top of page
  • Writer's pictureAB Seed

The Path Forward:

ABSI Connect, AB Seed, and bringing the social innovation and social economy ecosystems together.

Compiled by members of ABSI Connect and AB Seed

Innovation “…is about transforming ideas into new or improved products, services or processes(1).” Commercially speaking, innovation leads to success in the marketplace, but social innovation is about transforming ideas into new or improved products, services, or processes (and to that we can add policies, projects, programs, or platforms) for the common good. As Frances Westley, founder of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) adds, social innovation challenges and changes the defining routines, resource flows, authority dynamics, and conventional assumptions and beliefs of broader social systems (2)

There is also a large hybrid space between the purely social and the purely commercial that is often referred to as the “social economy”, featuring new socially-purposed forms of finance, and a wide array of business models, from enterprising nonprofits and charities, to social enterprises, to cooperatives and mutuals, to socially-oriented commercial companies. 


This is the tale of two networks finding their way to one another to support a strong social innovation ecosystem in Alberta. One network – AB Seed (an abbreviation of Alberta Social Economy Ecosystem Development) – supports the creation of a strong social economy, replete with many types of social enterprises, access to capital through socially-purposed finance, and a province where social procurement is routinely practiced by large anchor institutions (municipalities, hospitals, universities, etc.). The other network, ABSI Connect (an abbreviation of Alberta Social Innovation Connect), seeks to find, connect, celebrate, and support Albertans who are creating and testing new ways of approaching society’s most pressing problems, with a focus on the common good and increasing social value, irrespective of whether they are using business and economic tools to achieve change. 


The synergies between these two entities are obvious and yet, for the past few years, they have stood as separate entities. This is despite the two networks having broadly shared aims focused on nurturing the conditions for an Alberta that works radically better for many more people, building shared prosperity, community-led solutions, and innovative approaches to social challenges. 


Happily, AB Seed and ABSI Connect are now coming together as one united force for changemaking in the province. There are many new and emerging initiatives on the Alberta social innovation landscape that could benefit from this reintegration, leading to greater awareness, amplification of impact, networking with others, access to alternative financing, and other forms of support. Many of these are outlined in the various blogs and podcasts produced by ABSI Connect over the past half decade, and since 2020 also through convenings and conversations hosted by AB Seed. 



A Turning Point for Social Innovation in Alberta?

In 2014, then-Premier Dave Hancock announced a billion dollar “Social Innovation Endowment”, intended to invest in initiatives that were “disruptive, system-changing, and challenging to existing thinking” (3). The funding announcement noted the need in Alberta for “greater awareness and education around social innovation” and that this was a unique “opportunity to further change Alberta’s directions on social policy [toward] more prevention, collaboration, transformation, and empowerment.”

Although the fund never came to fruition, the idea having been axed a few short months later by the next Premier (the late Jim Prentice), in hindsight such an investment would have been beautifully timed and remarkably prescient, given the challenges posed by the worldwide pandemic just five years later. 

Coinciding with the Endowment’s announcement, the Alberta Government’s Social Innovation Team co-facilitated with Alberta CoLab (located within Alberta Energy) a mapping exercise around social innovation province-wide. The Preliminary Findings report further underscored the opportunity for bold, transformative new investments in social innovation in the province (4)


Much excitement followed. Tim Draimin, then Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, remarked that Edmonton in particular was positioned to become the “Silicon Valley of social innovation”. SiG National, Suncor Energy Foundation, and the Trico Charitable Foundation commissioned Rock Strategy (Terry Rock) to produce a scoping report, entitled Accelerating Social Innovation in Alberta (2015)(5). The report noted that there was a need to develop and define the field of social innovation and to increase collective capacity for social impact. The report also recommended establishing an “Alberta Network for Social Innovation”.


