Episode Three: Teach us your (policy innovation) ways, Montreal

Dan Monafu: Hello and welcome to Track Changes/Changer de Voix, a podcast about public sector innovation. My name is Dan Monafu...

Susan Johnston: …and I'm Susan Johnston. We're very excited about this episode: it is our French-first debut, meaning that our friends and colleagues Francis Nolan-Poupart and Kaili Levesque have been in the driver's seat.

Dan Monafu: We are going to do a deep dive into Montréal's innovation ecosystem, we're very excited about this, namely we're going to look at the social, open, and technological communities there.  

Susan Johnston: Hang on Dan. Before we start, we should talk about some of the feedback that we've received to-date.

Dan Monafu: Uh-oh. Ok.

Susan Johnston: No, helpful. Some of our listeners note that we are..we do sound a bit too scripted and…..

Dan Monafu: Hold on, let me turn the page on that one...No, ok.

Susan Johnston:...and that we can sound a little bit corporate...

Dan Monafu: Hmm. Ok. I see.

Susan Johnston: Well, we do write a script. Why? To keep us on track -

Dan Monafu: ...and so that we don't babble on and on about things, I think. we could loosen up a bit: for the next minute, let's try not to look at our script.

Susan Johnston: Ok, deal.

Dan Monafu: We have one segment for you. It's a, kind of a fact-finding mission, really, that our colleague Francis has prepared, based on his trip to Montreal. He was doing a journey of discovery. He followed three Montreal-based organizations working in the innovation sector, that are helping public sector organizations trying to basically change how they do things.

Susan Johnston: Dan, do you want to talk a bit about the impetus for this trip and this approach in general?

Dan Monafu: Basically, when we talked about this, we were like: let's just try to get out of the NCR bubble. We were trying to figure out, what are the hotspots of innovation, in terms of expertise, practice, social innovation, open government, technology and you know sort of the tech sector? On the English-speaking side, we always hear about Waterloo maybe as a tech hub. Are there others? And when we were talking about doing a French-first show, do we know much of what's happening outside of the traditional Ottawa, Toronto, maybe Waterloo corridor? We suspected Montreal might be such a place, and that's why, you know, Francis went digging. And really the hope was that, by the end of it, we'd find that ecosystem, really be able to dive into it, and talk to those who are major contributors to it. And basically learn from that. What can we apply as innovators in the federal government, what can we apply into our work internally but also dealing with these external partners.

Susan Johnston: That's helpful Dan. Thank you. Francis met with three different organizations and spoke with them about their mission, their methodology, their work, as well as their perception of innovation work within the public service itself.

(Musical interlude)

Susan Johnston: In terms of format, we're experimenting a bit as well here. What Francis has done is asked each of the organizations the same question. And made space for open-ended answers. So you'll hear the questions, and you'll hear excerpts of their answers one by one. In one case, we interviewed two people at the same organization. That said, each of the individuals have very different voices so I don't think there's going to be any concerns about confusing them. And on that note, here we go.

Dan Monafu: To begin, we'll introduce the four people who will be our guides to the Montreal innovation ecosystem

Laurence Bakayoko: Yes. So my name is Laurence Bakayoko. I'm the Director and Founder at Projektae.

Elizabeth Hunt: My name is Elizabeth Hunt, I'm with Percolab, and as we're a flat organization, we don't have titles.

Dominique Bel: My name is Dominique Bel and I'm with Percolab.

Monique Chartrand: My name is Monique Chartrand and I am the Director General of Communautique.

Dan Monafu: The four organizations all work in the area of social innovation, but each has a truly unique mandate. One thing that is clearly universal is the desire to build capacity to make large-scale changes happen.

Laurence Bakayoko: We want to help them, in the process of social innovation: trying to find new solutions for the problems that they have -- that they see in society -- and that they want to have, again, a solution. We're not specialists of a domain -- for example, fair trade or human rights or any kind of social issues that we see. But we are a specialist in the process of trying to find new solutions, working with society, having a collaborative approach, communicating around the issue that you want to communicate, and then finding together a solution.

Elizabeth Hunt: Essentially the work that we do is to accompany these individuals, these organizations, these government departments, whoever our clients are, in doing this thing differently, helping figure out what the question is. And how to get there. The way that we do it is working with methods that are basically anchored in collective intelligence and collaborative methodologies, that really bring the idea, like, we all together are smarter than just me. Creating space for people to have sometimes difficult and courageous conversations within their organizations and to move their ideas forward. This can look like a public consultation that's done differently; it can look like an organizational restructuring that's done differently; it can look like a conference.

Dominique Bel: All of what Elizabeth described is also under the label of labs, and collective intelligence and we help clients navigate complexity, uncertainty, with an intention to transform.

