Polarization to Progress: Lessons from the City of Edmonton’s social innovation experiment, RECOVER

Alex Ryan
Alex Ryan
Nov 22, 2018 · 23 min read
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Artists from iHuman with their display in the Empty Storefront prototype.

In October 2017, our team at the MaRS Solutions Lab was asked by the City of Edmonton to guide a 12 month social innovation experiment called RECOVER. The purpose of RECOVER was and is to improve urban wellness for the 33,650 people living in the downtown core, with a particular concern for those who are most marginalized and underserved.

The work was performed in partnership with the City of Edmonton under contract with REACH Edmonton. It was supported by teams of design anthropologists at InWithForward, public health researchers at the University of Alberta, public engagement experts at Calder Bateman, and prototype coaches in Edmonton’s social innovation community (here is a full list of acknowledgements). The work was informed by the City of Edmonton’s participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which informed the public value proposition and governance recommendations for RECOVER.

RECOVER was co-created with over a hundred participants, including community members, people with lived experience of homelessness, community-serving organizations, civil servants with the City and Provincial governments, police, librarians, business owners, artists, students, professors, and social entrepreneurs. Well over 1,000 Edmontonians participated in RECOVER doorstep interviews, neighbourhood walks, community conversations, and prototype field tests.

RECOVER was one of the most remarkable projects I’ve worked on. It was an emotional rollercoaster for both participants and conveners, involving difficult conversations and unlikely collaborations; deep skepticism and contagious optimism; experiments that fizzled and breakthrough successes. It ultimately generated tangible progress, hope and momentum within a community that had experienced increasing polarization and protests around complex and seemingly intractable social problems.

With the recent adoption of all recommendations of RECOVER by Edmonton City Council, the City has recognized the value of this fresh approach and has committed to continuing RECOVER and a social innovation process for the next five years. The really hard work of scaling social innovation is yet to come. But this seems like a good time to celebrate the progress from our first year of work and share some of our learning about city-scale social innovation. We hope this will serve as a useful example to others who are trying to engage communities in an inclusive innovation process.


In 2007, the Government of Alberta launched an ambitious plan to end homelessness in the province in a decade. In 2008 and 2009 respectively, Alberta’s two largest cities — Calgary and Edmonton — followed suit with city-level plans to end homelessness. The centrepiece of these plans is a housing-first approach to homelessness, which is an evidence-based best practice.

In the past decade, significant progress has been made. The homelessness count in Edmonton has dropped from its peak in 2008 of 3,079 to 1,752 in 2016. But this is still too many people who are living rough in an unforgiving climate. The map below shows where people were reported experiencing homelessness, as well as requiring mental health and addictions support, in Edmonton in 2017. While homelessness occurs throughout the city, it is especially concentrated in the five inner city neighbourhoods that are the focus for RECOVER: Downtown, Boyle Street, McCauley, Central McDougall, and Queen Mary Park (outlined on the map).

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Data from 24/7 crisis diversion calls involving homelessness (black circles) and 211 calls involving basic needs and mental health / addictions (heat map) for 2017.

The geographic concentration of people experiencing homelessness is matched by a corresponding concentration of services in support of people with complex needs including homelessness. Non-market housing, drop-in shelters, and wrap-around supports are prominent in the core neighbourhoods. This pattern of concentration tends to be self-reinforcing: newly homeless folks gravitate towards existing services and other people experiencing homelessness; while services expand in the most centrally accessible areas where the needs are highest. As a result, the downtown core becomes really sticky for folks on the street.

This reinforcing cycle of concentration of the homeless population and the services and infrastructure to support them creates spillover impacts experienced by many community members who live, work and play in the core neighbourhoods. Recent news stories highlight some of the tensions this has created:

3-year moratorium placed on inner-city social housing

Everyone loves safe injection sites, except their future neighbours

Critics worry Edmonton’s proposed supervised- injection sites ‘will be a death knell’ for neighbourhoods

Chinatown business community launches legal challenge of Edmonton’s drug injection sites

While safe injection sites have been a lightning rod, Phil O’Hara from the McCauley Community League explained the bigger problem:

“It’s the cumulative impact of all these increases in services. That’s the problem. It’s not the one project on its own. Three new (injection) sites in our neighbourhood probably wouldn’t have a huge, huge effect, but it’s what they want to do, and what someone else wants to do, and what someone else wants to do, and what someone else wants to do.”