The decision to form ABSI Connect was not met with universal enthusiasm from those working in the social innovation ecosystem in the province. Some felt – not wrongly - that the main reason for coming together to develop such an entity was spurred by, and thus contingent upon, the billion-dollar provincial Social Innovation Endowment fund coming to fruition. Still, ABSI Connect was formed in spite of the knowledge that this fund would never materialize. Some key organizations did not sign onto the ABSI Connect project, while others decided that the idea of a province-wide connector and ecosystem builder had merit irrespective of the disappointing news from the Province. 



ABSI Connect

ABSI Connect was born from conversations spurred by the Hancock 2014 Endowment announcement, with life breathed into it beginning at a February 2015 gathering in Red Deer, where Terry Rock’s report was tabled. The question driving ABSI Connect’s work from the start has been: “How can we get better at solving complex social and environmental problems in Alberta?”

ABSI Connect was created as a project of SiG, funded initially through the McConnell Foundation and Suncor Energy Foundation. SiG’s Kelsey Spitz-Dietrich served as the first ABSI Connect Facilitator (2015-2017), with guidance from an Alberta-based Advisory Group. ABSI Connect’s work over this period was mainly in the form of six Alberta-based Fellows – Melissa Herman, Annand Olivierre, Lesley McKinnon, Kate Letizia, Tori D’Avella, and Aleeya Velji. Melissa Herman, based on her work as an ABSI Connect Fellow where she reflected on her experience as a Dënesułiné woman trying to effect social change, was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (6).


After SiG wound down its operations in 2017, ABSI Connect was left without an administrative host or ‘home’. Suncor Energy Foundation approached the Institute for Community Prosperity at Mount Royal University (MRU) to consider serving as the administrative host. The Institute has hosted ABSI Connect at arms length (not playing a role in the strategic direction-setting) from 2018 to 2023, with operating support from Suncor Energy Foundation. ABSI Connect was also one of several regional nodes that constitutes Social Innovation Canada’s constellation governance model. 


In 2018, Naomi Mahaffy was hired into the facilitator role. Naomi ran ABSI Connect until 2020, greatly expanding its grassroots and rural reach, from her homebase in Fort McMurray, and later Edmonton. A major new initiative during these years was the Community Catalyst program, supporting several Alberta changemakers to deepen their knowledge, and expand their networks and skillsets. Barb (Babs) van Vierssen Trip (Former Babs Weber) then stepped in and ran the network from her base in Fort McMurray, then Calgary, until fall of 2022. Since Babs’ departure, the Institute suspended ABSI Connect’s operations pending the outcome of the integration talks with AB Seed. 


A 2016 report produced by four of the ABSI Connect Fellows entitled The Future of Social Innovation in Alberta, based on conversations with 110 Albertans working in social innovation, identified five archetypes of changemakers in the province: Social inventors and social innovators (both ‘doers’, working on new ways to alleviate problems or create transformational change), allies, connectors, and thought leaders. The report appealed to these changemakers to work deeper together, create more room for risk taking and experimentation, and to master the ‘craft’ of social innovation through new learning and professional development opportunities, among other recommendations. The report was a key text in a Social Innovation Certificate Program offered jointly by MRU and MacEwan from 2016 through 2019. 


ABSI Connect worked for six and a half years to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan changemakers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. It was the first and, for most of this time, only province-wide social innovation network in Canada. ABSI Connect focused on collecting stories and evidence, connecting and aligning changemakers, and helping people grow in their ability to innovate and create impact, many of which can be found in our podcast and blog. It also created and supported a small network of “Catalysts” across the province, who worked as connectors, conveners, and community-builders in their sectors and communities for 6-12 month terms.



A Turning Point for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Finance in Alberta?

