Indigenous Innovation

 
Explore the roots of Indigenous innovation, get advice from Indigenous Innovators, and access resources that can support you on own journey.

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What is Indigenous Innovation?

  • Innovation is about building new ideas and solutions for how we can create the change we want to see in the world.

  • Social innovation is a term used for solving problems and building solutions for the betterment of local and global communities and ecosystems.

  • Indigenous Innovation is Indigenous-led, -owned, and -impacted innovation. Indigenous innovation is solving problems and building solutions using Traditional Knowledge – practices, beliefs, and experiences of Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous daycares create immense opportunities for Indigenous communities. An Indigenous daycare supports parents’ ability to work and still be able to provide culturally-relevant care for their children. 

A community garden creates a way for neighborhoods to grow and access locally-grown nutritious food. Community gardens act as a vehicle for education, self-sufficiency and community building.

A language education program that creates hand-crafted regalia from recycled fabrics from the community can inspire cultural pride and strengthen self-identity among all members of the community – young and old. 

A women’s group that creates hand-crafted regalia from recycled fabrics from the community can inspire cultural pride and strengthen self-identity among all members of the community – young and old.  

We have always been problem-solvers and builders.

Indigenous peoples have always been problem solvers and solution builders – inventing products and creating solutions to problems using our Traditional Knowledge.

Here are some examples to be proud of:

  • Kayak and canoe
  • Pain reliever 
  • The cure for scurvy
  • Chewing gum
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Lacrosse

Innovation is in us.

Innovation, change, growth, and flourishing, are not new ideas – they have always been inherent to Indigenous culture and life.

Francine is Algonquin from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec and is founder of Whiteduck Resources Inc. a boutique consulting firm that provides research and evaluation to community, national and international indigenous organizations.

Our values can guide the way.

Traditional Knowledge is an asset when it comes to innovation. Let the teachings from your ancestors and your community guide the way you make decisions. Here are some examples of traditional values and practices that can help you succeed.

The Indigenous idea of leadership is different from the dominant Western way. Indigenous leadership exists within a group and invites all voices to contribute. There is not one leader but rather many people engaged in leadership. In fact, Indigenous Innovators, like Diane Roussin, will ask themselves, “How do we come together and have the conversations about what our roles are? And when are those roles appropriate? When do you take the lead, when do I take the lead because I do fundamentally believe that we do need each other”. The success or failure of an Indigenous Innovation is felt by all within their respective community and for this reason, the risk is also shared by all. For example, an entire community stands to gain from the success of a local day care – parents are able to work and educate themselves and children are able to socially interact with each other – so, the whole community has a reason to support it. 

To say Indigenous Innovation is “local” and “community-based” may mean different things to different people and communities. As Elder Jacqui Lavalley has shared, “People have and will always engage to join a community/be in community”. Indigenous innovation often starts because of a local, immediate, and felt need. 

Examples of Indigenous Innovations that reflect this include canoe and kayak brands, moccasin brands, composting installation companies, and Indigenous musical groups, to name a few. In building these solutions, including the voices of the community matters at every step in the process.

When people value collaboration, above Western values, like efficiency,  time and speed become less important.  It takes time to listen to the voices in a community and this cannot be skipped or rushed; the process is of the utmost importance. Indigenous innovators make space for different points of views, for reflection and for conversation. We prioritize care and respect over speed and “get it done” ways of thinking. The process of Indigenous innovation, supports personal healing explains Indigenous Innovator Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse: “Social Innovation is a way to plant seeds of hope and in those processes it’s really important that we bring back our language, that we bring back our culture, and our ceremonies. Because those are the ways in which we will heal. Those are the ways in which we nurture our spirits, and our ancestors, and those children yet to come”. 

Indigenous Innovation can improve the quality of life of those involved in it, simply by engaging in it. When we make time to include voices, views, and moments for reflection and connection, it is easy to see how the journey really is the destination.

Indigenous Innovation has a wholistic view of ‘well-being’, including mind, body, and spirit. Traditional Knowledge teaches individuals about connectedness of the mind, body, community, and planet. As Melissa Herman explains, “we believe that what affects one person will eventually affect another, and we keep this in mind with every decision”. Traditional Knowledge teaches individuals to broaden the concepts of social and environmental impact to include aspects of the whole individual and life.

Collaboration, as a mindset, exists within a group, team, or community, and extends beyond to other members of the local and global society. For example, Animikii, an Indigenous-led digital agency explains what collaboration means to them, “The Animikii team is remote-first and distributed. This means we work with teammates, contractors, and clients throughout Turtle Island. We see our clients as partners on a shared journey, not just a transactional relationship. As a company, Animikii promotes collaboration, not competition. If you’re an Indigenous technologist or innovator in a similar space we want to find a way to work with you, not compete against you”.

At the heart of collaboration is a fundamental belief about human partnership. Collaborative partnerships mean that partners share respect and goals. Shared understanding is the basis of all great partnerships in business and in life, including partnerships with non-Indigenous people and with the government.