Monique Chartrand: For the last 17 years, Communautique has been an open innovation hub dedicated to social and technological innovation learning, collaboration, research, and experimentation. I would say that we have specialized for the last five years, as a living laboratory. We have become a living lab that provides innovation processes. We have also developed the first fab lab in Canada, so we have specialized in becoming a digital workshop, so coaching various stakeholders in rapid prototyping, which has become accessible, democratized. We provide open and digital innovation training, and we have specialized in two areas in particular, that is, in the silver economy, for practically two years now, and we are now starting green economy work.

Dan Monafu: Experimentation was everywhere at the three organizations; completely integrated into the way these folks did things. It was fascinating to see how these people use everyday tools that are considered a bit out of the ordinary or very different in the more traditional public sector, and the importance of integrating digital tools.

Laurence Bakayoko: “We work with design thinking, but not just because it is, you know, a la mode, not just because it's a hype thing, just because it works, it has been proved. It's a set of tools, a methodology that allows you to go from validating a project, sorry, validating a problem in society and then creating, with the stakeholders that you want to involve, creating a solution.

Dominique Bel: I'd like to make this comparison with the software world, where you have different edition of a software and you update it all the time and you have different versions, and we have been practicing collecting intelligence and new ways of working for the last ten years. We're part of this community and we're not shy to prototype and fine-tune. So we're always at the forefront of those practices.

Monique Chartrand: The living laboratory is an open innovation process with users as stakeholders and in real situations, quickly into prototyping mode. So it allows open innovation organizations to end their dry spells and to share their skills and to go look for skills in the community. A fab lab is really a fabrication laboratory, so a physical space with a certain amount of basic equipment. And these are digital control machines that allow us to quickly go from an idea to an object, so really rapid prototyping with 3D printers or digital milling machines, laser cutters and sewing machines, really traditional carpentry machines to work metal, casting...so it's limitless for building almost anything. So we are democratizing access to the industrial age in the digital era.

Dan Monafu: We saw that the appetite for social innovation in Quebec is clear. Organizations work in partnership with municipalities, civil society, to address persistent problems with different tools. It facilitates social integration, open communication, but also reciprocal partnerships.

Laurence Bakayoko: “For example, we had a project with Baie Comeau, which is a city in Quebec. And we actually worked with Baie Comeau, Bécancour, and Deschambault-Grondins, and basically they were telling us ‘We want to have our citizens involved in creating new projects, but also sustainable projects. We want them to have projects that will benefit the whole society. So they started to have citizen forums. And, with those forums, they wanted to have more collaboration, because they realized they were not getting as much citizens as they wanted to be involved in the projects, and they didn't have enough, basically, excitement around the project in the city, in the whole town.

Elizabeth Hunt: Well, I can give an example of an organizational retreat that I did last month with one of my colleagues. And this organization is an international NGO. Organizationally they have this challenge where their funding has exploded, and in the last year they went from being 6 to be thirty. And so there's this challenge of having this thirty-year-old organization that has all kinds of wisdom and experience, and then also being basically a brand new organization with thirty people. How do you reflect about collective identity? How do you reflect to how do you maximize the potential of the work that they can do, the good work that they can do in the world, with all these people who don't know each other, who haven't worked together? So, over the course of three days, really our work was to like maximize and draw out the collective intelligence of that group, and at the same time, help them think as an ‘us'. Going from ‘oh, I'm new here I'm new here' to ‘oh we're an us'.

Monique Chartrand: We held a signature event last August that we called “Age 3.0, the Creative Aging Fair.” It was a bit of a “maker fair,” but also with the living lab approach, meaning that the exhibitors, whether businesses, research laboratories, or NPOs (non-profit organizations), were invited to challenge their products, their services with the visitors.

Dan Monafu: We also learned that, despite the strong enthusiasm for for social innovation, barriers such as communication challenges, this persistent resistance to change, and lack of resources are still around. All three organizations were very quick to acknowledge the challenge to move beyond the curiosity -- to working in new ways. It takes time and the path to follow is not without many hurdles.

Laurence Bakayoko: There are barriers that are psychological or just personal barriers, in front of change. If you want to change, you have to, to think about the people that you want to involve in the change that you want to have. That personal barrier is really really important. That's why, in the process of social innovation, the process of design thinking, we, at the basis of it, we start by validating the problems, with the people that are concerned by these problems, you know.? And sometimes, it's just like, you want to do it solo. Like, you want to have your solution and do the amazing, innovative project. But you don't want your ideas to be confronted with others. And that's a problem we see often. And again, that's why communication is really important.