With a similar origin story, in 2018, the Government of Canada announced its intention to create a Social Innovation and Social Finance Fund. This was also to be on the order of a billion dollars, though spread across the country (7). Another Red Deer meeting (read more about that here) was convened with most of the original organizations involved in the creation of ABSI Connect (including ABSI Connect itself), as well as several organizations who have played catalytic roles in community economic development and social enterprise in Alberta. Coming out of this Red Deer meeting was a new report authored by Paul Cabaj, and developed by the Edmonton Community Foundation, Momentum, Alberta Community and Cooperative Association (ACCA), and the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet) entitled Alberta Social Innovation & Finance Strategy


This report was the culmination of years of events and conversations, including Trico’s hosting of the Social Enterprise World Forum in 2013, and the Econous gatherings in 2015 and 2017. 




AB Seed

It was in that 2019 Red Deer meeting, unofficially dubbed The Red Deer 60, where one attendee threw out the idea that we should stop waiting for government money to be on the table as a reason to work together, and that there were probably enough organizations there that could throw a few grand in a pot and get something going anyway. And a group did. ABSI Connect, Alberta Community and Co-operative Association, Calgary Foundation, Canadian Community Economic Development Network, Edmonton Community Development Corporation, Edmonton Community Foundation, End Poverty Edmonton, Indian Business Corporation, Peavey Industries, Momentum, and the Social Enterprise all agreed to contribute from their own budgets and fund a collaborative that would initially be known as the Social Enterprise and Social Finance Ecosystem Project, and eventually AB Seed. This pay to play model with annual contributions sustained core operations, despite members coming and going, that were then leveraged into other opportunities through the Civil Society Fund, Investment Readiness Program, and Government of Alberta’s Creative Partnerships Initiative. 

This founding group then put out a Request for Proposals for someone who could dedicate their time to coordinating a collaborative, and move this work from the side of the desk. The work formally started in November 2019 with the hiring of Align Social as the contracted company, and Brooks Hanewich and Christine Spottiswood taking on the work as a combined 0.7 FTE. Operating as an unincorporated entity, initially under the administrative host of the Alberta Community and Cooperative Association (ACCA), then subsequently under CCEDNet, this was intended to be a formal collaborative of organizations, with dedicated resources helping convene and facilitate the Steering Committee to work together in pursuit of a strong ecosystem. 


AB Seed’s vision for Alberta’s future is to be the best place to build and grow the social economy. As AB Seed found its place in the ecosystem, some of the activities were similar to ABSI Connect, acting as a convener and weaver, while others were wholly unique. Early activities focused on bringing together financial and non-financial capacity builders through communities of practice, that continued to run for over 4 years, and helping with the roll-out of the initial Investment Readiness Program with the Calgary Foundation Social Enterprise Fund, and again for the second round with the Red Deer and District Community Foundation and the Banff Canmore Community Foundation. The time in between was spent trying to learn who was doing what, and what role this new entity might play in building capacity of the social enterprise and social finance ecosystem, with a strong focus on leading by convening and collaboration. 


As AB Seed became more established, the “figure it out as we go” needed to be assessed, and the Steering Committee spent 2 years working through governance, mandate, mission, and other areas of stewardship. The work had outgrown the initial scope of being a simple collaborative, and now involved broader ecosystem work with many partners. As AB Seed looked forward to how best they would operate, the timing aligned with also exploring what a merger with ABSI Connect could look like. 


Meanwhile, over that time AB Seed had a few accomplishments, such as bringing the SEWF Community Hub model to Alberta, and the launch of Namada, a collaboratively developed digital tool created for social purpose businesses to help them find the supports and resources they need. The collaborative model had supported elevating the profile of AB Seed as the Social Enterprise Hub in Alberta.




Social Innovation and the Social Economy: The Case for Reintegration


The term “reintegration” recognizes the shared origin story of AB Seed and ABSI Connect, and aims to reunite based on the mutual recognition of many shared attributes, values and goals. Both entities are working to help nurture the conditions for an Alberta that works better for more people. This includes a common focus on promoting thriving communities and community-led solutions, seeking equitable growth based on strong social foundations and without ecological overshoot, eliminating artificial divides between economic and social development, and encouraging the orientation of business activity oriented toward social impact. 

