Kiri Bird: on Incubating Social Enterprise and Systems Building

Kiri Bird: on Incubating Social Enterprise and Systems Building

Jul 11th, 2016

Kiri Bird is the Manager of Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab), a social innovation initiative of Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU.  With her background in communications, international relations, social enterprise and sustainable community development, Kiri has developed a nuanced perspective on the complexities of social innovation.  

LEDlab has now completed its inaugural year informed by the consultation process and has brought many valuable services to the community.  The lab incubates social enterprise through resourcing existing organizations with graduate student project coordinators, capacity building workshops, network development and system mapping to improve the livelihoods of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents.  

BC Healthy Communities: Why did you initially decide to pursue this line of work? 

"We unpack how we understand privilege and power and what it means to be doing this work in the community."

Kiri Bird: I don’t think I could have ever foreseen this work… I could have never known four years ago that I would be doing this, because I didn’t know this work existed.  For example, I mostly describe my work as systems entrepreneurship now, but I only learned that word seven months ago (laughs). 

I feel like I’ve found a bit of a niche amongst systems change professionals in Vancouver, and it’s ambitious work, but I really enjoy the challenge and the complexity of it.  I like holding a lot of ambiguity.

BCHC: What is the role of empathy in your work?

KB: Through the LEDlab program, we really work on two levels: there is the work we do through our internship program, which is mainly focused on incubating social enterprise, and then there is the work that I do as the lab manager, and that is focused on system building; both levels of work, I think, use empathy. 

For the students, you can imagine some of the early pushback we got around placing students in the DTES. We thought, how can we do this with as much tact and caution as possible?  Part of that solution is embedding students within existing organizations that have authentic and longstanding relationships with residents. 

We do quite a lot of work with our students right at the outset of the placement. As a cohort, we do an immersive week with them, in which we unpack how we understand privilege and power and what it means to be doing this work in the community. We ask them specifically to hold back on assumptions, hold back their opinions, and to just observe and reflect on what they’re seeing and experiencing. We ask them, for the first two months at least to adopt a beginner’s mindset and to synthesize their experience, but to stop just short of making recommendations.

In my own work, it [empathy] is about walking in the shoes of every different stakeholder group . . . and finding a common entry point for discussion. I work with a really broad network of people and organizations, but service agencies, social enterprise, local businesses, business improvement associations, resident associations, academics, students, and government are the main groups. As you can imagine, there are a lot of different agendas and interests!

BCHC: What are some of the key "aha" moments you have had working for LEDlab?

KB: In all the complexity of this work, you need to be really clear on who it is you are designing for.  The most developed of our strategies is this initiative is around scaling social impact hiring. Since beginning work in this space, we’ve narrowed in on a gap in the employment continuum of formal employment for people who are living on income assistance. By doing this, the range of opportunities, or the types of opportunities in terms of employment that we could try to create or stimulate narrowed substantially.

Because we know that many individuals living on income assistance can only work 4-8 hours a week before earned income is ‘clawed back’ by the province, and because we also know that many people living on income assistance are living in social housing, we are thus able to better access and design for a really specific population. The DTES is not a homogenous community, so this is only one strategy.

BCHC: What are some of the major challenges in your work?

KB: One of the biggest struggles we’ve had is in trying to, and this sentence is a great example, de-institutionalize our language. I think social innovation language can be very academic, very ivory tower, it can be very alienating, not just to community groups, but also to community development groups that have been doing social innovation work for decades.

Just because there are new buzzwords and terms or new tools around some of this work doesn’t mean these are all new ideas.  So how do you meet different stakeholder groups where they’re at with the language they want to use…that’s just hard to figure out. 

"Our program marries the ideologies of community development, social innovation and social enterprise, and that these aren’t all new ideas."

BCHC: How do you face these challenges?  

KB: Some of the buzzwords are getting easier to accept.  “Innovation” and “entrepreneurship” are getting easier to accept. I don’t always talk about prototyping; I find that “prototyping” is one of the worst words to use in a community context. I try to talk about getting constant feedback, and learning from what works and what doesn’t. “Testing” and “experimentation” definitely don’t land in this community, it gets complicated for sure. 

We [also] actively talk about the fact that our program marries the ideologies of community development, social innovation and social enterprise, and that these aren’t all new ideas. So I actively name some of those tensions, and that helps a lot. That’s probably the solution I use most commonly.

BCHC: How do you hope to achieve the impact that you envision?

KB: Not alone!  One of the things about incubating community-driven social innovation is that there always needs to be an entrepreneur who already exists in the community. You’re constantly working in concert with the opportunities that are present and the people who are ready to run with those opportunities.  Our approach is to find the entrepreneurs, find ways to build their capacity using business modeling, systems thinking, etc., and then build systems around them, which support and enhance their work.

To find out more about Kiri and the LEDlab team’s approach, visit their website.


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