Three interlocking challenges

  1. How do we best meet the needs of the most marginalized people?
  2. How might we support thriving inner city communities?
  3. How can we manage cumulative effects and
    plan wellness services and infrastructure throughout the city?

Alone, each of these challenges alone is daunting. Together, they seem to form an intractable mess. To make matters worse, wellness is an almost unbounded topic. Think of everything that contributes to your own wellness — physical and mental health, family and friends, social connections and culture, work and learning, personal safety, and the natural and built environment. It’s hard to wrap you head around all the factors that affect the wellness of a single person, let alone for five neighbourhoods containing polarized groups and a deficit of trust. How do you make progress when it seems like you’re trying to boil three oceans at the same time?

Adopting a social innovation approach

What is a social innovation approach?

Social innovation is about finding new ways to address a social need, with government, business and communities working together to create better social outcomes.

We have used this definition in RECOVER because it describes in a simple and straightforward way what we actually do. Some of the more technical definitions of social innovation emphasize the need to create not just a local improvement in outcomes, but also produce deeper systems change — shifting the distribution of power and resources among people to more permanently impact equity and social justice. A commitment to systems change is also fundamental to our social innovation work.

MaRS Solutions Lab has a model of the essential elements needed to bring about systems change through social innovation. It was created by the Lab’s founding Director, Joeri van den Steenhoven, and it is called the Periodic Table of Systems Change. It is intentionally a set of elements, not a process or a methodology.

Every time you address a complex challenge, you are starting in the middle of a muddle. There’s no follow-the-bouncing-ball formula that works universally across all complex problems. The Periodic Table serves as a mental checklist of all the things you need to do, and then revise and reframe and refine over and over again in sequence and in parallel to kick-start change; and to build and maintain momentum. The Periodic Table helps you to stay oriented during the messiness of iterative and adaptive work. In practice, the process is a balance of structure and improvisation. It’s more like a dance across the Periodic Table than a route march, because you need to constantly adapt to the moves of your partners and to the mood in the room.

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The Periodic Table of Systems Change.

The first row of the Periodic Table is a description of the scientific method: define a hypothesis; conduct research; perform a controlled test; and then scale what works within a domain or a market.

The next three rows show how the scientific method plays out at three different levels. The middle layer (Solutions) is where what we typically think of as innovation lives. These are the point solutions that you can touch and feel— new products, programs and services. The top layer (Policy) involves changes to the rules. Policy innovation is much more difficult to see, but can profoundly impact how people behave, and shapes what innovations are viable. The bottom layer (Capacity) reminds us that achieving systems change requires people to change. When you empower people to become innovators and adopters of innovation by building their capacity, social innovations can reach their true potential. Just remember: these changes never unfold in a nice linear arc!

A year in the life of RECOVER

I. Secondary research: defining vulnerable population groups; jurisdictional scan; grey literature review (non peer-reviewed research by local actors); and peer-reviewed literature review.

II. Primary research: ethnography with street-involved folks; ethnography with residents, businesses and service providers; and share-backs of ethnographic insights with participants.

III. Public engagement: phone polling; doorstep interviews; public engagement meetings; neighbourhood wellness walks; and participation in the prototype showcase event.

IV. Participatory co-design: visioning workshop; systems mapping workshop; ethnographic insights sensemaking workshop; ideation and prototype game plan workshop; tabletop prototyping workshop; field prototyping; and prototype showcase event.

In an ideal world, there would be at least six months of primary and secondary research before progressing into participatory co-design and public engagement. In the real world, a number of practical constraints influenced the sequencing of these work streams:

  • The committee structures were formed before a social innovation approach was chosen, so they were not designed optimally for social innovation work
  • Significant secondary research had been performed in a prior iteration of the project. The research started with a proposed solution of an integrated service hub, rather than the needs of citizens. While it contained a number of useful insights, it could not be directly incorporated into a citizen-centred approach
  • Stakeholders were impatient to get started, so the first co-design workshop was held a week after the contract was signed, before any background research had been performed and before MaRS and the City of Edmonton had learned how to work together as a joined-up team
  • The work was geographically and organizationally distributed. Members of the core teams from the City of Edmonton, MaRS, and InWithForward were based in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. Other subcontracts with local universities, social innovation coaches, public engagement consultants, writers and graphic designers, as well as visualization support from an Indian software team, added further organizational complexity
  • It took three months of stakeholder engagement and ethnographic research to understand the issues deeply enough to even frame out a useful literature review and public engagement plan, due to the complex and unbounded nature of the subject

