Learning modules

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Welcome to the WISIR learning modules on Social Innovation for Complex Problems

In a complex world, making positive change isn't easy. Understanding social innovation and having simple, useful tools for analysis will help.


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Social Innovation for Complex Problems

Free lecture videos, documents, tools, and other resources for understanding social innovation.

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Closed captioning is available in English, Portuguese and Hindi for our learning module videos. To choose the language for your closed captioning viewing, click on the [CC] button in the bottom bar of the video player window. 

More information on closed captioning and subtitles is available on the Vimeo support page.

Here, you can learn about ...

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Complex systems

  • What are complex systems and how do they work?
  • How can I analyze my complex system?
  • How can I describe my complex problem?
Cup of coffee on systems thinking mindmap

Systems thinking

  • How can I see what's going on in my system?
  • What are the phases and dynamics within my system?
  • When and where could I intervene?
Group of people standing in a circle with their hands in front of them

System entrepreneurship

  • What is the role of a system entrepreneur?
  • What is social innovation for system change?
  • How do I decide when and how to collaborate for the most impact?

Learning objectives

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If you complete all the activities as well as the lectures in the three learning modules, by the end, you'll have learned a lot about social innovation and complexity theory, and the basics of complex systems thinking and mapping. More specifically, you will understand:

  • How and why complexity thinking and systems thinking are useful in fostering social innovation.
  • The characteristics and dynamics of complex adaptive systems.
  • How simple rules can underpin complex phenomena, which are greater than the sum of their parts and go across scales.
  • What social-ecological resilience means.
  • The difference between invention and innovation.
  • Some ways to analyze potential innovations.
  • Some ways to identify innovative spaces and opportunities to shift systems.
  • What a system entrepreneur does and some of his/her important roles.
  • How to embrace and manage paradox.
  • What generative relationships are, and why they're so important for system change.

You'll learn to use some key tools for thinking about complex adaptive systems, such as:

  • The adaptive cycle.
  • System mapping and feedback loops.
  • Journey mapping.
  • The nemesis exercise.
  • The horns of the dilemma.
  • The generative STAR.

And, through the exercises and activities, you'll be able to apply all these to problems on which you're working or about which you're curious.


Each learning module has its own page and, within each, you can navigate by:

  • scrolling down to find everything in its learning sequence, or
  • clicking on the links in the sidebar to jump to units or to see lists and links of all videos, resources, activities, or coaching segments.

Throughout, we use the following icons to help you navigate easily:

Lecture video logo

Lecture videos are core learning module material. They default to HD on desktop browsers. If you're having bandwidth issues, HD can be turned off using the button at the bottom right of the video player. Videos can also be toggled to view full screen. The videos have links to PDF transcripts for your reference. Closed captioning is available in English, Portuguese, and Hindi and can be switched on by clicking the [CC] button in the Vimeo navigation toolbar at the bottom of the video window.

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Resources indicate supplementary material to which you'll get access through links or by downloading or viewing PDFs.


Web video logo

Web video indicates a link to a video on an external site.


Coaching logo

Coaching indicates video coaching to reinforce concepts covered in a video lecture. The videos have links to PDF transcripts for your reference.


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Activity indicates an exercise to complete to increase your understanding and to apply concepts to your situation.


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TED Talks indicates a TED Talk.


If you experience problems accessing the videos or notice an error (e.g., a broken link), please contact us at wisir@uwaterloo.ca

We would like to thank the McConnell Foundation for their vision and generous support of this project. You can find out all about the foundation and its programmes on the McConnell Foundation site.


Your learning experience will be enhanced if, before diving in, you prepare with some readings that will help you understand key concepts. We'll introduce readings along with the learning module content to which they most directly relate; but, of course, you can skip forward or go back at any time as you delve into what you find most useful.

We'll focus on those resources that are freely available; but, for those who want to go further, we also provide information on books for purchase that will go more in-depth, and academic articles which you can find in university libraries (we've provided links to the full citations so you can find them).

Freely available

If you want to buy:

At the library:

Questions? Contact us.