Social Innovation Emergence

The climate for Social Innovation Emergence is all around us in Hamilton. Seems to me the climate is created by three things we have in abundance: Assets, Need and Opportunity.

As has been documented, working artists tend to flock to communities where living/working expenses are low, as they don’t tend to make a big living from the art. What is often overlooked in conversations about this is that the working artists are entrepreneurs. While their market may be elsewhere, (somewhere where cost of living is higher but people are predisposed to spend money on art) they need to be able to live and work somewhere that they can afford. This migration brings some essential diversity of thought into an area.

Once there is a critical mass of artists supporting each other, it creates and energy that is like fuel for the industry, and attracts the small-business entrepreneurs. The risk is that the cost of buy-in for the small-business entrepreneurs is lower BEFORE there is actually sufficient market for their products. This tends to attract dreamers and visionaries rather than established commercial outfits who do their market research ahead of time.

The artists-entrepreneurs and small-business entrepreneurs are part of the innovation equation that is created by the OPPORTUNITIES to be found in low-cost environments, or depressed markets. Another part of the equation are the ASSETS and this is why I single out the depressed market. Though we have such frontier energy going on here, if we were really on the frontier, we wouldn’t have so many civic buildings available for our use, well-established organizations and infrastructure, to say nothing of abandoned and gorgeous architecture. This kind of environment has a flip-side, that of having to clean up much of what was abandoned, but one man’s garbage, is another person’s opportunity.

This brings us to the NEED. There is so much need here in Hamilton, besides the need to clean up abandoned toxic industrial lands. Talk on the street is that surrounding affluent municipalities consciously don’t provide for many of the raw human needs, so people with those needs, be it special care for medial reasons, drug use, homelessness, orphanages, aging without money or low-income housing, are sent to Hamilton. This creates a situation where everyone is in the same boat, and there are too many people in the boat, and the boat is sinking – as brought to the attention of readers in the Spec’s Code Red articles.

But as it sinks, there are opportunities for us to use the assets around us to help fulfill the needs. I have never seen more people anywhere so consciously helping each other, so conscientiously sharing. Social entrepreneur David Derbyshire works to develop Hamilton’s resident-led Community Planning Teams in the neighbourhood Hubs, empowering individuals in the cultivation of community assets, encouraging us to help ourselves and each other to thrive and flourish and recognize that we are part of the asset base of the city. Hamilton’s unique Hub system is a tremendous confluence of assets, needs and opportunities that is changing the way the governments and agencies interact with the communities they serve; creating a community of social innovators.

Social Innovators come in all different stripes, most of them unaware that you might call them that. Take Gail McGinnis for instance, who in less than nine months has initiated a community garden at Gage Park, a skate-borrowing room at Scott Park Arena, a beading and crafts group to help connect residents, a growing cat-rescue program and is now assembling an artist cooperative. All this in addition to her own work in photography and jewellery making. And all of it without fan-fare or recognition. Like many others, Gail just does what she does.

I remember the skate thing. I remember being daunted by even the idea of it, but there it is; over fifty pairs of donated skates for people to borrow. That brings me to the glue that binds the Assets, Opportunities and Needs into the breeding ground for Social Innovation Emergence: collaboration. Many hands make light work. Two heads are better than one. None of us needs to go it alone.

Indeed, none of us can.


2 thoughts on “Social Innovation Emergence

  1. Rebecca, that is a great post and it is so true that there is something happening in Hamilton. I have been asked to speak there a couple of times and every time I can feel the energy buzzing…

    Your story reinforces what we know to be true about the artists and cultural creatives leading the charge of urban redevelopment initiatives…. and I know that Hamilton was a leader in galvanizing a Poverty Reduction Roundtable of nonprofit leaders years ago that has netted some incredible outcomes…

    Here is my question to you…. what changed?

    Hamilton has had low housing prices for years (relative to TO) and has been struggling for years…. what was the change the triggered a movement of artists and community animators to begin to bring their gifts to the community?

    Just thinking about our Theory of Change…. were there new spaces (either physical or virtual) that convened people? the poverty roundtable was certainly one…. but were there key initiatives that triggered something? an art event that started the conversation? a cool cafe that drew people too it? that sort of thing?

    Over 20 years ago, the corner of Spadina and Richmond was a dead zone… there were hollowed out warehouse buildings, cheap rents but it was scary to walk in that area after dark. She will deny it forever, but one woman, Margie Zeidler, took a risk, bought 401 Richmond and transformed it into an arts and cultural collocation and I think, played a key indicator role that marked the transformation of that neighbourhood. She created a space… she animated the community…. then the community animated itself and now amazing things emerge from the whole neighbourhood. On this issue, Margie will also speak of a change in by-law that allowed different uses of the space that also provided an opportunity.

    I am curious what you might have marketed the change?

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