These practical constraints meant the process unfolded with multiple parallel threads that at first seemed confusing and disconnected to both participants as well as team members who were new to social innovation. We were so busy getting all of the pieces started that we didn’t do a great job of communicating the bigger picture of how the work would inform the final deliverables of RECOVER.

This was partly because we weren’t actually sure what RECOVER would deliver! We had been asked by Council to produce a plan, but it quickly became evident that the City already had so many plans (we counted and mapped over 240 relevant strategies and policies) that yet another planning document would not solve much. The terms of reference for the Council motion said that we should deliver a proposal for a community wellness centre, including a service integration model for vulnerable people with complex needs. To make matters more complicated, several projects for better serving marginalized people were requesting funding for new centres at the same time. Yet when we talked with people experiencing homelessness, mental health and addiction challenges, it became clear a centralized wellness hub was not the solution to their unmet needs. And when we spoke with communities, we learned that a new wellness centre would only lock in the cycle of concentration that was impacting the core neighbourhoods for another 40 years.

Rather than provide false certainty about the outcomes of what was a genuine discovery process, instead we focused on acting rapidly and then listening and responding to the confusions and frustrations of participants. We quickly learned what people didn’t like about our process and improved it. The workshops were too long and didn’t accommodate the varied schedules of participants, so we held shorter meetings scheduled further in advance at times that worked best for participants. The generative design activities were complicated and confusing, so we simplified our methods and spent more time explaining how the results would be used. Some were suspicious about the role of City government staff in the process, so we clarified their role as acting in support of community visions and adjusted the way civil servants showed up in the process.

The process timeline is shown below. We added several workshops and delayed the prototyping work by a month in response to participant feedback that things were moving too fast. We broke out the literature review as a separate sub-contract to strengthen our team’s rapid jurisdictional scans with a more rigorous academic review. In addition to the public facing activities, we had recurring bi-weekly calls between MaRS and the City and periodic synthesis sessions to jointly make sense of the data. For most of the Edmonton events, we would schedule 1–2 days of concurrent capacity building to coach and mentor City staff in the craft of social innovation. InWithForward held introductory ethnographic research training workshops for frontline staff with agencies and the City to initiate the discipline of continuous social R&D to improve social services.

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RECOVER process timeline.

October. What really stood out from the October visioning workshop was how a history of conflict and polarization between the people in the room was eroding trust and creating skepticism. We had made some progress in defining four plausible and desirable future visions for improving urban wellness. But under a veneer of Canadian politeness, we could see and feel a lot of tension between participants.

December. Rather than paper over these tensions, we deliberately engaged them in the December strategy mapping workshop. We used a method called the Soft Shoe Shuffle, where participants respond to dialogue by their position in the room. The polarization between agencies and communities was clearly on display, and a couple of times the dialogue got very heated, which tested our ability to maintain a safe and inclusive space. This was also when we were able to visualize the proliferation of hundreds of strategies and policies, each individually addressing some aspects of urban wellness, but collectively not making the progress people wanted to see.

January. In December and January, ethnographers from InWithForward and designers from the MaRS Solutions Lab got to know community members better, including an appreciation of their needs and aspirations. We brought InWithForward in to help out because of their leading work internationally doing embedded ethnography with marginalized communities. InWithForward spent their time with folks living rough on the street and the frontline workers who were supporting them. The Solutions Lab spent time with residents, community organizations, businesses and business associations in each of the five neighbourhoods.

The ethnographic research identified 16 opportunity areas for improving urban wellness. Up until this point, we had been calling the people experiencing homelessness, mental health and addictions the “very vulnerable.” This encouraged us to think of this group as essentially homogenous and identified them based on their lack of agency. Through the process of resegmentation, we were able to see newbies, adventurers, and precarious optimists: different sub-groups in different situations with different motivations. In a similar way, the community ethnography allowed us to differentiate between neighbourhood aspirations: where people were seeking vibrancy and connectedness, and where they needed a nurturing environment or took pride in paying it forward. The 16 opportunity areas were not broad or vague. They were very specific acupuncture points responding to the actual needs of community members.

