Why do we talk so much about all that “innovation stuff”? A window into the CPA’s Epp Peace Incubator Program

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Earlier this month, Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement (CPA) staff members Paul Heidebrecht and Michelle Jackett participated in the 2017 Ashoka U Exchange. Dedicated to transforming higher education into a tool for social innovation, this annual conference brought together over 700 attendees from around the world, including representatives from more than 10 Canadian universities. The CPA’s own Epp Peace Incubator Program is what brought Paul and Michelle to Miami for the conference, and is what drives their ongoing engagement in the growing field of social innovation.

Although many residents of Kitchener-Waterloo might do a mental eye roll when they hear the term innovation, thinking, “Not this again,” social innovation is a phrase heard less frequently. If innovation is the creative act of seeking solutions to problems, social innovation seeks to understand, and solve, social problems. Complex issues ranging from homelessness to food insecurity are being analysed and addressed by social innovators across the globe.

The CPA’s incubator program falls within this broader field of social innovation, offering students and community members a space to explore peace-related social problems, and to develop sustainable solutions. The Epp Peace Incubator Program differs from others by focusing solely on problems relating to peace, and since it was formally launched in the Fall of 2015, it has become clear to Paul and Michelle that there is nothing else like it in this city. In fact, their recent trip to the Ashoka U Exchange made it clear that there is nothing else quite like it – period. 

Paul and Michelle arrived at the Ashoka U Exchange prepared to lead a discussion group on the second day. They had an idea they wanted to test: that peacebuilding frameworks related to addressing political advocacy and systemic change could fill a blind spot within the field of social innovation. 

Day one of the conference opened with a keynote about the “promise and perils” of social innovation, where leaders in the Ashoka U community expressed a hunger for the field to go beyond supporting grassroots initiatives to work for change at a higher level. This sentiment permeated the rest of the conference, echoing throughout sessions, keynotes, and side conversations. 

To be clear, it’s not that systems change isn’t happening within the work of social innovators. Many are able to draw a clear link between their work and the overarching social problem they are trying to address. Still, there is a gap in resources that support and encourage this work as an essential part of change-making. Competencies like this appear to be cherries on top, rather than the bread and butter of sustainable social change.

Building on the capacity of core collaborators such as Project Ploughshares and Tamarack, as well as Grebel’s academic strengths in Peace and Conflict Studies, the Ashoka U Exchange made it clear that the Centre for Peace Advancement is uniquely placed to contribute to the growing field of social innovation. It is inspiring to consider the potential to affect the impact and sustainability of hundreds, if not thousands, of initiatives for social good along the way.

Ashoka U Exchange