Elizabeth Hunt: And we have very much, societally, we have a command and control way of working. You know, somebody is a boss, somebody makes decisions, somebody calls the shots, and everybody else falls in order. And, when you're working in (emerging) processes, it's a really really different way of working and it's a way of working that requires a huge amount of trust if things are going to work out. Because we're not taught as a society and yes I'm making this vast generalization. We're often not taught how to name things around power, around money, around control. We're not taught to name all of those things. So I think that's one of the things that comes up a lot is that to work in agile emergent ways requires trust and it requires a team approach. But while most structures that we have are very low on the trust scale, very high on the control scale, very low on the transparency scale and so you have an intention that's one thing but you have a structure that doesn't support it.

Dominique Bel: As Elizabeth said, whether it is a question of power, a question of money, or a question of trust, we're hard-wired to protect ourselves in a work environment. To show up with a mask. And those are really hurdles in the way of innovation. We work very very hard at helping break down those hurdles so that innovation can happen.

Monique Chartrand: Communication in general is a challenge for everyone, but it also becomes one when you use innovative processes and an innovation lab. There are a lot of buzzwords—living lab, fab lab, open innovation—and what do they mean? So it's a big communication challenge, and we sometimes run into organizations that have had experiences that were not necessarily conclusive, that have gone through processes with those names, but they had not really had a good experience. So based on that, it's always an additional challenge for us.

Dan Monafu: The public sector is not always obvious partner or client for these organizations. Governments are really large organizations and navigating a partnership or collaboration can be very difficult. But speaking with our four representatives of the desire to work together was clear, not only to make large-scale changes, but also because of these mutually beneficial learning opportunities.

Laurence Bakayoko: Of course, when you think about governments, it's a little bit slower, that's true.

Elizabeth Hunt: I think people who are working in the public sector who are also trying to bring in innovative practices, collaborative practices, collective intelligence practices within their work, either internally or in the events or consultations that they put on, they're walking a really fine line. Because on the one hand they are trying to do something that's new, that's cutting edge, that's responsive, that's emergent. But on the flip side, they're working within an organization where they're literally accountable to millions of people. And that, if they do a wrong step, they will have the media, they will have like every level of power down on their throats.

Dominique Bel: They way I experience and I see government function and think is not often compatible with this because of the way governments are structured, because of the way people think, and because of a notion of fear and lack of trust and need to control. And it's an issue because it's at the opposite of the spectrum of the prototyping innovation. We see it on a regular basis for example when we receive an RFP. Which is sometimes so tight, so rigid, where you want at the beginning of the process to map it out all the way through. That worked years ago, or in the previous century. But today we can't operate that way. There is really a gap and we need to cross that gap. My dream would be for the governments to have the right to make mistakes, and I haven't really found it yet.

Monique Chartrand: What we've seen is that there's a lot of interest coming from public administrations as well as all types of organizations, there's a lot compared with when we began. We see that many organizations have moved forward, no doubt the machinery of government has always been…it might have evolved a lot, and it might be doing so, but there's less flexibility and speed, but we often see that it happens anyway—people are going to get there. It may take a year longer than we would like, but there's a lot of hierarchy in the machinery of government.

Dan Monafu: All of our interviewees made it clear that social innovation does not happen in silos. The three organizations have been working in this area for years, but without the collaboration and resources of the public and private sectors, the benefits of these new approaches and methodologies can not be realized to solve our problems or meet the challenges that we have.

Laurence Bakayoko: when we think about social innovation, we think most of the time, we think about an innovative product or service. Answering a specific need in society you know. Fixing a problem in society. But we need to think it, to think social innovation as the whole process. And the whole process does not start with, ‘let's find solution together'... it starts with, validating the problem at the base, at the core of it. And that's a new way of thinking.

So we need to think about funding to help from identifying a problem in society, because in traditional fundings, the government comes and says ‘here's a problem, the problem is X, Y and Z, and we need to have different actors, different stakeholders to find solution to that problem that we already identified'.

Monique Chartrand: One thing we would like to challenge public administrations a lot on, is the fact that is that investment in infrastructure seems to be easy, but investing in processes, investing in human beings seems to be a challenge. We often see cultural infrastructure projects for $20 million and they're going to put $15,000 into an innovation process, when, in my opinion, they should have put a million into the innovation process, and in the end the project would be truly sustainable, in phases, with a whole set of highly developed conscious services. But they say no—infrastructure yes, it's worth this much, they're able to calculate it, but human beings, the process, it's harder to open the coffers. We rely a lot on crowdsourcing, we put platforms online, but an online platform by itself doesn't work; innovation processes happen in person, the “online” may accompany the in-person process but it can't replace it,

Dan Monafu: And finally… If I tell you that, from the outside, there seems to be a very active, highly developed innovation ecosystem…does that surprise you to hear that? What do you think explains this reality, or this misperception?

