Embedding divergent perspectives into the design processes of high-growth innovators to create scalable pathways for positive disruption.
SMEs’ contribution to the Canadian economy is firmly established, yet according to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, fewer than one out of four Canadian SMEs invest in R&D, which can be a significant barrier to exploring and implementing GHG-reduction strategies. There is an increasingly influential SME sub-sector, however, whose very existence runs counter to this trend: Canada’s technology and innovation startup community.
Canada’s maturing entrepreneurship ecosystem has produced global leaders in such diverse fields as artificial intelligence, data analytics and material and health sciences - fields that have tremendous direct and indirect GHG impacts that are often difficult to anticipate and mitigate given the speed with which these sectors develop. From the tremendous energy load required to sustain blockchain-based solutions, to the footprint associated with feeding our insatiable appetite for new, rapid-turn technologies, we are struggling to keep pace with the unintended climate consequences associated with the fruits of our innovation economy.
That is why we believe so strongly in engaging Canadian disruptors early on in their growth curve. Our proposed model for delivering targeted coaching, insight generation support and relationship-bridging is designed to equip market-oriented growth companies with the insights and support networks required to meaningfully embed climate and sustainability considerations into their core products and services.
Our mission is to positively nudge our most gifted and ambitious entrepreneurs toward a future that fully embraces the generative potential that heightened, well-informed climate awareness can bring. We will leverage our relationships with influential organizations representing Canada’s private capital community to target high-potential startups who are scaling, or have the potential to scale up quickly, thus maximizing the potential for local and international GHG reduction.
How do you know that your solution is desirable to SMEs, and will reduce GHG emissions?
While many technology founders may not define themselves as sustainability champions, they represent a community of largely young, progressive and optimistic entrepreneurs who implicitly want their companies to make a positive impact on people and the planet. Historically, however, the startup community has been an underrepresented segment when it comes to sustainability-specific programs and services. Moreover, they have limited bandwidth to take on new initiatives, and limited networks through which they can source expert opinions about the vast range of climate and social impacts that may be associated with their emerging solutions.
By engaging growth companies at the cusp of inventing and scaling solutions that may have significant sustainability ramifications, we feel we can seize a unique window of opportunity to positively shape innovation trajectories. Having extensively served private sector, not-for-profit and government entities, our team’s diverse experience and relationship networks tells us there is intense interest, but often proximity and relationship walls that prevent effective collaboration from taking place.
For example, we have witnessed firsthand groups from both the technology startup and policy/advocacy communities mount parallel but disconnected conversations about the potential social pitfalls of artificial intelligence. What if we could bring these groups together and create safe, action-oriented environments where they could share insights around opportunities and challenges brought on by this fast-evolving technological field?
It’s observations like this that excite us about the prospects for IgniteLab and our potential to facilitate collaboration in ways that remove blind spots and generate positive benefits for all - benefits that extend beyond “office greening” initiatives or procurement programs (as important as these are) to influence the very shape, direction and application of emerging solutions.
What actions do you propose?
As Canadian disruptors race to make their mark in fast-growing innovation sectors, seeking out and integrating divergent, outside perspectives regarding issues like climate change and sustainability can be a time and proximity challenge. For this reason, the foundational principle through which we aim to help Canadian growth companies step up their social innovation game (companies that largely do not fall under traditional “cleantech” or “green business” categories) centres around building meaningful connections between non-traditional and at times unlikely collaborators.
These collaborators will be drawn from private sector, civil society, think tank, academic circles - among others - based on the innovation challenge at hand, with an eye toward forging sharing and collaboration networks that can be sustained over time.
Importantly, we see ourselves as catalysts vs. direct implementers. In the words of T. Bergdall (see References): “Catalysts connect people with each other and their existing resources. In doing so, they emphasize inclusiveness. Everyone in a community has something to contribute, be they at the centre of the community or on its margins.”
Recognizing that catalyzing fresh thinking is not enough to ensure shifts in behavioral norms take place over the long-term, we are also drawing upon best practice with respect to designing and managing communities of practice to truly bring outside ideas in, cross-fertilize initiative and facilitate collaboration ongoing. As expanded upon in the References section, our solution is rooted in complementary theories around strategic foresight and Front End (FE) innovation. For instance, in I. Mootee’s Ivey Business Journal article, common symptoms of “front-end failure” cited include:
- Not asking the right questions that help frame/guide the design and scope of initial research and investigations.
