Vancouver’s LEDlab presents a replicable funding & program model for social labs in higher ed

This article was re-posted with permission from the RECODE Blog. Local Economic Development Lab Program Manager, Kiri Bird, outlines the LEDlab program model, and sheds light on the opportunity that universities have to leverage the Mitacs Accelerate Research Grants for social change. 

In the Fall of 2014, RADIUS SFU, a social innovation lab and venture incubator at Simon Fraser University entered into a three-year partnership with Ecotrust Canada to create the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Drawing on Ecotrust Canada’s 20 years of on-the-ground community development practice, we worked to understand the local community’s priorities for economic development and innovation.

Building on this foundation, we drew from RADIUS’ expertise in process innovation, and social venture development to build a unique program. The model developed at the LEDlab works at multiple scales to incubate community-driven social ventures, while building community capacity to identify and act upon opportunities for systemic change.

The LEDlab leverages a Mitacs Accelerate Research Grant to incorporate 30 living wage, four-month, full-time graduate internships over three years. Graduate interns provide actual human capacity, research and prototyping support to under-resourced community organizations to advance innovative ideas. We use a cohort model for projects, students, and community partners to develop shared skills and knowledge, collaborate, and change the economic system in support of the local community over time.

Now approaching the third and final year of our planned three-year initiative, the LEDlab has evolved as a platform for systems change that works alongside a broad network of partners to build, test and scale solutions that put money in the pockets of Downtown Eastside residents; enhance the capacity of individuals, organizations and networks for social innovation and social enterprise; and positively disrupt traditional patterns of power and resource use in the community.

Lesson Learned: Be Flexible in your Process & Committed to Emergence

Whether you like it or not, a social lab will take on a life of its own. In our opinion, labs should not be defined by rigid process, but should be committed to responding to emergent needs and opportunities, with a clear focus on assessing each opportunity for its potential impact. Through a rigorous learning and reflection process, we constantly ask ourselves and our partners: What does the system need now? How can we add unique value? We try to be flexible to the needs of our partners and broader community, and we build our processes in response to these needs.

Challenge: Organizing Research around Community Impact

Engaging faculty in traditional research has been a challenge. While our grad students have been prolific in research outputs, working with faculty to develop SHHRC or other large grants hasn’t been possible to date. Reflecting on this challenge, I would design future community-university lab partnerships to have a research mandate clearly defined and supported by the University from the outset, ideally with interdisciplinary or pan-university faculty advisors commitment.

Opportunity: Leveraging Mitacs Partnerships for Social Change

To the best of our knowledge, in 2015 we were the only social innovation lab leveraging a Mitacs Accelerate cluster grant for social change. Since then others have adopted the model, such as the Creative Publics Lab at SFU. Mitacs recently received an additional $221 Million dollars in funding in the 2017 Federal budget and are accepting partnership applications on a rolling basis. We are hoping that more universities will take an interest in becoming active solution-building partners in their communities, and will adapt it for their own use.

With a goal of scaling social innovation labs within higher education through meaningful campus-community partnership, we will be hosting a webinar in partnership with RECODE in May, where we’ll share the details of the Mitacs partnership and funding model in the Local Economic Development Lab. Please register for the webinar, and don’t hesitate to sign up for the LEDlab newsletter to learn more about our evolving work in the labs space.