Laurence Bakayoko: I think, you know, Quebec we have a strong history of social economy. Which here in Quebec at the base of the social innovation movement is the social economy basically. We have a strong sector, third sector, based on those collaborative community-based organizations, co-ops and non-profits doing business, as Projektae. So that social economic sector you know really implemented, how do you say, la graine, the seed of social innovation here in Quebec. And it's really strong, it's based in our community organizations, we have a lot of community organizations, and so that's why I'm not surprised.

Elizabeth Hunt: Well this is happening internationally, it's happening everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. That being said, is there a specific ecosystem within Montreal? I think there's an incredible richness within Montreal, because Montreal is at the intersection of so many different things. I think as Montrealers, we don't define ourselves by any one thing. It's always yeah, and - and - and. And I think that's what kind of leads to this whole, I think the conditions that are here in Montreal because of our diversity, in terms of linguistic, in terms of population, in terms of background, in terms of different economic classes that are living together. I think that, those all create conditions for social innovation to happen really really easily.

Dominique Bel: The diversity of Montreal is something very very strong. The entrepreneurial culture is very strong, the creativity is very strong. There is, it's um, it's quite a supportive society as well. I think there's a magic size to the city, and, and different clusters or different sectors overlap. We spoke a lot about social innovation, I'd like to also observe that social is not, innovation is not isolated in a corner, and it also overlaps with other aspects of the economy. We have for profit businesses who are doing very innovative things with a social impact.

Monique Chartrand: My personal impression is that there is a sort of generational revival, I would say. An enthusiasm for changing the world. We're in a state of rather significant environmental and financial system crisis. So I think that revives this way of doing social entrepreneurship, which I will go as far to say is very prevalent.

(Musical interlude)

Dan Monafu: And there we have it. That's the end of the interviews. We're going to finish off by taking two or three minutes to discuss recurring themes and whether they're relevant for federal public servants, for what we do. We went into this innovation ecosystem in Montreal not really knowing what we'd find. We heard some very interesting reflections on the Montreal ecosystem this, from, for example, Laurence at Projektaé on the role of the social economy in Quebec, but at the same time Mrs. Chartrand at Communautique and Elizabeth reminded us that this innovation ecosystem is something that is found in many cities in the world, so it is a global trend. There are factors in Montreal that have led to emergence of these organizations there, there are clear opportunities in other Canadian cities, and at various orders of government.

Susan Johnston: Interesting. As for me, I'd have to say, Dan, that it was really good to hear those types of organizations talk about their own perceptions of the public service, how it is viewed from the outside. There were certainly some positives and some challenges in there. One positive is that it's always encouraging to see that our partners understand our context, that we face certain constraints, meaning it's not always easy to do an about-face and be flexible regardless of how much we might want to at any given point. There are some processes and structures that can challenge our enthusiasm, but they exist for very good reasons. Another positive point, it was interesting to hear Laurence and Élizabeth acknowledge that, at the same time, when we do manage to move things forward, the potential impact across the public sector is massive. It's always energizing to hear that.

Dan Monafu: I very much appreciated Laurence who explained that the fact that the desire to innovate is not realized in an artistic vagueness, but that precisely we need rigor in the method, and that, well, in Ottawa maybe we're more at the stage where one has the desire, one begins to build the capacity for the methods and the tools but that is at the beginning of our adventure.

Susan Johnston: and to keep exploring, and iterating. That's very true Dan.

Dan Monafu: Well, this brings us to the end of this, our third episode. We would like to say a big thank you to Projektaé, Percolab and Communautique, and thank them for giving Francis such a warm welcome. We were also asked to mention that Francis got a lot of great context, and that we had to cut a lot of good content and great conversations. We even had to cut the question about the future of these organizations when they were interviewed, but maybe take a look at the Projektaé site for a new magazine and e-learning platform on social innovation methods. Also monitor the "fab lab" initiative of Communautique which will try to encourage the use of this tool, the fab labs, in Canada outside of Quebec, which would be a new thing.

Susan Johnston: Yes, that concludes this episode. We'll be back soon. Don't forget to subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes or Soundcloud and share them with your colleagues and friends.

Dan Monafu: A huge thank you to our guests, who took the time to answer our questions in both official languages. And to our francophone producers, Francis and Kaili, who wrote this episode. We welcome your feedback and, as you can see we take it to heart, we take it seriously so thank you for that and please keep that coming.

Susan Johnston: We're going to leave you with Journey of the Mandarin, by our friend Mark Matz. Until next time.