Social Innovation and Cities – Les Jardins Gamelin, Montreal

This blogpost by Social Innovation Fellow Lyndsay Daudier was originally written for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog. It has been re-posted with the author’s permission.

Definition: An influence process leading to social change that rejects existing social standards and proposes new ones.

When referring to social innovation in cities, the one and only concern is the welfare of human beings in the environment where they evolve. This is increasingly important today since 80% of the population live in cities. We are experiencing a constant renewal of urban areas in order to meet the new needs of its inhabitants. We are witnessing political transformations, planning changes, technology improvements and the discovery of changes by city-dwellers and visitors alike.
For true innovation to occur in a city, economic/technical innovation must merge with community innovation, as it is largely the community that will benefit from these changes. A community does not consist only of its representatives, but all those who use it: children, young people, the active population, the inactive population, seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers, immigrants, First Nations members. It is therefore critical to clearly identify everyone’s needs.
Moreover, in keeping with the times, innovation also requires a smart design, whether it be in the use of technological tools for a comfortable urban life, the planning of a city space or the ergonomics of public equipment. The challenge today is also about working with what already exists and making the most of it. For example, the planning of a city space must take into account what has happened there historically, the population groups that already frequent this locale, as well as the existing architecture. Innovation is not a substitute for heritage. Instead, it must go further to find out what must no longer be done and respond to the new needs.
The builders of the city are not just the people who envision it; they are also the ones who pass through it and who live in it. To make the transformation movement a success, we must join forces. A vibrant example of this is the development of Jardins Gamelin in Montreal last summer. Beyond the notion of creating a city space, this garden was intuitively designed to take everyone’s needs into account. This public square, which had long been occupied by a homeless population, had to reinvent itself by keeping things simple so that everyone could use the space…without uprooting the homeless! A place where people can sing karaoke, relax and do yoga or garden and grow vegetables right downtown to help feed the underprivileged population. Among the highlights: a local user telling a tourist not to wake a homeless person who is sleeping in the sunlight and not disturbing anyone. After all, he’s at home…
Lastly, social innovation must not come at the expense of the environment. With findings across the globe, such as those established at COP21, we are going to have to innovate while preserving our resources, reducing our carbon footprint and using renewable energy.
Social innovation in a city is an often-misused term. Innovation must be developed with an overall vision: it requires a shift in thinking to change our cities while taking into account the needs, the design and the environment. More and more, the public is making its voice heard. Innovation also means sharing ideas, which often results in beauty and admiration for what has been created.