I’ll be honest, the first few times I heard the words social innovation, I tuned it out. These days social is so often pasted onto fundamentally bad things to make them seem less bad and innovation is forever used to make ordinary things sound new and exciting. I translated social innovation into the worst of both buzzwords, "less bad business as usual," and filed it alongside other things I’m skeptical about - like capitalism, and negative emissions technologies other than trees . . . That was a mistake though.
Three members of the Community Forests International team, along with four colleagues from the forestry sector, took part in a social innovation academy together recently. I learned that the best parts of social innovation could actually be translated as “problem solving with friends.” And I learned that it works. Since this is basically what I do every day at Community Forests International – “problem solving with friends” – the academy also taught me some new and powerful tricks of the trade.
Social innovation is a vast field that I am just starting to learn about. For anyone interested in going deeper on the topic you should definteily check out NouLAB. They’re our teachers, the real experts, and they do great work helping people and organizations like ours bring social innovation into reality here in New Brunswick.
What I can share here is some of the process that NouLAB graciously guided us through–helping us tackle complex problems at the intersection of people, land and climate that our work at Community Forests International revolves around–as well as some of the insights and exciting new ideas for our mission that surfaced along the way.
The Problem, and the Friends
One of the keys to success in the NouLAB process is to first assemble a team made up of different players from diverse but complimentary sectors and backgrounds. The reason for this is that the complex problems we are trying to solve can’t effectively be addressed by any one organization or company alone.
The problems we’re talking about are not purely technical problems with well-defined parameters, where a great technician or a focused organization could isolate the issue and then troubleshoot solutions. We’re talking about complex problems that require an adaptive approach, where the answers are not clearly visible and that no single entity or organization has the resources to solve alone. Think climate change, or rural economic decline, or the loss of the special Acadian forest ecosystem all across the Maritimes. We decided to fold all these problems into our problem solving mission because they’re connected and we don’t lack for ambition.
We were so fortunate to have an all-star team join us in this effort and invest their time and energy in the week-long sprint summarized below. Our team included:
Mary Jane Rodger (Manager / Forester) Medway Community Forest Co-op
Justin Fiddes (Forestry Stewardship Officer) Mi’kmawey Forestry
Karina Leblanc (Executive Director) Pond Deshpande Centre
Dr. Tom Beckley (Professor) University of New Brunswick
DAY 1: PROBLEM FRAMING
First things first, the NouLAB facilitators really slowed us down. In a good way though. They started by walking us through a process of clearly describing the problems we want to fix and the people most impacted by our work. The idea was to avoid rushing ahead to solutions before we'd properly considered all of the root causes of the challenges in forestry and communities connected to forestry. We don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want our solutions to go all the way back to the underlying causes.
Our team unpacked things like people's idea of land ownership, the financial pressures our communities are under, and the challenges in the Maritimes of accessing forest management options other than clearcutting. We also explored the role that healthy Acadian forests and rural communities can play in stabilizing the climate, and how the world is increasingly demanding solutions that our forests can provide.
We discussed recent research findings on forest land owners in the Maritimes which reveal that that they are a more diverse and underserved group than previously thought. There are roughly 80 thousand small family forest owners across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and they self-report their main forest values are non-economic. In fact, at the top of the list of forest values are connection to the land, intergenerational stewardship, health of wildlife, and personal enjoyment. Very few rely on their forest entirely to make a living.
What is confusing is that when you look at trends in private forest lands the decision-making doesn’t always mesh with these values (take the predominance of clearcutting on private lands as an example) which indicates some dissonance here. Staying optimistic, our main take-away was that people are generally aligned in principle with more positive, responsible decision-making in forests and are motivated to do the right thing. They just face major barriers to acting on those principles.
DAY 2: HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN
Our team resolved to focus our solutions on those forest land owners who are willing to try alternatives, and helping them overcome barriers, rather than trying to convert cynics and less value-aligned people to our mission. That felt good, because there are likely far more allies in this mission than detractors.
With allies in mind, we defined our ‘model users’ - representative people who we are designing solutions for - and spent time trying to understand their experiences as forest owners, the system they are a part of, and what their needs are.
Some of the model user’s key needs that we identified include:
● A clear and simple process for acting on the alternative options.
● Social license or approval from their peers to feel good about making a responsible choice.
● Some form of financial security.
These exercises were intended to help us reiterate our problem statement and get closer to developing solutions. By the end of day we were asking; How might we help our model users act on meaningful solutions and use forests in an environmentally conscious and viable way?
The question placed us a lot closer to the root of the problem than where we had started – and was already surfacing some possible solutions - but the focus was still off the mark a bit, we were definitely missing something vital.
DAY 3: IDEATION
With fresh eyes and feedback from NouLAB facilitators, early on Day 3 we arrived at our guiding question: How might we help our model user’s forest flourish for generations? That was it. If we can answer this one question we solve an array of interconnected problems–for people, for the Acadian forest, and for the climate.
It’s the connection between people, the forest, and the larger global climate commons that we really want to build our solutions around, and this simple framing just clicked. From there, the flood gates opened and we were able to quickly generate over 200 possible answers to this one guiding question. Of course, whittling that multitude of possible solutions down to something actionable and choosing the best bet is easier said than done. We can do anything, we just can’t do everything. Ideas are cheap but choosing and executing on ideas is the real hard work of changing the world.
We ended up short-listing three main themes:
1) financial solutions that were carrots (incentives, investment vehicles)
2) financial solutions that were sticks (taxes, fines)
. . . both of which were tools that could be used by
3) a community of forests for Indigenous and settler peoples in the spirit of allyship.
DAY 4: PROTOTYPING
With our best bet ideas in-hand we spent the day prepping a ‘prototype’ for presentation to potential users. It was a hard process, but we created something that people could quickly understand well enough to evaluate. And I would really love to share the prototype with you here right now, but it’s still super secret! Coming soon.
DAY 5: USER INTERVIEWS / ACTION PLANNING
Then came the best day of all - we tested our prototype ideas in facilitated interviews with real people. It was a small sample size and for ethical reasons we can’t share very much about those confidential conversations, but we were very happy to hear that our core assumptions and vision met a real need.
To summarize, we heard forest land owners in the Maritimes express:
● their unique relationship with their land alongside the sentiment that the land doesn’t really belong to anyone individually, it’s only stewarded for a lifetime and then passed on;
● awareness of the connection between healthy forests and healthy climate;
● a place for education to inform behaviour and culture change;
● economic interests are less important than ecological and social interests; and
● a willingness and openness to building something different, even if it’s challenging.
How might we help our forest flourish for generations?
No other generation has been confronted with the types of decisions we now have to make. I think it’s our social processes more than our technological inventions that will determine how well we navigate climate change. Our human decision-making determines where we place our problem-solving powers, it determines what technology or solutions we choose to invent in the first place and what qualities we optimize for.
I was hard on term social innovation before, but one of the most inspiring and hopeful things about humans are our problem-solving powers, and if anything is going to get us through the climate crisis it will be problem-solving with friends.