Many brains find better solutions

It’s true: two heads are better than one. Focusing many brains on a problem is always better than trying to solve it yourself. That’s why I agreed to be one of several advisors at the Social Finance Lab, an intensive 3-hour session held during the Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary, last week.

The MaRS Centre for Impact Investing invited representatives from seven budding social ventures to put their ideas under the microscope, then appointed a couple of lead advisors to each and invited interested conference-goers to participate in the process. I was thrilled to be matched with Alberta EcoTrust Foundation (AE), a charity that supports dozens of non-profits by raising funds from private and public sources and by providing grants for conservation action. Their idea: build a super-green eco-hub that can accommodate them plus a number of other groups, and also serve as a central event and meeting-place that will help create cohesion and collaboration in the environmental constituency.

The methodology established for the Social Finance Lab is not rocket-science. First, the entrepreneurs presented their money-making idea to all Lab participants and posed a key question that they are struggling with. Then, advisors and peers had an hour to ask questions or raise options for consideration, provide relevant insights from their own experiences, and support their client’s business development process. About eight others joined me to focus on AE’s idea including a specialist in social impact bonds (which are used very effectively for buildings like the YWCA Elm Street and Centre for Social Innovation), someone planning a housing and hub development for seniors (and facing all the same logistical questions), a banker (with hard-nosed advice about the financing model), a green-event specialist, someone plugged into the Calgary real estate market, and other non-profits.

While AE’s initial questions was about financing models, their focus pivoted to the purpose and scale of the hub itself.

Over lunch, while the rest of us were eating and helping select the winner of the $20,000 Social Enterprise Pitch prize, the entrepreneurs huddled to re-think and re-frame their problem based on the input they received (I hope they got a bite to eat as well). When we reconvened, it was obvious that there’d been a few “aha” moments. There was a lot more focus on core priorities and strengths, deeper identification of growth opportunities, and some wise risk-taking.

I can’t wait to hear more from Alberta EcoTrust about the hub’s progress.  They got great advice on who to talk to in Calgary about real estate, including the possibility of teaming up with existing hubs or upcoming developments. They anchored their plan on their own needs and commitment to ownership versus renting, and re-confirmed their fundamental mandate to supporting the environmental constituency. And the lunchtime announcement of a new $12-million Alberta Social Enterprise Fund for real estate-backed ventures put some wind in their sails!

Participating in this Lab reminded me of TAF’s ClimateSpark challenges – the 2010 Business Challenge and the 2011 Social Venture Challenge – and how scary and wonderful it is to put ideas out there for the crowd to question, comment, improve, and support.  TAF recently hosted a design charette to help us refresh the grant-making program – kind of like a Lab — and of course the 20 participants had brilliant ideas that prodded and inspired us. Proving again that many heads are better than one.

And it got me thinking: what other low-carbon ideas might benefit from a good laboratory inspection, dissection, and creation process?! Let me know what you think in the comments below.


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