February. The ethnographic research and opportunity areas were very well-received by participants in the co-design process. They shifted the conversation towards specific actions we could take together to improve urban wellness, which created excitement and optimism. Of the several hundred solution ideas generated in the opportunity areas in February by participants, we selected 13 high potential ideas to prototype. We used an Open Space technique to select the first set of RECOVER prototypes. This allowed anyone to step forward and volunteer to lead a prototype project as long as they could convince 3 other participants to join their group (this constraint was to ensure the projects were genuinely collaborative). Teams completed a Prototype Game Plan to rapidly test their solution idea.

March. In March, the prototype teams confirmed their membership and recruited new members to fill key gaps. A core group of stakeholders from the RECOVER project team and RECOVER participants traveled to New York City to participate in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, using RECOVER as the case study. The initiative provided education on how to frame collaborative challenges, define public value, and envision success; build positive collaborative relationships; engage stakeholders broadly; and apply these lessons to the RECOVER project. This provided an opportunity to build stronger collaborative relationships based on shared understanding between core stakeholders, as well as a chance to rethink the governance structure for RECOVER.

April. April was a peak of activity for RECOVER. During the tabletop prototyping workshop, teams produced storyboards, role plays, and scale models to elicit early feedback from other teams on their solution ideas. Solutions Lab and the City worked together to publish a Getting Started Guide and a Prototyping Toolkit to help teams navigate the prototyping process. Each team was assigned a prototype coach, drawn from the Solutions Lab team and members of Edmonton’s local social innovation community.

We then had 13 prototype teams all launching field prototypes in parallel across the city. The University of Alberta was performing the urban wellness literature review and Calder Bateman was running doorstep interviews, public engagement meetings and neighbourhood wellness walks. It was at this point that participants and core team members alike began to appreciate Edison’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration formula for innovation. Iterative experimentation and testing of new ideas is dirt-beneath-the-fingernails hard work. Doing it in collaboration with people you have historically not trusted is harder still. This was a lot more work than anyone had signed up for. Fortunately, our participants stuck with it.

The public engagement process included over 1,000 residents from the five neighbourhoods. It was important to really listen and to hear these citizen voices for the legitimacy of RECOVER, and also to triangulate against the ethnographic research. We found that the two independent studies were consistent and complementary. The public engagement emphasized basic needs, such as public safety, basic amenities, and access to public spaces. The ethnographic research was able to tease out higher motivations, purposes and aspirations. In our final report to Council and in the public report, we were able to speak to both as two sides of the same coin.

The literature review did not generate any surprises or contradict the direction RECOVER was taking with the prototype solutions. Its utility was to situate Edmonton’s effort within an international context. In particular, it provided helpful language around the social determinants of health that is more widely recognized and researched than urban wellness. It also identified the strengths and weaknesses of top-down vs bottom-up approaches across all of our wellness indicator categories, which allowed us to think through scaleability challenges.

The field prototypes were something very new for the City. It felt risky to test an idea so publicly, so early in the process, before the team had all the answers. Sue Holdsworth, the City Connector for the Project Welcome Mat prototype, was really nervous on the morning of their field prototype: “This is either going to go really well, or it’s going to go really badly.”

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Before Project Welcome Mat, community members would gather in front of the building but had nowhere to sit.

Staff at the Boyle Street Community Services drop-in shelter were skeptical of the idea to improve the facade of the 1960s banana packing plant by adding some paint and some seating. They had put furniture out before only for it to go missing or be destroyed.

The Project Welcome Mat prototype succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

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The Project Welcome Mat facade improvement project provided seating, shade, art and plants to create a desirable place to hang out.

The difference this time: ethnographic methods were used to understand the needs of community members before designing a solution. The community members were then involved in the co-design process, deciding where to locate the furniture, and helping to paint the medicine wheels. This approach built ownership: “I did this!” was a quote that came through over and again in the prototype evaluation.