Both organizations also struggle with mandate creep and determining the ‘edges’ of what we work on, and where we risk usurping each other’s goals, focus and activities. By way of example, SI Canada, of which ABSI is a node, has a major focus on social finance, which regionally is the purview of AB Seed. AB Seed has had sessions on ecosystem development that are not expressly economic or business focused, and that are useful to those well beyond the social enterprise/social finance space. Informally the two entities did their best to collaborate, however reintegration will rapidly turn this mandate creep ‘problem’ into an asset. Even the names, brands, and visual language are uncannily similar and confusing to the public. The result is an unintended side-effect sometimes causing confusion as to the difference between the two. 


As the graphic below illustrates, we have identified many areas of overlap between the two entities, representing respectively the social economy (AB Seed) and social innovation (ABSI Connect). 




However, this distinction to most people is largely academic. Social innovation happens on the terrain of the social economy, and reciprocally a social enterprise and social finance ecosystem cannot thrive without a culture of social innovation in many forms (policy innovation, systems change, a strong social R&D culture, and so on). 

Along similar lines, much of ABSI Connect’s focus has been at a grassroots level, elevating awareness of little-known organizations and changemakers. AB Seed operates at more of an official ecosystem level, more frequently with established players, partly as a result of its “pay-to-play” governance model. AB Seed from the get-go was intended to be more action-oriented, whereas ABSI Connect was intended to be more voice and equity-oriented. Mars and Venus. But there are obvious synergies in bringing these two approaches together, assuming the cultures can meld. Both provide ‘lattice structures’ for individuals – whether investors, artists, activists, caregivers, policy wonks, educators, or entrepreneurs - to find their way into the ecosystem. 


While we may have more finely parsed out social innovation from the social economy in Alberta, the country as a whole does not seem as preoccupied with this distinction. Social Innovation Canada, for example, has a strong focus on social finance, in addition to other aspects of social innovation. The Government of Canada’s Social Innovation Advisory Council is chaired by Mike Toye of CCEDNet (the AB Seed administrative host), and also includes Jane Bisbee from the AB Seed Advisory Board. In this light, a provincial effort to advance both social innovation and the social economy (social enterprise & finance) makes all the more sense.



Toward Reintegration



It was recognized early that ABSI Connect and AB Seed, while distinct in many ways, also ended up with a lot of intersections, and the staff with both entities made intentional efforts to use that intersection as an opportunity to collaborate. Over the past two years, AB Seed and ABSI Connect have jointly convened several online and in-person events and have maintained a close working relationship. As one of the founding members of AB Seed, ABSI Connect has also maintained a seat at the Steering Committee of the former entity. 

Over the past number of months AB Seed and ABSI Connect have agreed to integrate these initiatives with a broad mandate inclusive of social innovation, social entrepreneurship and social finance. A working group has been struck to guide this process that is formed by members from both groups. The integrated entity will be administratively hosted in the near term by CCEDNet, at least until the end of AB Seed’s current funding obligations, but in all other respects, this is intended to be a merger of equals, resulting in a newly named and mandated entity. 


As Red Deer appears to be the place in this shared story where big decisions are made and exciting courses of action are set, Red Deer was again the stage for the next crucial stage of reintegration, with members from both entities coming together for a day and half to start moving this forward. A summary of the work done at that gathering can be found in this summary report. This group dug into both the concerns and hopes of everyone, what worked and what didn’t from both projects, what we wanted to keep from both, and what was no longer serving us, and how we could honour the work done by the individual entities, while still moving forward together. There have been tensions around why two entities were formed in the first place and this time was pivotal for relationship building. Most importantly, the group was reinvigorated to move forward building something that is more than the sum of just the two entities; making the decision to sunset both and start fresh, with a focus on what can we do better together. 


We left the gathering with a collective purpose statement to guide this new entity: “We amplify courageous actions in Alberta communities for equitable prosperity”. There are also many questions left to determine, including mission, mandate, the financial and community stewardship model, governance, and – of course – a new acronym-free name, which are being worked through within various working groups and engagement with both broader ecosystems. 


