Social Innovation and Cities – Les Jardins Gamelin, Montreal

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This blogpost by Social Innovation Fellow Lyndsay Daudier was originally written for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog. It has been re-posted with the author's permission.

Definition: An influence process leading to social change that rejects existing social standards and proposes new ones.

When referring to social innovation in cities, the one and only concern is the welfare of human beings in the environment where they evolve. This is increasingly important today since 80% of the population live in cities. We are experiencing a constant renewal of urban areas in order to meet the new needs of its inhabitants. We are witnessing political transformations, planning changes, technology improvements and the discovery of changes by city-dwellers and visitors alike.

For true innovation to occur in a city, economic/technical innovation must merge with community innovation, as it is largely the community that will benefit from these changes. A community does not consist only of its representatives, but all those who use it: children, young people, the active population, the inactive population, seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers, immigrants, First Nations members. It is therefore critical to clearly identify everyone’s needs.

Moreover, in keeping with the times, innovation also requires a smart design, whether it be in the use of technological tools for a comfortable urban life, the planning of a city space or the ergonomics of public equipment. The challenge today is also about working with what already exists and making the most of it. For example, the planning of a city space must take into account what has happened there historically, the population groups that already frequent this locale, as well as the existing architecture. Innovation is not a substitute for heritage. Instead, it must go further to find out what must no longer be done and respond to the new needs.


The builders of the city are not just the people who envision it; they are also the ones who pass through it and who live in it. To make the transformation movement a success, we must join forces. A vibrant example of this is the development of Jardins Gamelin in Montreal last summer. Beyond the notion of creating a city space, this garden was intuitively designed to take everyone’s needs into account. This public square, which had long been occupied by a homeless population, had to reinvent itself by keeping things simple so that everyone could use the space…without uprooting the homeless! A place where people can sing karaoke, relax and do yoga or garden and grow vegetables right downtown to help feed the underprivileged population. Among the highlights: a local user telling a tourist not to wake a homeless person who is sleeping in the sunlight and not disturbing anyone. After all, he’s at home…

Lastly, social innovation must not come at the expense of the environment. With findings across the globe, such as those established at COP21, we are going to have to innovate while preserving our resources, reducing our carbon footprint and using renewable energy.

Social innovation in a city is an often-misused term. Innovation must be developed with an overall vision: it requires a shift in thinking to change our cities while taking into account the needs, the design and the environment. More and more, the public is making its voice heard. Innovation also means sharing ideas, which often results in beauty and admiration for what has been created.

VIDEO: SIRC Webinar #2 on 100in1Day and Active Citizenship

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On Tuesday, October 28, 2014, Cities for People and Social Innovation Generation (SiG) co-hosted the second webinar in our joint series, Social Innovation & Resilience in Cities with Juan Carlos and Cédric Jamet, core organizers who launched the 100in1Day movement in Canada.

In this interactive webinar, our guests tell the story of the 100in1Day movement and invited participants to reflect on the question: "What do you want for your city?" At the heart of 100in1Day is active citizenship, which means going beyond voting and complaining to living consciously and embracing our own power as everyday urban citizens.

Join us in exploring the practice of active citizenship and finding your own personal connection to place and community. Dare to step out of your personal bubble and into the commons.

Watch the recording here:

SIRC webinar #2: 100in1Day and Active Citizenship from J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on Vimeo.

Enabling City: Enhancing Creative Community Resilience

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Many commonly think of resilience as strictly pertaining to science or emergency management. But in the era of openness and collaboration, resilience is also increasingly understood as having neighbours to count on a responsive governance framework to rely on, and spaces in which to come together during a time of need.

Whether a city is resilient or brittle is an indicator of a history of past policy - and decision-making. A thriving, resilient city is one where infrastructure, physical assets and amenities are deployed to meet the needs of all – especially vulnerable populations – and where opportunities are equally distributed in a way that does not degrade the environment.

Systems and social agents play an important role in this process. Systems include the natural environment, the physical infrastructure, the social institutions and local knowledge of a place. Agents are actors like individuals, households, private firms, and civil society organizations that shape it.

A truly comprehensive resilience strategy, then, is one that employs a collaborative approach that harnesses and supports the strengths of both.

Tweet this: A truly comprehensive #resilience strategy, is one that harnesses & supports both social agents and systems.

Most blueprints for resilience planning suggest that cities are uniquely positioned to respond to the interconnected challenges of our time. Municipalities are the level of government closest to residents, and can therefore act as mediator between local needs and national resources. The urban scale also presents inherent advantages in terms of density, connectivity and infrastructure efficiency that allow urban actors to innovate, achieve more networked governance, and centralize the use of resources. A call for “re-localization” of ecosystems and economies is therefore made in order to decrease regional dependence of imported resources and encourage a shift to more humanly manageable, place-based scales.

Locally, a fast-growing number community-driven efforts are leading this powerful transition. Examples include initiatives like Toronto’s Project Neutral and Transition Towns, the global movement that works with communities and municipalities to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change through re-localization strategies (see Volume 1.). They extend to the launch of Mosaic, a crowdfunding platform for investing in renewable energy sources; Seattle’s Food Forest, and Depave, a collaborative effort to remove unnecessary pavement from urban areas and increase the amount of land available for habitat restoration.

Combined, these initiatives represent what researchers Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison call ‘‘temporary public spaces”, social movements of collective creation that provide society with ideas, identities, and even ideals to collectively explore narratives of innovative adaptation.

If our identities are anchored and in part informed by the landscapes surrounding us, then it is true that a warming planet changes not only our ecosystems, but our collective stories. Many are the cultural rituals connected, for example, to the change of season; countless the predictions that are made on a daily basis in relation to the weather and other natural conditions. For communities to have a sense of control and ownership over this change, the commons become the avenue through which to pool resources and resourcefulness together, in which to build consensus and facilitate decision-making, and in which to embed participation and transparency into the everyday norms that will inform the future responses of cities.

Resilience is important in the context of advancing social innovation because it makes explicit what many know intuitively: that inequality in one neighbourhood affects the city as a whole; that poverty and concentrations of wealth make cities brittle. Community-led adaptation includes not only a process of self-management, then, but also the technical, civic, and creative support for citizens to engage with (and re-design) government processes directly.

Chiara Camponeschi is the founder of, a website that, like Cities For People, aims to creatively respond to today’s most pressing issues by harnessing community imagination as a tool of social transformation. Connect with her @Enablingcity via Twitter.