. This reinforces the perspective Jacques and Jean Vanier offer. As social innovation serves vulnerable people by providing them with an opportunity to engage, contribute, and belong; society is equally served by their viewpoints, their diversity, their participation and their being.

And since the definition suggests social and ecological systems are inextricably linked, the earth’s resilience depends on ensuring the voices of people who are disadvantaged, marginalized, labeled and ignored are heard and heeded. Perhaps this positive impact is the only invitation we need to engage in the post-Copenhagen discussions.


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Jacques Dufresne's

The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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