Cultivating social innovation networks

Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treurnicht is CEO of MaRS, a 1.5-million-sq.-ft. innovation hub located in Toronto.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.

In this episode, I speak with Ilse Treurnicht, the founding director of the MaRS discovery district in Toronto, and we discuss risk-taking, long-term thinking, and the importance of inclusive innovation.  When Ilse started her career, she didn’t think that one day she’d be running a multi-sectoral hub of innovation in Canada’s largest city. Ilse studied scientific research with the intention of becoming an academic before moving into a start-up chemistry lab to explore the more practical applications of environmental chemistry. She spent time in large corporations, and did some commercialization work with academics before she was presented with the interesting challenge of starting MaRS.

Treurnicht: Yes, I’ve been at MaRS 12-and-a-half years — almost… It’s been a big, crazy floppy start-up for most of that period, and I think over the last two to three years, you can really feel that there’s an inflection point in terms of the development of the next phase of growth. We’ve physically doubled in size and there’s something very tangible about that physicality. And so many of the initiatives that we’ve been sort of testing and probing around some of the emerging areas of work have of now solidified, and so you can really begin to pull them into a cohesive strategy. We spent quite a bit of time over the last year taking a step back and benchmarking against some of the really interesting projects around the world. This notion of innovation hubs in cities is becoming a really core piece of how cities and regions think about economic development. And so what we started as a project that really didn’t have a name, or you couldn’t really articulate what it was, is now much more sort of an innovation mainstream.

Every day, Ilse works with innovators of all types, from scientists to sociologists to computer programmers. I can’t help but wonder what common traits exist between these innovators?

Treurnicht: I think mostly of innovators as people who are problem solvers, right? They see something that they care about and they then go about trying to solve that problem in different ways. I don’t quite buy the “lightbulb grows out of head brilliant” idea, sole innovator or hero. I mean, it’s a world full of lots of heroes. And it’s ultimately a team sport. I mean, there might be one innovator that identifies the problem, but it’s incredibly rare for one innovator to be able to solve it. And so, it’s also about building these coalitions of problem-solvers that also care about that problem and bring all of their experiences and capabilities to solving it.

If you were to look at the list of partners and tenants on the MaRS website, the term “coalition of problem-solvers” probably makes a lot of sense. With such a diverse collection of innovators around her, I was curious what Ilse’s definition of social innovation would be.

Treurnicht: I think of it as part of an innovation landscape that has a particular focus on leveraging the capacity in society and impacting society. And it might be too simplistic, but I find a lot of the other definitions are not accessible. So, we need to make the language more accessible, right? So that people can see themselves part of that movement, rather than something other people do. And, I think, that is limiting in terms of how we can actually solve our problems because we only draw on the limited part of our capacity. I think our problems are of a nature that we can’t solve them that way, and so it’s really important that we create opportunities for everybody to be part of that problem-solving process, and part of the solution.

But the bifurcation of the profit and purpose, I think, is limiting to social innovation. If we want to tackle some of the big challenges, we actually need a more holistic approach.

Anything that you’d like to set the record straight about social innovation? Something that people commonly misconstrue or misunderstand?

Treurnicht: I would say one of the things that is limiting in thinking about social innovation —  but is quite pervasive — is that social innovation is the domain of the nonprofit sector. It’s only nonprofit people. It’s only do-good people. And that there’s something antisocial in the private sector. The positive development is that as these worlds are becoming a lot more intertwined and there’s more of a blended value approach the more we unleash the capacity for social innovation among all sectors. But the bifurcation of the profit and purpose, I think, is limiting to social innovation. If we want to tackle some of the big challenges, we actually need a more holistic approach. It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not going to be solved by any one innovator, or a philanthropist or a charismatic politician. It’s going to have to take everybody. And how do we enable that?

[song interlude]

Treurnicht: One of the really interesting things about social innovation becoming part of the mainstream is the influence it is having on established businesses, where they’re now realizing that CSR [corporate social responsibility] is no longer a path to social license, to operate, but, in fact, the impact on communities of an entire business strategy is core to actually being able —  not just to build your business —  but actually to thrive as a business. And so, I think social innovation no longer is just the great idea journeying to an impactful solution through an enterprise model, nonprofit, whatever vehicle you choose —  it is also increasingly a manifestation of an entire shift in the way traditional business is done, in the way traditional public services are delivered.

The way our institutions are designed, including our political system, is not serving the needs of people, and we need a new way.

Today, MaRS is recognized as a cornerstone in the social innovation sector, providing resources and expertise to organizations and individuals across the country. But remember, 10 years ago, social innovation was barely a term. How did the founding team at MaRS approach social innovation at that time?

