United Way Innovation: Social Impact Lab- United Way of Calgary and Area

Pauline Ng
Oct 14, 2019 · 4 min read

Do the issues in your community keep you up at night? Do you ever feel like there’s a better way to change the lives of the people around you for the better — you just haven’t thought of it yet?

We can’t argue with the fact that social change is complicated (it is!). But we do know that two — or many — heads are better than one when it comes to making sure everyone has a chance to reach their full potential.

That’s why The Social Impact Lab, formed by United Way of Calgary and Area, exists: to design new and or reimagined solutions to persistent social problems. Established in February 2018, The Lab was created in response to disruption in the social sector, with the goal of innovating and creating strategic partnerships to address those challenges. United Way of Calgary and Area recognized that large-scale issues were beginning to overwhelm the community, as demands for services and funding steadily increased. Working with J5 Design and Innovation, a local design firm, The Lab experiments with entirely new services and brings together agency partners, donors, businesses, community members, government, and corporate volunteers to cover a variety of issues ranging from poverty to domestic violence. These passionate stakeholders come together at The Lab to collaborate, research, and explore new ways to transform the Calgary community.

Sometimes referred to as a “design innovation space,” the bright and energetic space in the heart of the city is thoughtfully designed to spark inspiration. The walls are adorned by idea-filled sticky notes, and conversations between design thinkers, strategists, and community members are lively — The Lab buzzes with ideas, best practices, and promising opportunities to solve the toughest social challenges facing our society today.

The Lab emphasizes human-centered design — which focuses on humans first and foremost — and works to design solutions to address their unmet needs. In the Lab, co-creation of solutions is the only way to make a real impact. Citizens are invited and encouraged to share their views, research, hone their design thinking skills, and experiment with new service and business models, all while envisioning how to deliver support and services back to the community. Deep listening and learning with the community allows a comprehensive view of the issue. By placing humans at the centre and designing to solve their unmet needs, real impact can be achieved.

Right now, the Lab is bringing new solutions and products to market that address issues like children and youth mental health and childhood poverty. The most recent project the Lab has launched targets children and youth mental health. The process to create this product involved engaging the community for input, identifying barriers and gaps as they relate to supporting children and youth with mental health issues, and ideating new solutions. With these ideas tested, they are now ready for donors and investors. Talia Bell, the Director of the Lab, notes,” This work is focused on access and stigma, honing in on natural supports as well as peer supports, and how we can elevate prevention based solutions.” Engagement has now begun on the Lab’s second social project centering on childhood poverty.

The Lab also offers an opportunity for organizations to learn innovative practices to accelerate their impact and improve services. Inspire, a 12-week program, guides an organization through building future business models and applying design thinking as a tool for problem solving. Participants learn how to design new value propositions and truly understand their customers.

Want to get involved? Check out Open City, The Lab’s digital platform, where you can learn more, participate in a current project or activity, collaborate on ideas, and help solve social issues!


Have you ever interacted with a social innovation center/lab? How was the experience? We’d love to know!

(email us at innovation@uww.unitedway.org)

Innovation at United Way

United Way Worldwide’s Innovation team leads the United Way…

Innovation at United Way

United Way Worldwide’s Innovation team leads the United Way network’s efforts to build our culture and capacity for innovation. These are our stories.

Pauline Ng

Written by

Innovation Specialist at United Way Worldwide

Innovation at United Way

United Way Worldwide’s Innovation team leads the United Way network’s efforts to build our culture and capacity for innovation. These are our stories.

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