- An inability to organize and make sense of massive qualitative and quantitative insights, and apply them to opportunities mapping.
- Creating bridges between innovative ideas and current business models, leading to the abrupt cancellation of projects in midstream because they don’t “match the company’s business strategy.”
- Not giving “top-priority” innovation projects the required attention because there is no senior executive sponsor or because key people are “too busy” to spend the necessary time working on them.
- Failing to articulate how innovative ideas can create economic value and how this value can be captured, as well as failing to determine the opportunity cost of these innovations.
When broaching sustainability themes - which traditionally may be regarded as foreign and non-core to our target demographic - such challenges become even more acute. To increase receptivity and relevance of ideas and concepts flowing from our interventions, our team of seasoned facilitators and sustainability practitioners is taking a purposeful and measured approach to designing a process and delivery methodology (see References for service design resources we are drawing upon) that integrates seamlessly into insight collection, creative brainstorming and front-end innovation processes that high-growth startups are accustomed to.
By speaking the language of startups and bringing a positive, innovation-oriented lens to engage our target market, our mission is to both catalyze thinking and facilitate action around climate and sustainability considerations as early as possible in the innovation trajectories of high-growth firms. Specific interventions we are developing include:
1. IgniteLabs: Facilitated ‘hackathons’ that explore how megatrends in business and technology can be channeled to meet societal challenges in refreshing and bold new ways.
- “Blockchain Goes Social” - how blockchain-based solutions can be leveraged to advance social and environmental imperatives.
- “Data for All” - how data-based solutions can be engineered to be more inclusive and equitable for users and the people/groups they affect.
- “Our Connected Planet” - how remote sensing, data analytic and connectivity-based solutions can create behavioural patterns and incentives that lower our ecological footprint.
2. eBook/Blog Series: Action-oriented intelligence pieces that synthesize findings from IgniteLab and partner research to promote sector-wide positive innovation.
3. Open xChanges: Managed stakeholder advisory hubs that can support ongoing innovation efforts of IgniteLab participants.
We also recognize that there are significant challenges associated with identifying the right startups to engage and competing for their attention. To help navigate and connect with this community, our strategy is to target companies that have received backing from Canada’s growing community of angel and venture capital investors. This serves as an important “screening vehicle” by helping us identify companies that are receiving financial backing and strategic guidance from sophisticated investment entities and hence have the highest likelihood to succeed and scale up.
As reflected in our preliminary budget enclosed, early-stage funding will be directed toward the following project phases:
- Curriculum Design & Infrastructure Development (Aug-Oct/2018)
- Pilot Development (Oct-Dec/2018)
- Pilot Implementation (Jan-Mar/2019)
Who will take these actions?
IgniteLab works with three primary stakeholder groups: 1. Innovation/Industry Hubs (Ontario-based incubators, accelerators, RICs, Universities and venture-oriented industry groups); 2. Subject Champions (a diverse cross-section of cross-sectoral stakeholders carefully selected to support the innovation challenge at hand); and, 3. Venture-backed SMEs.
Innovation Hubs act as access points for SME’s to discover and participate in IgniteLab programming and collaborative communities. Subject Champions are invited to participate physically and/or virtually in IgniteLab initiatives, serving as idea contributors, mentors and where appropriate, implementation partners. SMEs are ultimately responsible for bringing ideas from the IgniteLab community into their product/service design efforts.
The core team co-designing and co-leading IgniteLab initiatives is detailed in our “About the Author” section.
Where will these actions be taken?
IgniteLab operates as both a physical “pop-up incubator” and virtual network. To help navigate Ontario’s fragmented startup universe and identify and most efficiently access the companies we aim to serve, IgniteLab will seek partnerships with Ontario-based incubators, accelerators, RICs and industry groups, such as the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, to augment resources available to already well-established and trusted relationship hubs.
What are the proposal’s projected costs?