We now have an opportunity to create a shared entity built for Albertans, by Albertans, and not driven by the chimeric promise of large of windfalls of public funding. An entity that reflects what REALLY matters to us. What is the Alberta that we imagine, that we want to profile, and that we want to spend our time and energy bringing into being? 





A thank you to all the members and organizations who have been part of the AB Seed and ABSI Connect journey to this point. We recognize that it would be impossible to name all the contributors and any omissions or errors in this list are unintentional. In addition to these members, there were many network weavers, community of practice members, and other contributors who all impacted the work in Alberta. 


Name and/or Organization

Role

Alberta Community and Co-operative Association

AB Seed Administrative Partner and Steering Committee Member

Aleeya Velgi

ABSI Connect Fellow

Annand Ollivierre

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee, ABSI Connect Fellow

Babs van Vierssen Trip

ABSI Connect Facilitator

Brooks Hanewich

AB Seed Project Lead

Calgary Foundation

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Canadian Community Economic Development Network

AB Seed Administrative Partner and Steering Committee Member

Christine Spottiswood

AB Seed Project Lead

Creative Partnerships / Government of Alberta

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Edmonton Community Economic Development Corporation

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Edmonton Community Foundation

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Elise Martinoski

ABSI Connect Information Designer, AB Seed Information Designer

End Poverty Edmonton

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Indian Business Corporation

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Institute for Community Prosperity / Mount Royal University

ABSI Connect Administrative Partner

Jennifer Kennet

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee

Jerome Morgan

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee

Kate Letizia

ABSI Connect Fellow

Katharine McGowan

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee

Kelsey Spitz-Dietrich

ABSI Connect Facilitator, ABSI Connect Fellow

Lesley McKinnon

ABSI Connect Fellow

Melissa Herman

ABSI Connect Fellow

Momentum

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Naomi Mahaffy

ABSI Connect Facilitator

Peavey Industries

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Roya Damabi

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee

Russ Dahms

ABSI Connect Advisory Committee

Social Enterprise Fund

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Social Impact Lab Alberta / United Way Calgary

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Social Innovation Institute / MacEwan University

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

Tori D’Avella

ABSI Connect Fellow

Trico Foundation

AB Seed Steering Committee Member

UCEED / Innovate Calgary

AB Seed Steering Committee Member


 

REFERENCES

  1. Baregheh, Anahita, Rowley, Jennifer, and Sambrook, Sally (4 September 2009). "Towards a multidisciplinary definition of innovation". Management Decision. 47 (8): 1323–1339.

  2. Westley, Frances, et al. “Tipping toward sustainability: emerging pathways of transformation”, AMBIO, 40(7), 762–80 (2011). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-011-0186-9

  3. Legislative Assembly of Alberta (Hansard). The 28th Legislature Second Session Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future. Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education Consideration of Main Estimates. Tuesday, April 8, 2014. https://docs.assembly.ab.ca/LADDAR_files/docs/committees/ef/legislature_28/session_2/20140408_1530_01_ef.pdf

  4. Government of Alberta. Social Innovation Ecosystem Mapping: Preliminary Findings for Alberta. September, 2015. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0KwcwVigAntclBTOHhKbGMtZFU/view?pli=1&resourcekey=0-W1YhDSZxHgEAaHIhSwiqxA

  5. Rock, Terry. Accelerating Social Innovation in Alberta. SiG National, Suncor Energy Foundation, and Trico Charitable Foundation, 2015.

  6. Herman, Melissa. “The Critical Role of Traditional Knowledge in Social Innovation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter, 2018. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_critical_role_of_traditional_knowledge_in_social_innovation

  7. Other than two $50 million Readiness Fund announcements to help seed the social enterprise sector, the larger announced fund have never materialized.


117 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page