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Insights From A Former Intern: Social Innovation, Economic Development & Ontario

What my internship with the Ontario Public Service taught me about social innovation and economic development

As social innovation is increasingly finding its way into the vocabulary of the general public, governments are becoming more receptive to applying innovative solutions in order to serve the needs of their citizens. I was first exposed to this sector through an internship position I snagged halfway through completing my Bilingual Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs at Glendon College at York University. My placement was within the Ontario Public Service in the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Social Innovation (MEDI), which has since been divided into the Ministry of Research and Innovation and the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment.

My four-month placement gave me insights that have informed my knowledge on how public issues evolve into the creation of public policy. This also enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of the decision-making process of government and the various steps inherent within the bureaucratic structure. Today, I’d like to share some of these learnings.

Work Experience, Research & Case Studies
During my internship I was able to work on a variety of projects and initiatives. For instance, I worked in collaboration with members from my unit and representatives from MaRS on the “Case Studies in Social Innovation” series published on the MaRS website under their Entrepreneur’s Toolkit. In this series we would profile an example of a cutting edge social innovation like SVX, SiG@MaRS, or Timeraiser in order to highlight their model, their successes and any best practices they could share with other innovators. In November 2011, MEDI executed a Grant Agreement with SiG@MaRS to deliver an online database containing information on social innovation best practices. I assisted with editing the submitted profiles, as well as researching and proposing additional ventures to be featured. Secondly, I researched Peter Shergold, the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and the social innovation initiatives he catalysed in Australia. Thirdly, I researched alternative streams of funding for social innovation, specifically looking at how the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) used funds from dormant bank accounts to form the Nesta Impact Investment Fund at Big Society Capital.  Through this structure the funds from the dormant accounts are used to support the capital raising activities of social finance intermediaries.

In addition to all the research, I also had the opportunity to attend various conferences and workshops geared towards social innovation and entrepreneurship such as the MaRS Global Leadership Series, the CSI’s Social Innovation Pop-up Labs on Community Bonds, and OCE’s Discovery12. It was at these events that I got to interface first-hand with people within this dynamic sector who were diligently working to produce and promote their products and initiatives. It was quite fascinating to see how social entrepreneurs within Canada gravitated so effortlessly and swiftly towards creating products to address intractable societal needs.

Through this experience I have garnered a deeper understanding of social entrepreneurship and all the work that has been forged in this space. I learned about the success of MaRS, OCE, SSE-O, CSI and their ability to act as support systems for social ventures. Though social innovation is a burgeoning sector in Canada, its impact is not easily ignored. Ventures supported by the organizations above are achieving great success – both socially and fiscally – and are positively affecting the economic development and prosperity of the province and country. In this form of social or impact investing, social entrepreneurs seek value while addressing concerns about critical challenges facing the globe—“wicked problems”.

Experience and its Influence
My placement was a wonderful opportunity as it provided hands-on experience working in a policy environment. Moreover, I learned a great deal about functioning within government, about what shapes decision-making in the provincial government and among other associated actors in the space. For example, decision-making in the Ontario government is very much informed by the grand challenges faced by the province. Ontario is saddled with a significant deficit of $11.7 billion, a massive debt of $272.8 billion, a recovery that is projected to be slow (at about 2% per year) and a growth rate of only 2.7%. Combining this with 6% annual inflation in healthcare and post-secondary education (PSE) costs and a 7.5% unemployment rate begins to paint a full picture of the “wicked problems” I mentioned before.

This internship program gave me a brief glimpse behind the curtain and it has also encouraged me to see how the tools and insights acquired can easily be transferred across ministries, levels of government and organizational structures and sectors.

One thing this internship process showed me more than anything was the relevance and value in pursuing a career in policy creation, specifically in the area of economic development. Policy-makers in our province (and country) need to buy in 100% to the social innovation economy, and the unique value it can bring to our shared “wicked problems”. The social innovation successes of MaRS, OCE, SSE-O, CSI and other organizations like them need to be replicated and brought to scale more aggressively in order to encourage and facilitate economic development in ways we have not tried before. In this way we can double down on addressing difficult problems by investing in innovative solutions that tackle them head-on while creating financial value, which can be funnelled back into replicating and scaling similar approaches.

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