The enclosed budget of this proposal is intended to help seed the initial design and development of key solutions and supporting resources, in addition to funding a pilot intervention that will afford the opportunity to test concepts and gather user feedback before fully scaling up and offering our services to the private market. Preliminary budget estimates include:
- Curriculum Design & Infrastructure Development
- Curriculum Design: $10,000
- Website Development: $12,500
- Graphic/Web Design: $5,000
- Inbound Marketing Campaign Design (+ Technology Licensing): $10,000
- Open xChange Forum Development: $20,000
- Staff Training Handbooks: $5,000
Pilot Development & Implementation
- Pilot Marketing/Sales: $5,000
- IgniteLab Hackathon Event Management: $5,000
- Facilitation Staff & Guest Experts: $7,500
- Venue Fees: $2,500
- Workshop Supplies: $750
- Catering: $4,000
- Videography/Photography: $3,500
- eBook/Report Development: $7,500
- Open xChange Forum Management: $7,500
TOTAL ESTIMATED BUDGET = $105,750
Once the solution is built and implemented describe a path forward for it to scale to other users/companies.
Once the initial core curriculum is developed and an inbound marketing-based outreach campaign targeting Ontario-based venture-backed firms, incubators, and accelerators is fully developed, efforts to refine and scale interventions will begin. We aim to work directly with existing networks to embed IgniteLab into core or endorsed program offerings.
Outreach/Targeting: Targeting venture-backed firms puts us in close proximity with a rich network of regional and sector-specific incubators and accelerators, and influential government players such as the Business Development Bank of Canada and provincially-based RICs (Regional Innovation Centres).
Onboarding: Each SME will come to IgniteLab with a unique sector/solution focus and geography. During the onboarding phase, IgniteLab will conduct sector deep dives to build and intimate understanding of the needs and unique positioning of program streams.
Training: SMEs’ experiential journey through IgniteLab will consist of dedicated hackathon/design sessions, virtual support communities and ad hoc working groups that emerge from program participation.
Publishing: Each business will have a platform to share and connect with other businesses in the program.
Evaluating: Benchmarking practices and baseline data will be collected and compared before, during and after the program.
Mentoring: As SME’s become more established, each cohort will continue to receive support from the IgniteLab network. Successful implementation of ideas will become case studies and serve as inspiration for like-businesses starting their new journey. Businesses that have ‘graduated’ will also be invited to mentor businesses.
How will your solution lead to change on a larger scale over time (i.e. 3 to 5 years out)? How many businesses can potentially be affected by your solution?
According to the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, Canadian venture capital players invested in over 592 deals (40% of which involve Ontario-based companies) in 2017 alone. The National Angel Capital Organization’s (NACO) reports that 1,918 investments in 1,124 companies have been made since it began tracking angel investing activity in Canada in 2009. This growing segment of the economy suggests that the potential impact of IgniteLab interventions is broad and diffuse, extending well beyond niche “green business/cleantech” sectors that are often targeted through sustainability programming.
Innovation and sustainability are perfectly complementary: it is our goal to make innovation and sustainability synonymous. In the startup world, early innovation sparks can significantly shape the direction of new products and services. Environmental sustainability can often be overlooked or be regarded as a separate topic that does not apply to the core offerings of the SME. Through IgniteLabs, we seek to disrupt this status quo by creating a norm for innovation that is inclusive of environmental sustainability. The program raises new business practices that consider the triple bottom line and prevent carbon emissions, rather than creating the need for reduction as an afterthought. As businesses graduate through the program and become established in their communities, we expect to see this cycle of positive innovation continue to grow and scale.
What business and funding model have you considered for your solution to become sustainable?
Once our pilot is complete, IgniteLab will become a fully self-sustaining initiative funded through event sponsorship that covers the full cost of deployment. To lower barriers for innovation startups to participate, we aim to secure sponsorship from entities directly and/or indirectly related to the membership-based incubators, accelerators and industry associations through which we will be recruiting participants via co-marketing partnerships (which is a well-established model for funding events in the startup/venture capital community).
