Meet the UWaterloo social innovation pioneer tackling society’s biggest problems.

Frances Westley

Photo courtesy of Jeff Miller and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

20 ago, almost nobody recycled. Today, tossing a bottle in a trash-can is a recipe for dirty looks and scorn. Recycling is a great example of how society’s attitudes on something can change seemingly overnight. This is what is known as social innovation. Leading the charge for social innovation at the University of Waterloo is Dr. Frances Westley, chair of Social Innovation at the School of Environment, Enterprise & Development (SEED).

Those outside of academia likely know Westley from her groundbreaking book, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed. Published in 2006, the book vaulted Westley into the ranks of the world’s top social innovators which include microfinance pioneers Muhammad Yunus and Akhtar Hameed Khan. While the book does not lay out an easy road map for change, a good place to start is by getting the best and brightest minds from all areas of society together in one place. Here at the Faculty of Environment, that place is Social Innovation Generation (SiG) -- a collaborative partnership between the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, University of Waterloo, MaRS Discovery District, and PLAN Institute.

Bringing together academics, business leaders and government takes a special kind of interdisciplinary mind. Westley, whose academic background includes, English, religion and sociology – and later business -- has just that kind of rare mind.

In 2007, the University of Waterloo beat out several other universities to offer her the chance to create her own interdisciplinary social innovation program in the Faculty of Environment. She couldn’t resist. “I really wanted to be in a place where innovation is front and centre,” she explains. “I want to be in a place with a big interest in innovation and that was University of Waterloo.”

Five years later, Westley, SiG and the Faculty of Environment are making change happen through what are known as, Change Lab. They are Canada’s contribution to a global trend that includes Denmark’s celebrated MindLab and Barack Obama’s Challenge.gov.

One pioneering success from PLAN, a partner in the SiG group, is the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), which has shifted the policy of our government and the big five banks to see people with disabilities differently. Unlike those who are disadvantaged by unemployment, people with disabilities are disabled for life and until recently, strict benefit guidelines prevented them from building financial assets that will allow for independence in their later years. The Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) is a powerful savings tool similar to a registered education savings plan, but designed specifically for people living with a disability. The plan allows those living with a disability to have financial security well into older age, thus avoiding the poverty trap and enabling independence.