It built dignity and pride in community members. It also built bridges between Boyle Street community members and neighbourhood workers and residents. People who would previously cross the street to avoid the building were drawn in by the bright colours and came to see what was happening. Prototype coach Ben Weinlick was unsure if the giant lego blocks donated for the prototype would be a good idea. It turned out that they brought children into the space, which changed the dynamic. Community members said children are sacred, so they did not want to openly use drugs or start fights in their presence. Project Welcome Mat transformed a scarcity of seating options into abundance. As people could now find a place to sit and chill, tensions were reduced and the police reported that they need to patrol the area less frequently. What seemed like a simple splash of paint was something far more profound, as Laurene Viarobo, Executive Director of the North Edge Business Association, observed: “Welcome Mat spoke to some very basic needs for relationship. It gives and receives respect.”

Not all of the prototypes were successful. The impromptu parks prototype was stopped before field prototyping, when during planning, the community told us they were sick of pop-up parks. Because there was no appetite for the experiment, we captured the learnings, stopped the prototype and redeployed people onto other teams.

Project Welcome Mat was an example of a prototype designed to change the narrative. It made a highly visible change to signal that this was not business as usual. Others, such as service navigators and job skills matching, sought to change the network of connections between community members, service providers and businesses. Two of our prototypes, guaranteed annual income and the wellness council, sought to change the system by shifting flows of decision making and resources to empower citizens and communities. Together, this portfolio of solutions was able to make a noticeable difference in a really short amount of time.

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The portfolio of RECOVER prototypes.

May. The culminating event of RECOVER’s first year was the prototype showcase event in May. This gave participants an opportunity to show off their hard work and celebrate their learnings and their successes. It was also an opportunity for us to weave together the co-design and public engagement threads. The event was open to the public, and participants in RECOVER’s public engagement were encouraged to attend to give an additional round of feedback on the prototypes. This feedback helped to inform which of the prototypes would launch into larger-scale initiatives, which would be refined through further prototyping, which would pivot, and which would end. Of the 13 prototypes, three ended, two merged, and the rest continued, with four projects now spun off under the leadership of community partners.

June. In June, work on the prototypes continued, but the core RECOVER team moved into reporting mode. The recommendations to council were drafted and tested with RECOVER participants. An interim update was provided to Community and Public Services Committee. The Council Report and the Community Report were written. The Literature Review was completed. And the infographic shown below was designed to provide a one page overview of RECOVER.

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Lessons from RECOVER

What we learned about RECOVER

“People were happy and involved. They felt like they belonged” — Whitford Skani

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RECOVER’s prototypes were co-designed with the people they were intended to serve.

1. Design with, not for. When people effected by a challenge are involved in the process of designing, they take ownership of the results and are empowered to improve their own and their community’s wellness. When we have made the effort to include those who are typically left out of decision-making processes, we have been blown away by their creativity, enthusiasm and stewardship of the work.

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Awet (Sammy) Tekie owns Stadium Mini Mart, one of Edmonton’s socially conscious small businesses that helps folks living rough on the street.

2. Tap latent community assets. Innovation is often more like discovery than invention. During the ethnographic research, we found an abundance of informal grassroots activity already supporting neighbourhood wellness. Finding ways to support and amplify things that are already working is more efficient and effective than designing new solutions from scratch.

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The RECOVER showcase panel included reflections from an indigenous artist, agency leader, community leader, business advocate, and a student.

3. A holistic approach builds community support. Early in the process, we noticed that the more we emphasized the very vulnerable population, the more it fuelled polarization. When we reframed to talk about wellness for all, it helped to build bridges between different groups, and build community support for action. By taking a whole systems approach, we were able to depoliticize the issue and make space for all needs.

What we learned about distributed joined-up teams

“RECOVER is the highlight of my public service career” — City of Edmonton Employee and RECOVER Team Member