What impact will the proposed actions have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
While we expect our interventions to generate GHG savings by positively disrupting “business-as-usual” operations, because our focus is on influencing the shape, direction and application of emerging solutions being championed by program participants, our GHG reduction calculations will depend largely on the availability of baseline data being available for technologies and activities within the scope of our interventions (which can be challenge given the inherently emergent nature of the technologies/solutions we are targeting). To help us accurately quantify such savings, we aim to bring on board a data/lifecycle analysis (LCA) expert to assist in determining relevant baselines for the industry segments we ultimately serve.
What are other key benefits?
By nurturing dialogue between a carefully curated cross-section of leading thinkers and market actors, IgniteLab helps create purposefully positive impact that encompass the full breadth of triple bottom line opportunities, which can be a valuable differentiator in this highly competitive segment of the economy.
The fact that Canada’s latest federal budget allocates $950 million dollars over the next five years to support business-led innovation “superclusters” (focused on industries such as advanced manufacturing, agri food, cleantech, digital tech, health and infrastructure) is acknowledgement that competing for global investment dollars, customers and partners requires substantial support.
We believe that embedding sustainable innovation within the ethos of Canadian startups can create an authentic, compelling differentiator that puts our brightest entrepreneurs at the forefront of addressing pressing global challenges with made-in-Canada solutions.
About the Authors
Garrick Ng: Garrick leads a creative agency that unites strategy, sustainability and storytelling experts to create a more liveable world. His clients include organizations like the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, City of Toronto and Toronto and Region Conservation. Garrick is a graduate-level instructor at several leading Canadian universities, mentors in the startup community, and holds an MBA in Business & Sustainability from the Schulich School of Business.
Haley Anderson: Haley is a service design specialist who has worked with SMEs, transportation agencies and communities to design sustainable transportation services. She is a co-founder of Strawless Toronto, a behaviour change initiative committed to reducing single-use plastics. Haley holds a Bachelor of Design, Honours, specializing in Service Designer and UX.
Denise Pinto: Denise is the Creative Director of Courage Co-Lab Inc. where she oversees design strategy and facilitation. She is a board member for MABELLEarts and a volunteer for the StopGap Foundation. Denise teaches Urban Studies at the University of Toronto, and frequently mentors students at the Institute Without Boundaries.
Rob Wakulat: Robert is the Managing Director of Courage Co-Lab Inc. and is a Founding Law Partner at Wakulat Dhirani LLP, a professional services firm which focuses on supporting social entrepreneurs working to alleviate social or environmental challenges. Robert is sought after to lead workshops on corporate law and enterprise structure across the GTA with community-based organizations and post-secondary institutions.
School For Social Entrepreneurs Ontario: SSE Ontario is a community of grassroots leaders from all walks of life collaborating to advance social and environmental change, leveraging the tools of business. Its mission is to empower communities by developing community leaders and transformational social ventures that produce tangible, visible, meaningful, and positive impact.
Related Proposals (optional)
This section includes links to sample academic sources that expand on key theoretical foundations upon which IgniteLab’s solution is based:
Embedding Sustainability in the Front-End Innovation Processes of Firms
- Dewulf K., Wever R., Brezet H. (2012) Greening the Design Brief. In Matsumoto M., Umeda Y., Masui K., Fukushige S. (eds) Design for Innovative Value Towards a Sustainable Society. Springer, Dordrecht. From: http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/43555/InTech-Sustainable_product_innovation_the_importance_of_the_front_end_stage_in_the_innovation_process.pdf
- Mootee, I. (Issues: March/April 2011). Strategic Innovation and the Fuzzy Front End. Ivey Business Journal. From: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/strategic-innovation-and-the-fuzzy-front-end/
Catalyzing Change by Injecting Outside Perspectives
- Bergdall, T. (2003) Reflections on the Catalytic Role of an Outsider in ‘Asset Based Community Development’ (ABCD). From: https://community-wealth.org/sites/clone.community-wealth.org/files/downloads/paper-bergdall.pdf
- This is service design doing: Applying service design thinking in the real world: A Practitioners' Handbook; Marc Stickdorn, Markus Hormess, Adam Lawrence, Jakob Schneider - O'Reilly Media, Inc. (2018).
- This is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, Cases. Marc Stickdorn, Jakob Schneider (2012).