When scanning the globe for interesting and inspiring examples of social innovation, the United States and Canada have a lot to offer.
Before looking at some of the initiatives, it is important to highlight that there are also efforts at the government level, with the USA being more advanced but Canada making efforts to catch up.
At the government level, the Corporation for National and Community Services, better known as Americorps, runs the Social Innovation Fund, with the aim of enabling social innovation across the country, with the federal government acting as a catalyst. Aside from providing grants to the initiatives, it supports them with an external and objective impact evaluation, thus gaining insight into the effectiveness of programmes. The knowledge generated is a resource for the building of successful programmes in the future. Since its creation in 2009, it has, together with private-sector partners, invested over 1 billion dollars. Their website highlights the wide array of funded projects.
In Canada, activity at the governmental level includes the government’s launching of a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy to provide better support to community organisations working to tackle social challenges. The strategy includes a Co-Creation Steering Group made up of 16 leaders, practitioners and experts from multiple fields, including the community, philanthropic, financial and research sectors, and complemented with a public consultation.
Among the Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneurs, there are many interesting social enterprises, one of which is Cityflag. The US-based company creates apps and web services to expand citizen participation and designs programmes for digital inclusion and civic innovation in communities. Its vision is to create a “more inclusive and transparent relationship between civil society and government.” One of their products is the Cityflag 311 App which allows citizens to become active players in the problems they find in their neighbourhoods at the same time as enabling city officials to identify patterns which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Also on the Forbes list is Coral Vita, who work to restore and preserve damaged or dying reefs. The company grows diverse corals which are resilient to changing conditions (e.g. warming or acidification) and transplants them into the threatened reefs to which they are native. The corals are grown on land-based farms with a significantly faster growth rate than in nature. The company also provides the opportunity to adopt coral fragments, to mobilise individual donations. It reinvests the majority of its profits into sustaining coral reefs.
From Canada, Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise, which was on the 2016 Forbes list, sells a cooking tool that acts as a re-usable iron fortifier and contributes to addressing the problems of iron deficiency and anaemia that afflict a large number of people across the globe. The fish-shaped tool is made up of specially formulated iron which is released in a safe and consistent amount when boiled for 10 minutes in acidified water or broth. It can be re-used for up to 5 years and does not change the taste, colour or smell of food. Clinical research has shown that its use increases levels of both circulating and stored iron. The initiative has won numerous awards since its inception.
Canada-based KickStart International designs and promotes low-cost, high-quality irrigation pumps that enable poor African farmers to make their own rain, helping to increase crop production and yields and thus increasing their income. The tools, based on a farmer-centred design, are mass-produced to strict quality designs.
Not only are there many interesting social enterprises, but both countries have many non-governmental organisations and charities developing interesting programmes and solutions to a wide array of social challenges. These include:
Citizen Schools, a US nation-wide initiative where adolescents come together with experts to explore new fields, learn new skills and build a foundation for their future. The initiative partners with low-income communities and supports their students to attain academic achievement in core subjects at the same time as working on skills for the 21st century and emotional intelligence. The latter is done through real-world learning experiences such as a 10-week apprenticeship programme in which students learn how their academic curriculum applies to real life. The overall goal is to increase the skills of low-income students for future work or further studies.
Roots of Empathy is a Canadian NGO with an internal focus, with a mission to develop empathy in children and adults and break the intergenerational cycle of violence and poor parenting. The Roots of Empathy programme helps to reduce aggression and bullying among schoolchildren. At the centre of this experiential learning programme are a parent and baby, with the students being coached by accredited instructors to observe the baby’s development and identify its feelings. This works as a catalyst for helping the children to identify their own feelings and recognise the feelings of others. The programme reaches rural, urban and remote communities in Canada, including indigenous communities, and has also been expanded to other countries across the world.
Impact on Third World countries
There are also initiatives that started out in the USA and Canada but which aim to have an impact on specific challenges in the Third World. One of the best examples is probably Paperfuge, a cheap, human-powered centrifuge which can spin biological samples at thousands of revolutions per minute. It can separate plasma from a blood sample, crucial for the diagnosis of infections including, for instance, HIV. It is made of paper, string and plastic, and unlike other centrifuges requires no electricity or complex machinery (with expensive replacements) and only very little money (to cover the cost of the base materials).
Another very inspiring example is SunSaluter, which is a solar panel rotator using only the power of gravity and water to enable the panel to follow the sun during the day without consuming any electricity and with the ability to produce electricity and 4 litres of clean drinking water. Designed for the developing world, and based upon its founder’s high school science projects, it is an award-winning technology that is used, and, through the charity, features across the world.
One cannot talk about inspiring social entrepreneurs from North America without mentioning Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, an initiative which supports social entrepreneurs across the world by mobilising a global community of changemakers. However, recognising that the initiative is one of the most cited examples, this article has instead aimed to highlight some of the lesser-known but no less important examples of social innovation in North America.
Learn more at Social Innovation Academy
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1] The AmeriCorps Network (AmeriCorps State & National) consists of local, regional, and national organisations who are committed to using national service to address critical community needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. https://www.nationalservice.gov/