“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things or creating new ways of doing, sometimes it involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation”
– Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair at the Indigenous Innovation Conference in 2015.

The tradition of looking back on old ways is deeply embedded in Indigenous life. Traditional Knowledge itself is created and evolves by being passed down from generation to generation. Through everyday moments together, storytelling, ceremonies, and watching and listening to Elders, children learn their language, their relationship to others and the natural world, to respect and learn to live on the land, as well as their spiritual identity.

First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultures have long passed on knowledge from generation to generation through oral traditions, including communications such as storytelling. Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life.

Engaging in storytelling as a storyteller or a listener is a regular activity and a skill that is valued and honed over your whole life. Storytelling and listening are also both important to social innovation. Listening and reflecting is how we can notice problems – and processes and think of solutions. Storytelling is valuable for building community around your social innovation, for identifying opportunities, and for convincing others to invest in you and your solution such as when applying for funding. Your ability to tell a powerful story about your social innovation and why it is important is essential.

Traditional knowledge is in large part an oral tradition. Traditional Knowledge can be shared orally or through imitation and demonstration. Writing Traditional Knowledge down changes some of its fundamental properties. Indigenous Innovators rely on oral knowledge transfer as a source of wisdom and a formal source of information for decision making and leadership.

Two-eyed seeing is a way of thinking that you can use when you have to manage tension between different worldviews. Two-eyed seeing is used to examine issues and questions from the perspective of different worldviews. Being able to do this can help you solve real-world problems. In the words of Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall, two-eyed seeing is: “To see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together”.

Two-eyed seeing is an instrument that promotes inclusive and measured ways of thinking enabling you to form judgments and make decisions with as much insight and clarity as possible.

Indigenous Innovation has a wholistic view of ‘well-being’, considering the mind, body, and spirit and where success is intertwined on individual, family, community and environmental level.

This wholistic definition of impact, based on Traditional Knowledge, is one that can be used by evaluators, funders, and investors of innovation projects to better understand and support the vision of Indigenous Innovators. 

Innovations that are informed by Traditional Knowledge will dive more deeply into the journey of the innovation rather than just the final outcomes. Evaluations that are informed by Traditional Knowledge will also value the process of innovation.

What is Social Innovation to Canada?

Social Innovation is about “developing new solutions to social or economic challenges. It can improve people’s quality of life through collaborating with new partners, testing creative ideas and measuring their impact” (Government of Canada).

Social innovation is an opportunity to create the change we want to see in the world through economic development. The Government of Canada recognizes the societal and economic benefit of investing in people and organizations – both large and small – creating social innovations and community-based solutions. Indigenous innovators are actively participating in reshaping systems to support themselves in addressing local and global social challenges. 

For more information please visit: Government of Canada page

Indigenous Innovators are leading the way.

Jaqueline Jennings - Raven Indigenous Capital Partners

Jennifer Harper - Cheekbone Beauty

Diane Roussin - Winnipeg Boldness Project

Brianna Oversby​

Indigenous Innovators are able to hold true to their worldviews while actively participating in the Social Innovation economy. For Canada, Social Innovation represents an opportunity for a responsible, inclusive society and economy. 

Canada’s opportunity is your opportunity, too.

The Government of Canada is placing more and more attention on Social Innovation. $2 billion dollars will be invested in Social Innovation projects over the next 10 years through the Social Finance Fund. This fund will be one way to access repayable and non-repayable resources to support your own social innovation project.

How can you innovate?

There are different ways to make your ideas a reality. The circular social innovation process is one way to think about how to go from idea to community impact. The process helps us think about building our ideas in 3 stages and 8 simple steps. These 8 steps can help you build products, programs, platforms, processes or any combinations of all of these things. Every successful business or community initiative goes through its own process, learnings and time.

Social innovation is a never-ending process and pursuit to bring value to your community and to adapt as your environment and needs change. Collaboration and community engagement throughout this process are key to building long-term solutions and change.

Click on each step to learn more

Circular innovation process

Conceptual design stage

  1. Ideation
  2. Concept design
  3. Prototyping

Detail design stage

  1. Experiment
  2. Detail design
  3. Piloting

Implementation

  1. Launch
  2. Reflection

3 examples of Indigenous Social Innovation​ ; Using a circular Social Innovation process

Innovation is a journey that is shared.

Fellow Indigenous Innovators are on the path with you, supporting you!

Jaqueline Jennings

Jennifer Harper

Diane Roussin

Brianna Oversby

What is Indigenous Innovation?

Social innovation is impactful because people can work together based on shared values like the ones below.

Social innovation is inclusive innovation because, if social standing and life are to be improved, the voices of all members of a community or society must be heard, especially those voices whose lives stand to be improved the most. Ex: Getting feedback from many different voices from across your community before you launch.