  1. Act as a partner, not a consultant. MaRS Solutions Lab saw itself as in genuine partnership with the City of Edmonton. This meant not having all the answers, not doing all the work, and welcoming City staff to challenge our process and suggest alternatives. Because we modelled openness and fallibility from the start, City staff were confident to take increasing leadership and ownership of the process, and we were able to shift our role from master process designer and facilitator, to back seat coach and mentor. In turn, this required the City to step up and lead through ambiguity, and to work just as hard as their consultants. This was so critical because it built capacity rather than dependency in City staff, ensuring the long-term sustainability of RECOVER. The City staff are truly a rock star team led by the unflappable Susan Coward and they deserve full credit for the project’s success. They are supported by visionary leaders: the significance of the support of Mayor Don Iveson, Councillor Scott McKeen, and Deputy City Manager Rob Smyth in providing the air cover to try something different cannot be overstated.
  2. Digital by default. In most of our social innovation work, we believe in the power of low-tech, human to human interactions to build deep, shared understanding and meaningful collaboration. But when your team is distributed across multiple time zones, every time you do face to face collaboration you exclude remote team members. We realized that our shared digital spaces needed to be the primary means of collaboration, and that any in-person sessions needed to be documented and shared digitally to keep everyone in the loop. Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, Slack, and Stormboard were the main collaboration tools that allowed us to plan, research, debate, ideate, synthesize, and report as a distributed, joined-up team. We still needed face to face meetings about once a month before and after events, but the digital channels kept us synchronized as one team.
  3. Work out loud. RECOVER is the work of many people beyond the core team, from the three committees, to the prototype teams, to the 1,000 participants in the public engagement process. To keep everyone in the loop, we published all of the workshop summaries and interim reports on the City of Edmonton’s web page for RECOVER. The emphasis was on rapidly sharing progress, rather than writing highly polished reports. We published the summaries publicly within two weeks of each event. As new people from the neighbourhoods joined RECOVER, they could get up to speed quickly because everything was open and accessible.

What we learned about city-scale social innovation

“Cities are the crossroads where resources and creativity intersect- the labs where ideas reach their tipping point and become reality”— Mayor Don Iveson

  1. Ask people how they want to be engaged. This is a really basic lesson, but it’s fundamental to success. Most of my social innovation experience has been at the scales of international, national, and state policy and strategy. I’m used to convening full-time professionals and experts for deep multi-day policy deliberations. The first RECOVER visioning workshop was held from 9:00am to 4:00pm on a Monday. It didn’t go great. The Headline from the Future activity, which had worked for us dozens of times in the past, fell a bit flat. More concerningly, we experienced a 50% drop-off in participation in the afternoon. We sent out a survey to participants, and found out that full-day weekday sessions were difficult to accommodate, especially for community volunteers and those with lived experience. We asked people how and when they wanted to be engaged. We found that shorter, focused sessions towards the end of the work day and ending before dinner worked best for most folks. More importantly, we learned that before you start planning workshops, ask people how they want to be engaged.
  2. Inclusion is a continual striving, not an end state. It has been top of mind throughout RECOVER for both the City of Edmonton and MaRS Solutions Lab to run a process inclusive of all voices. We made persistent efforts to engage and empower community members with lived experience of homelessness, First Nations, Metis and Inuit, newcomers to Canada, students, seniors, people who were upset with government, people who were disengaged from democratic participation, and organizations beyond the traditional social services sector, such as socially conscious businesses. In spite of our efforts, RECOVER’s process was not perfect. We struggled with power dynamics between large professional organizations and community grassroots; and between loud white male voices and women of colour. The job of creating a safe and inclusive space for everyone in work like RECOVER is never done. It needs to be foregrounded in every choice of team and workshop composition, workshop location, participatory design method, and facilitation technique. It shows up in all the major design decisions as well as in all the details, like what food and seating options are provided.
  3. Have fun! Doing something radically different to address a contentious issue is seriously hard work. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. Craig Wynett, Chief Innovation Officer at P&G, is convinced that in the innovation process, ha ha = ah ha! There is a deep connection between humour and play and creativity and innovation. In RECOVER, having fun with role play, using gamification to create immersive activities, and creating spaces to celebrate and share a drink and a laugh together kept us sane through the difficult work, and led to more creative solutions.
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University of Alberta industrial design students having a laugh during their public washroom field prototype.


Thanks to MaRS Solutions Lab

Alex Ryan

Written by

Alex Ryan

VP Systems Innovation and Program Director MaRS Solutions Lab. Fascinated with learning how to help groups of people innovate on complex problems together.

Alex Ryan

Written by

Alex Ryan

VP Systems Innovation and Program Director MaRS Solutions Lab. Fascinated with learning how to help groups of people innovate on complex problems together.

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