An Environment of Change: Resilience, Vulnerability and Social Innovation


By Al Etmanski

This is the second of a four-part series emanating from the work of a national collective – the Belonging Initiative. Three key member organizations, L’Arche Canada, L’Agora and the PLAN Institute, recently launched a website to further the critical discussion of the need for social change at many levels. Al Etmanski from the PLAN Institute, Nathan Ball from L’Arche Canada, and Jacques Dufresne from L’Agora recently turned their focus to the environmental summit in Copenhagen. You can find their perspectives at The following is excerpted from Al Etmanski’s contribution to the discussion.

Like the many writers quoted by Jacques Dufresne, I too wonder how successfully we will reduce our collective carbon emissions without a corresponding understanding of the social “glue” of belonging.

There appears to be a token admission of the importance of the social in phrases like “triple bottom line,” often depicted as a stool with three legs – financial, environmental and social. However, this intellectual awareness has not travelled from the brain into concrete action.

This should be seen as our collective failure – we are all to blame. It would be easier to blame governments for not integrating the levers at their disposal – policy, taxation, grants and purchasing power – into a strategy that addresses the challenges of social cohesion, as well as environmental degradation, or blame business for promoting excessive consumption or environmentalists for having one-track minds. But what about those of us within the social/ voluntary sector who focus exclusively on our one solution to one social problem? Are we not capable of and equally responsible for addressing these challenges?

Surely, the answer lies within each of us to understand how our actions can contribute to the problem (or solution), and to do something about it. This calls for everyone’s re-activity, not just those in traditional positions of authority.

For the past three years, among other collaborations, I have been working with colleagues across Canada to increase our capacity to innovate and be creative. This collaboration is called Social Innovation Generation (SIG) ( We believe the only way to deal with our deeply rooted social and environmental problems is to usher in a culture of continuous innovation where we let go of approaches that no longer work; understand we are dealing with complex problems that will require deep exploration; admit that mystery, paradox and ambiguity are constant companions, to be embraced not purged; and recognize that our challenges will require the collaboration of all sectors and the involvement of everyone.

Our understanding has been influenced by the Resilience Alliance, a group assembled by CS “Buzz” Holling, a respected ecologist and the originator of the theory of Panarchy, which arose from a study of how ecosystems adapt and respond to external threats and challenges and, in doing so, become either more, or less, resilient.

Frances Westley, co-author of Getting to Maybe, a member of the Resilience Alliance and a colleague of mine in SIG, has adapted the information from resilience in ecosystems to social systems. Here is her definition of social innovation:

Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system… The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to the overall social and ecological resilience.

What is noteworthy about this perspective is the critical role that vulnerable people play in strengthening the overall resilience of society and our capacity to respond to external threats from whenever and wherever they come. This reinforces the perspective offered by Jacques Dufresne and Jean Vanier. As social innovation serves vulnerable people by providing them with an opportunity to engage, contribute and belong, their viewpoints, their diversity, their participation and their being equally serve society.

And, since the definition suggests social and ecological systems are inextricably linked, the earth’s resilience depends on ensuring that the voices of people who are disadvantaged, marginalized, labelled and ignored are heard and heeded. Perhaps this positive impact is the only invitation we need to engage in the post-Copenhagen discussions. For more info, visit

Al Etmanski is a disability activist and social innovator. He is the co-founder and president of PLAN.


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