Moving along the innovation arc

The Learning Exchange is considered by some to be an instance of social innovation because it is unusual for a mainstream university to try to establish connections with a distressed, marginalized community like the Downtown Eastside. But UBC did not set out to do social innovation when it created the Learning Exchange. In 1999, the discourse on social innovation was not on the radar of anyone who was involved in the development of UBC’s Downtown Eastside initiative, including me.

The innovation imperative

Martha Piper
Martha Piper (photo copyright UBC)

But we had to be innovative. Models for involving students in service learning, an approach to experiential learning which was growing in popularity in the United States, did exist. But I found no instances where large, research-intensive universities located at a distance from an inner city area tried to establish a physical presence that would strengthen the local community. While UBC’s President, Martha Piper, and her executive had a nebulous vision about what UBC’s presence in the Downtown Eastside might achieve and some examples of specific activities had been proposed, there was no real plan about how to operationalize the vision. And UBC was an unlikely sponsor for this kind of initiative. As an institution, UBC was not known for being oriented to social issues or being enthusiastic about working in partnership with community organizations.

To hear Martha Piper talking with me about this, click below.

 “UBC is meddling where they shouldn’t be and the motive is wrong.”


And, despite their rhetoric about community-university engagement, universities tend not to be hotbeds of institutional innovation.

Click below to listen to me talking with Walter Sudmant, former Director of UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research unit about this.

“There is a distinction between innovation . . . and institutionalization”


Following good advice

By consulting with organizations and individuals in the Downtown Eastside, we developed a list of recommended activities for UBC to pursue. Fortunately, the consultation also generated some guidelines about how UBC should proceed. These guidelines about how UBC should behave were at least as important as the list of activities. The guidelines reflected the fact that many individuals and organizations in the Downtown Eastside were hostile to UBC’s initiative.

Government initiativesPut bluntly, the advice was this: Keep your eyes and ears open, your mouth shut, and your head down. Move slowly and cautiously. Find allies. Watch your back. If these sound like guidelines for a poorly-provisioned, inexperienced, small band of explorers venturing into unfamiliar and hostile territory it is because that was exactly our situation. We had some sense of what our goal was. We were bolstered by a feeling that we had at least a few champions rooting for us. But we had no map showing us how to reach our goal. Knowing that “she who hesitates is lost” and feeling the stirring of a wind at my back, I started taking small, tentative steps. And I set my radar for interpersonal (and therefore political) dynamics to “red alert.”

In my previous professional life, I relied heavily on various kinds of plans to organize my activities (e.g., timelines for research projects, monthly or quarterly work plans, and daily “to do” lists). But in the early days of the Learning Exchange, I had to abandon my dependence on the planning skills I had learned and rely more on the skills I learned practicing Tai Chi. I had to keep my attention on my centre of gravity, and stay calm. I had to read the movements of my allies and opponents and anticipate what they were going to do next so I could position myself out of harm’s way. I had to keep moving. Mindfully.

What was innovative?

I think what was innovative about the Learning Exchange was not so much what we did but how we did it. The context we were working in—the interface between UBC and the Downtown Eastside–meant that we could not just follow standard operating procedures. None existed for this kind of endeavour in this kind of context.

Looking back, I think there were four key aspects to what we did that constituted social innovation:

First, we set up and operated the storefront in a particular way. Having staff and local residents working alongside each other meant that these two disparate groups got to know each other through osmosis as well as through direct interactions. The staff and resident groups were different in many ways. For example, staff members were earning salaries, residents were poor. For the most part, staff and residents had different class backgrounds and life histories. And the staff tended to be younger than most of the residents who frequented the storefront (who we referred to as “patrons”). Having the staff team and local residents working in close proximity meant that we all had lots of opportunities to become aware of our stereotypes, assumptions, and fears.

We also had lots of opportunities to become aware of the commonalities that bridged our differences: the issues we cared about, the aspirations we had, and what made us laugh or cry. The staff’s daily connections with patrons had a subtle but definite influence on how we did our work. We were constantly reminded that the Downtown Eastside was different from other places, that residents’ living conditions were different from ours and we had to be alert to the fact that “we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

(photo copyright UBC)

I did not intend to create a cauldron of social learning in the storefront. My objectives were to create a modest presence for UBC that felt welcoming and respectful and to avoid creating the barriers between professionals and local residents that typify organizational spaces in the Downtown Eastside. My purpose was not to offend the community by creating a grandiose presence and not to dehumanize residents or staff by creating barriers with both practical and symbolic power.

The magic that happened—the relationships that were formed and the ideas and learning that emerged—was an unintended consequence. (It may be important to say that by using the word “magic” I am trying to convey the mysterious, exciting, ineffable quality of the atmosphere of the storefront. I am not suggesting we were all covered in pixie dust. The “magic” included conflict, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, disappointment—the full range of difficult interactions and emotions. This was part of the magic and one of the signs of its presence. And some days the magic was nowhere to be found.)

Second, we created ways for Downtown Eastside residents and UBC students to pursue new ideas. We supported them to take responsibility for producing results, to push to the edges of their comfort zones, and make a contribution to the community. Poor people and students are both socially disempowered groups. They are considered not as capable as other people (for different reasons). After some trial and error learning, we realized that local residents and UBC students both had much more capacity to contribute than the stereotypes suggest. We also realized that it was not effective to treat these groups as incapable, as needy or naive, and simply develop programs that we, the professionals, designed.

Third, we worked hard to create a particular kind of organizational culture. Our culture was based on purposes, principles and practices (not rules, regulations, and regimens).

Fourth, we did not wait for certainty, clarity, or confidence. We just went ahead and did what seemed to make sense in the moment. This was partly because Shayne Tryon, my “right-hand man” and I both have entrepreneurial tendencies. It was partly because it seemed the only way to proceed given the context. We did not know what would be acceptable or effective in the Downtown Eastside. We did not know which people or units at UBC would want to collaborate with us.

This approach was unusual both at UBC and in the Downtown Eastside. Organizational initiatives at UBC typically are developed over long periods of time, with a great deal of attention paid to goals, objectives, budget requirements, placement in the university structure, etc. In the Downtown Eastside, new initiatives usually are undertaken in response to specific issues, with particular target populations in mind. In contrast, the Learning Exchange moved quickly in response to opportunities and challenges that presented themselves. We did not have pre-determined agendas or pre-existing ideas about where we should direct our energies. We took risks. We did not break rules but we were willing to bend them or change course in order to avoid them.

Taking this approach turned out to be one reason why we succeeded. The Learning Exchange moved quickly from being a vague idea to being a living example of what community-university engagement can look like. We did not take months or years to line up allies, secure a budget, design an organizational structure, develop a strategic plan, and get permission from the powers-that-be to proceed. We just went to work.

To hear me talking with Walter Sudmant, former Director of UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research unit, about how we approached our work at first, click below.

“Not much happens in that way in a university”



The first third of the articles in the Learning Exchange Story describe how my team and I shaped our activities during the first few years of our work. Basically, we followed the advice we were given in the consultation. We put one foot in front of the other, trying to stay alert to what was happening around us. Even though there were hostile forces operating in both the Downtown Eastside and the university, my team and I quickly came to feel that there were also benevolent forces at work. From the beginning, the Learning Exchange felt like it had a momentum, a wind behind it or a current running through it that swept us along. As the founding director of the Learning Exchange, people sometimes refer to my role as akin to that of a parent. But, in the beginning, I did not feel like a mother or father. I felt like a midwife.

We were lucky that some of the team’s efforts began to pay off. Surprisingly quickly, the Learning Exchange became accepted in the Downtown Eastside (despite the odds) and the growth of Community Service Learning (CSL) became an important strategic priority for the university (also perhaps against the odds).

Conditions that promoted innovation

From my perspective now, many years later, I think the conditions that enabled the Learning Exchange to be innovative include the following:

There was an academic literature related to Community-University Engagement and Community Service Learning that gave legitimacy to our work. Our work could easily be placed within a larger context. We were innovating but doing so within a container that was recognizable and defensible within the academy.

The Downtown Eastside was hostile to UBC’s presence in the community. This kept me and my team on our toes. In addition, the neighbourhood has a reputation for resisting incursions by mainstream institutions. Nobody was surprised that we might need to invent some new approaches in such a complex, dynamic, and contested environment.

Neither the university nor the Downtown Eastside had high expectations about what we might accomplish (in fact, many people in both environments expected us to fail). Some people were watching us, but more with curiosity than concerns about things like “return on investment.” At the same time, key leaders at UBC, notably the President, Martha Piper, were staunch supporters of the initiative. This meant we had the luxury of being able to learn through trial and error. We could take risks, perhaps make mistakes, and not worry about failing to meet expectations. And we knew that if we did get criticized, the President would stand behind us (within limits).

I was given a free hand because the university leaders who were overseeing my work were not experts in relevant fields of endeavour. None of them ever said, “Margo, you can’t do that.” Their attitude seemed to be, “I don’t understand exactly what she’s doing, but it seems to be working. Let’s let her run with it.”

I had allies at UBC who went out of their way to help the Learning Exchange succeed. For example, UBC staff members who helped us with human resources and budget issues looked for ways to “work the system” rather than throwing bureaucratic barriers in our path.

I was able to draw on personal experience. I had enough professional experience as a leader, manager, planner, and researcher and enough life experience, including experience in meditation and martial arts, to be able to integrate rational analysis with intuition and gut instinct.

We were the right people at the right place at the right time. In particular, I think the triad of Martha Piper, me, and Shayne Tryon was a combination that made the Learning Exchange work. Martha had the vision, the clout and a passion for connecting with community; she opened the door and kept it open. I had the leadership and management skills, the community experience, and a passion for engaging with the issue of social marginalization; I knew how to translate UBC’s vision into action. Shayne had the energy, organizational skills, and drive to pursue new and exciting ideas; he could make things happen.

To hear Martha Piper’s perspective on the importance of finding the right person with an ability to execute a vision, click below.

 “We have no lack of good ideas . . . what we lack is the ability to execute.”


We had just the right amount of money. Although it took ten years to get on solid financial ground, the President and her fund-raising team helped the Learning Exchange secure important gifts from external donors early on, gifts that enabled us to grow quickly but not too quickly. We were always encouraged to keep growing even when it was not clear how we were going to pay for that growth. For the first several years, we did not have secure funding at the beginning of each fiscal year. But UBC’s leaders always ensured our budget was covered.

I actually think it was helpful that our financial situation was precarious in the early years. I have been involved in two non-profit organizations who received large grants early in their evolution. In both cases, the organization floundered when the grant ran out. In both cases, when the grant was received, the people who spearheaded the organizations’ creation assumed that they could withdraw since paid staff would do the organization’s work. The sparks that led to the organizations’ creation died out because they were not fueled by the continual infusion of the founders’ passion for the work.

At the Learning Exchange, the fact that our financial position was uncertain meant that the staff team could not get too comfortable. We had to stay on the tightrope we were walking. This kept us alert. It also meant that we kept reminding ourselves about why our work mattered and why we cared about it enough to carry on despite the threats we faced.

The Learning Exchange was new. Almost everyone I spoke to about the Learning Exchange in the early years said they thought our work was “exciting.” I think this happened partly because the excitement my team and I felt was contagious. Partly it was because the idea that UBC would try to establish a presence in the Downtown Eastside was a bit surprising, even bold.  Partly it was because “community-university engagement” was “the flavour of the month.” To hear Martha Piper and me discussing this, click below.

“It was a timely idea.”


But the Learning Exchange could not continue to be new forever. We inevitably moved towards institutionalizing our work.

For a discussion of how institutionalization happened, see Moving along the institutionalization arc.

For reflections on other aspects of social innovation, go to The Learning Exchange as social innovation.