The social innovation ecosystem still doesn’t understand Indigenous innovation. This project is working to close the gap.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples’ Wìdjìwàgan project runs online courses for Indigenous innovators and settler ecosystem supporters

Why It Matters

The rate of new businesses in Indigenous communities is growing at five times the rate of non-Indigenous entrepreneurship. The size of the Indigenous business economy is expected to grow from $30 billion to $100 billion by 2025. If impact investors want in, they need a much deeper understanding of what makes up Indigenous innovation.

Artwork by Colleen Gray

This story is in partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). 

What you know as social innovation might actually be Indigenous innovation. 

‘Social innovation’ is a Western term for how Indigenous people have always built business,” reads the homepage of a Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) project called Wìdjìwàgan. 

Molly Damiani, CAP’s manager of social innovation explains: “So much of social innovation is inherent in many Indigenous nations in Canada and around the world. “There are so many characteristics that align with traditional ways of knowing and being and doing…It’s upsetting to see it being misappropriated as a non-Indigenous activity.”

Funded as a partner of the federal government’s Investment Readiness Program, Wìdjìwàgan runs three online courses aimed at clearing up any misconceptions or gaps in knowledge about Indigenous innovation.

The first is aimed at Indigenous people, to introduce those who might be unfamiliar to concepts of Indigenous innovation. The second is aimed at supporters — funders, governments, or accelerator programs, for instance — and introduces them to the nuances of working with Indigenous innovators. And the third, called “Becoming an Indigenous Innovator,” is more practical, guiding Indigenous entrepreneurs or potential entrepreneurs toward the resources and tips they need to start their ventures. 

There’s long been a gap in the way impact investors and Indigenous innovators understand one another, says Damiani. And the settler social impact world will need to catch up quickly. The rate of new businesses in Indigenous communities is growing at five times the rate of non-Indigenous entrepreneurship. The size of the Indigenous business economy is expected to grow from $30 billion to $100 billion by 2025.

While the concepts of settler-created social innovation and Indigenous innovation — respect for the planet, reinvestment in communities, and thinking about a business’s impacts on future generations, for instance — might be similar, the language used to describe what settlers know as social innovation is different from how many Indigenous communities have described their own business philosophies. 

If Canada’s social innovation and social finance ecosystem wants to be inclusive, equitable, and decolonized, it’s essential that the ecosystem starts using language that’s accessible to all Indigenous innovators, Damiani says. That means much less jargon, which can exclude people outside of settler-led social innovation organizations and communities, in any promotional materials, application processes, or descriptions of social innovation programming or funding. In the meantime, though, Wìdjìwàgan translates some of that jargon for Indigenous innovators. 

‘Social innovation’ is a Western term for how Indigenous people have always built business.

Diamani says another major goal CAP has for the Wìdjìwàgan project is to legitimize Indigenous processes of social innovation. While mainstream or settler-led social innovation often brings to mind people working on brand-new, completely novel, often emerging technology-centred solutions, Indigenous innovation can often be more of a look back at traditional ways of thinking or operating in Indigenous communities and applying them to today’s challenges. 

What’s important for any supporters of Indigenous innovators to understand is that “part of incorporating that traditional knowledge perspective is accepting that new is not always the answer,” Damiani says. “That’s kind of a reframing and an expansion of the definition of social innovation, and a decolonial approach to social innovation that says it doesn’t have to be new, it doesn’t have to be a novel creation. It can absolutely be coming from teachings from your ancestors and relying on things that have guided your communities since the beginning.” 

Another key difference for supporters — investors, accelerator programs, or government funders — in the ecosystem to understand: the way impact is measured can be different between Indigenous-led and settler-led social innovation projects. Damiani says Indigenous methods of measuring the success of a project are often centred around whether it has improved the quality of life among people involved, whereas a more colonial or settler-led project might rely on a SWOT analysis, a business term meaning measuring strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to a venture. Another way to look at the difference is that Indigenous methods tend to be more qualitative than quantitative, Damiani says. 

“We’re definitely noticing this more holistic approach that seeks to capture the whole picture of the experience with the project in order to understand if it is doing the work it intends to do, and that same approach is being applied to the lifetime of the entire project, so how it’s going to play out in the future and how it’s going to be adapted,” Damiani says. 

Indigenous impact measurement tends to take a broader look at how various metrics intersect too, Diamani says. “You’re not simply ever just assessing ecology or the effects on the environment,” she says. Instead, an Indigenous innovator might measure how a project’s effects on the environment interacts with or weighs against its effects on the people administering it, or its financial viability. “Everything should be treated as related to one another as opposed to separate components,” Damiani says. 

Better knowledge of Indigenous methods for impact measurement is one way the social innovation ecosystem can better support Indigenous innovators, but Wìdjìwàgan has seven key recommendations, synthesized from conversations CAP team members had with people in the social and Indigenous innovation ecosystem as part of the Wìdjìwàgan project. 

For governments, it recommends distributing funding more locally, and offering more non-repayable funding. The organization has three recommendations for financial intermediaries: adapt risk and impact evaluations “to meet the cultural requirements of Indigenous peoples”; make sure all employees “have an understanding of the role Traditional Knowledge plays in Indigenous Innovation”; and, where possible, have Indigenous employees “conduct due diligence, review funding application submissions, perform impact evaluations, and consult with Indigenous community leaders to promote iteration and improvement over time.” 

CAP recommends national Indigenous organizations take on the work of disseminating information about innovation ecosystem supports to Indigenous innovators. And Indigenous community leaders should put pressure on the federal government to provide more programming for investment readiness, understanding that there’s been “insufficient time and support provided to Indigenous organizations to become investment ready.” 

Damiani says Wìdjìwàgan’s funding from the Investment Readiness Program is part of Employment and Social Development Canada’s effort to include more Indigenous perspectives, after advocacy from national Indigenous organizations like CAP. “It was definitely a conscious effort on the part of not just CAP but many Indigenous organizations to be there,” she says.

Damiani says most of the people who’ve taken part in the courses so far have been those who have “actively been seeking information on what to do with this gap that exists in the ecosystem,” but the CAP team plans to spend more time reaching out to organizations that might be less in the know. 

“What I would love to do is, over the next three months, directly reach out to organizations who might not be using (Wìdjìwàgan) and try to support them in incorporating a daily practice in doing some of the things the project puts forth,” Damiani says. For example, she says, CAP recommends incorporating self-reflection on one’s own beliefs about what constitutes social innovation into a daily practice.

Damiani says she hopes the federal government will incorporate tools like Wìdjìwàgan into the Social Finance Fund “in preparing future partners to best build an inclusive and equitable ecosystem by having the tools available to them.” 

She says there have been talks among IRP partners to create some kind of hub with resources like Wìdjìwàgan for future Social Finance Fund partners to access. “There’s been so much great work done and it would be such a shame for it not to be utilized on a daily basis.”