Treurnicht: Well, I think we thought about it not so much as something that needed to happen for the social innovation movement, it was actually much more pragmatic. If you think about the original dream of John Evans and the founders, it was, how do we improve the economy —  particularly the new knowledge economy —  and, secondly, how do we make a positive difference in the lives of people, Canadians and others around the world? And if you think about that duality of prosperity and resilience, we knew from the beginning that social innovation had to be part of that strategy. What we do now is we’ve built social innovation across our three main pillars and it’s embedded into everything we do.

Social innovation requires people to go out on a limb, which can leave you wide open to criticism or at least skepticism. Can you speak to your experience of having to build something surrounded by doubt and skepticism?

Treurnicht: I think that is the fundamental challenge of innovation, right? If we knew the path, or knew the exact outcome, it would be easy in a way. What I think was particularly unique about MaRS, is that it was an entirely new kind of institution. It’s not government, it’s not business, it’s not academe —  it’s not exactly clear what it is. It’s an enabling platform and it’s large. Part of the skepticism came from the fact that it was, from the very beginning, a very ambitious project in terms of just its physical scale. The founders had an extraordinary, almost un-Canadian vision, in that sense: we are going to build something that is globally relevant. So, it arrives, plunked in the middle of an ecosystem with this uncertainty, and I think you should expect that it should generate skepticism because it frankly has no legitimacy. Of course, if you think about it through the innovation lens, it also doesn’t come with any rules, or any preconceived notions, or any embedded, entrenched systems that need to be broken down. So, in a funny way, it has more ability to try new things. But it has to earn to its credibility.

It created this dichotomy where you’ve got these really great experiments happening, you’ve got these cool things, and there are amazing, and they represent the world that I want to live in, and they’re small, they’re tiny, they’re trivial when you compare them to these massive political disruptions that we see in the States, we’re seeing in the UK. And it all of a sudden feels like this is interesting but trivial. This is very hard to affect change but very important, and that’s the dichotomy. I believe that’s too simplistic. There’s something else going on with social innovation. It’s not just the accumulation of all the effects of all the innovations, there’s something else there. And I’m curious if you could comment if that rings true, if you can tell me what you think.

Treurnicht: I totally agree with you. Maybe the flip side of that observation between the small, interesting experiments and the nature of the challenges that are so profound —  and it’s not just the political climate, and the geopolitical destabilization, climate change, massive shifts in global labour markets —  it’s “how do we prepare young people for the future?” kind of challenges. My simple view is that a holistic view of innovation is actually our only toolbox to tackle those challenges because what you see here is that the normal way of doing business is not working. The way our institutions are designed, including our political system, is not serving the needs of people, and we need a new way. But the new way is not going to just come from some hero, it’s going to come from a totally new approach. And so, I think drawing on that full toolbox and creating an environment where we draw on the best of technological innovation, the best of policy making, the best of new ways of financing —  all of that needs to come together around an aligned goal of tackling whatever challenge we want to work on.

If we can get to a place where our own innovators, and the smartest innovators in the world who want to touch a billion lives, can think of Canada as the place to come, I hope MaRS can be a little bit of that story.

[song interlude]

Treurnicht: You know, a social innovation —  how social innovation happens —  depends on the nature of the social innovation. I think it can follow a fairly traditional innovation path of an idea that develops proof points, develops community acceptance, begins to become an established innovation in the marketplace or in its community, and then finds ways to scale. So, there are a lot of parallels and, in fact, we see that as we support social enterprises side by side with traditional businesses. They have governance challenges, they have management challenges, they have financing challenges — there are a lot of similarities along that innovation journey. But social innovations also manifest themselves inside community organizations that are at large, inside the public sector, where I think there’s a huge need for innovation, and inside corporations. In that sense, it’s a toolset that’s not a point solution, it’s much more of a system-level solution. And you have to think about all those dimensions of the small-, intermediate- and the larger-scale solutions. Obviously, they follow different trajectories to get to impact.

The scale of the challenges and the time horizons that Ilse works on are in order of magnitude larger than my day-to-day life, so it was a real treat to hear her vision laid out so clearly.

Treurnicht: You know the dream from a MaRS perspective, I would say, is you have to assume that if you’re a technology wizard and you want to build a company that’s going to be worth a billion dollars, you would still think of Silicon Valley as the natural place where you can most quickly get there, or you have the best shot at getting there. If we can get to a place where our own innovators, and the smartest innovators in the world who want to touch a billion lives, can think of Canada as the place to come, I hope MaRS can be a little bit of that story. I think about all the problems we really need to solve, and the reality is those problems cost societies a fortune. So, if you solve them, if you have the guts and the patience and the willingness to work really hard on those complex challenges, you’re going to be handsomely rewarded economically. So, this is not a soft peddling-growth strategy. But I think that should be our dream. What do we have to do to actually make that happen? Because one of the challenges of the innovation space —  and it’s true of the social innovation space too —  is the talking people far outnumber the doing people. We need more doers. That’s the only way the needle moves, right? It’s not talking about it.

[Outro Theme Song]

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit