The Conservation Authorities of Ontario, Canada as a Social Innovation: Applying the Vision as Social Construction Model for Describing Social Innovations

By McCarthy, Dan; Whitelaw, Graham et al. | The Innovation Journal, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Conservation Authorities of Ontario, Canada as a Social Innovation: Applying the Vision as Social Construction Model for Describing Social Innovations


McCarthy, Dan, Whitelaw, Graham, Shannon, Alexandrina, Alexiuk, Emrin, Ness, Ryan, Eastwood, Meaghan, Mitchell, Bruce, Moore, Michele-Lee, Westley, Frances, The Innovation Journal


ABSTRACT

Introduction

Using a well-documented case study of environmental conservation, watershed-based management organizations in Ontario, Canada (Ontario's Conservation Authorities) (Mitchell and Shrubsole, 1992, 2001) this article illustrates the utility of a recently published conceptual model of social innovation, the Vision as Social Construction (VSC) model (McCarthy et al. 2014), to inform social change processes in environmental conservation contexts across Canada. The main goal of this article is to apply the VSC model of social innovation to the evolution of Ontario's Conservation Authorities as a case study of social innovation. In this way, we are both testing the validity of the VSC model as well as to document the evolution of CA's through an innovation lens to inform the efficacy of CA's and to demonstrate how positive social change can occur in environmental conservation contexts.

Environmental planning and management organizations (e.g. civil society environmental movement organizations, government agencies and quasi-government environmental management organizations at various scales) are often cited in the environmental planning literature as having the capacity to address persistent natural resource management conflicts (e.g. Berkes and Folke, 1998; Mitchell, 2005). These organizations are described as needing to be capable of addressing persistent conflicts between stakeholders and building capacity to respond through decision-making and regulatory processes to political, economic, or ecological changes (Berkes and Folke, 1998; Mitchell, 2005). An archetypical example of such an organization is Ontario's Conservation Authorities (CAs). CAs are quasi-government agencies that plan, coordinate, and manage natural resources on behalf of municipalities within a watershed as part of their mandate "to ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of Ontario's water, land and natural habitats through programs that balance human, environmental and economic needs" (Conservation Ontario, 2015a).

Social innovation contributes to social-ecological resilience and helps to address the most complex social-ecological challenges facing the global population (Walker and Salt, 2006; Westley et al., 2011; Olsson et al., 2017). The concept has experienced considerable growth in recent years both as a body of scholarship and as public policy initiatives. This popularity within both the political, public, and private sectors has led to significant investments in social innovation across Canada, Europe and the US. For example, Canada recent established a Steering Group to develop a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy for the federal government to support community-level social innovation (Government of Canada, 2017). Other key Canadian initiatives/institutions include the Social Innovation Generation (SiG), McConnell Foundation, and Centre Canadien de Recherche sur les Innovations Sociales (CRISES). The Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University, Ashoka and Skoll Foundations, and the Open University are notable centres for social innovation and systems thinking in the U.S.. Finally, the study and practice of social innovation, transition management, and social-ecological transformations continue to benefit from European centres such as the Young Foundation and Nesta in the UK, the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT), and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Within the growing field of social innovation, we apply concepts from social-ecological systems thinking and resilience (Gunderson and Holling, 2002; Walker and Salt, 2006) alongside social theory (Giddens, 1976, 1979, 1984) and, following Biggs et al. (2010), link common social innovation phases to the adaptive cycle. Specifically, we apply the vision as social construction (VSC) model previously developed by McCarthy et al. (2014) to examine the CAs historical case. The unique contribution of the VSC model is that it clearly articulates the dialectic relationship between agency and social structures (systems) (McCarthy et al. …

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