Inclusion requires collaboration. Coming up with new and creative solutions to problems requires that many perspectives be included and considered as well. Collaboration is the backbone of many other social innovation values. Collaboration between individuals and teams, and across organizations and sectors within the Social Innovation ecosystem is essential to its development. Ex: If you have a community garden, then you can collaborate with a bakery to make a new kind of jam you can sell together at the market alongside your fruit and vegetables.

Social innovation is an approach to changing the world we live in. It has ambitious goals of improving the way we live individually and together on this whole planet. Ex: People all over the world are facing the challenges of pollution and need clean water. Selling your filtration system online so you can ship it internationally can create a global impact.

Social innovation is also a way of creating change right in your community. Use social innovation to solve a local problem to help your neighbours or your family, like starting a daycare or developing a new water filtration device. Ex: Your clothing line is doing well and more and more people have become aware of your brand and community. The local news has come to interview you and your team. Everyone feels proud for what they created together.

Social innovation is an approach that is always learning, developing, and improving upon itself. Long-term thinking is especially important for developing robust solutions that can create long-lasting change. Social innovation cannot only consider the immediate impact. Change must be sustainable. Ex: Over time, our community garden will rotate crops ensuring that our soil remains fertile over the long term.

Social innovation addresses real, felt challenges. Whether the challenge is new or old, it requires creativity in order to develop a solution that prioritizes impact over marketability. Ex: when we encounter an obstacle, we bring our teams together and think about how we can overcome them. When we ran out of cotton for our clothing line, wew realized that we had access to so much recycled fabric within our community and that this would make our clothing line more environmentally friendly.

We have an opportunity to create a local impact and shape how the Social Innovation economy in Canada evolves with Indigenous leadership.

With our Indigenous ways of innovating, we have an opportunity to promote social justice, reconciliation, intercultural dialogue, environmental sustainability, and to build community resilience. Social innovation can have a healing impact on Canadian society and the planet, but only if all people – Indigenous and non-indigenous – are empowered with the knowledge and the resources to be successful.

Together, we can solve our world’s greatest challenges.

Canada’s Social Innovation Ecosystem

Canada’s social innovation ecosystem can enable social innovation through collaboration. It is made up of people of all ages from different parts of society – governments, civil society, the private sector, public sector, universities, individual entrepreneurs, Hereditary chiefs, elected community leaders and others.

Social innovations grow in environments where there is support and access for entrepreneurs and innovators to develop their ideas, conduct research, and build solutions, and put them out into the world – that is what the social innovation ecosystem is for.

Everyone is interconnected by the shared values and goals of improving our quality of life and our environment.

Social Purpose Organizations (SPO)

Canada has kept the definition of a social purpose organization broad. Any of the following types of organizations can be included: 

Where are you in your innovation journey?

Based on your stage, you can find resources that can help you at each stage of your strategy and process.

BLUESKY – Early-stage thinking and design

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have successfully understood the needs and systemic reasons for  underlying challenges

You have confidently identified your mission, vision and purpose within a community. 

You have connected your desire for social impact with an existing community priority or opportunity.

You now understand who your audience and allies can be. 

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have meaningfully found and value your sense of purpose in the social impact you wish to see and create.

You have found harmony between the impact you wish to create and the values and Indigenous wisdom you carry. 

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have identified the opportunities you and your stakeholders see on the horizon. 

You have co-designed your solution with your stakeholders – program(s), product(s) or service(s) that can provide immediate value and impact.  

You have learned from your community what the goals and metrics of success are for the program, product or service. 

You have identified who will benefit from your innovation as well as a list of potential customers and markets. 

DEVELOPMENT – Strategic development

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have identified the value propositions tied to your social innovation. 

You have identified who will pay for the program, product and/or service and how they will pay.

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have identified a business or operating model to start with or evolve to.

You have identified the desired experience you wish for your primary users to feel when they engage with your program, product or service. 

You have carefully planned how and what you will communicate to those who will pay, and to those who will benefit from the program, product and/or service. 

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You understand the strengths, skills and resources you, your team and your stakeholders have in making the social innovation a success. 

You have identified other skills, tools and resources you will need to deliver on your strategy. 

You have identified partnerships, financing, and/or hiring that can provide the remaining skills, tools and resources you need to deliver on your strategy. 

You and your stakeholders know how the team and stakeholders wish to govern, lead and nurture

You have created room for feedback and learning

RESILIENCE – Long-term thinking

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have identified your revenue model

You have calculated the financial projections and current financial health of your business or organization. 

You have identified external sources of social financing (if desired).

WAYS TO IDENTIFY YOU’VE ACHIEVED THIS

You have a sense of the ecosystem and value chain in which your team or organization operates.

You have learned who else can be a partner and ally to deliver added value and create greater impact.

You have created a process to conduct research into the ways your organization can evolve with the changing needs of your stakeholders.

Resources to help you on your journey

Depending on where you are on your innovation journey – bluesky, development, or resilience stage – here are some resources that can help you to continue moving forward.

Early-stage innovation design

Strategic thinking and business set-up

Financial resilience and financial readiness

Join an innovation challenge