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Building Flourishing Communities through the Community Impact Lab Network

The Social Innovation team as part of the Department of Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Georgian College has been developing a unique approach community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) informed by co-design practices and principles to better understand what it means for communities to flourish, specifically across its seven predominately rural campuses. With this newfound understanding, the department aims to drive meaningful community projects in its social innovation labs, including projects that address social isolation, affordable housing, rural economic innovation, and climate impact and food.

As Canada's first and only Ashoka U Changemaker College, Georgian College is dedicated to promoting social innovation and collaborative systems change at the institutional level. This goal is supported by a social innovation theory of change that outlines a vision for rural flourishing communities (Jones, 2017) and rural flourishing economies (Upwards & Jones citing Ehrenfeld, 2000a; Willard et al., 2014) to address rural socio-economic challenges. Georgian’s approach to Social Innovation aligns with a larger national call to action by Ashoka Canada, advocating for advanced educational institutions to utilize their assets for building social infrastructure in Canadian communities.

Georgian College's seven campus catchment area is predominantly rural, offering the college a unique opportunity to develop community co-designed resources and innovation pathways that support national innovation agendas and enable bioregional socio-economic flourishing. To support these initiatives, the Community Impact Lab Network (CILN) was established to address the social and economic imperatives of Georgian’s social innovation theory of change within rural communities. The Community Impact Lab Network is comprised of Living Lab approaches that bring together students, staff, faculty, and community stakeholders to innovate together on community-based issues related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Each Living Lab or Community Impact Lab (CIL) under the network is approached as a community-based participatory research project with outcomes that are mobilized into an open innovation ecosystem for social impact.

Each CIL is established in collaboration with a community stakeholder or stakeholders and employs a mixed method social research approach informed by Systemic Design (Jones, 2014) and CBPAR methodology (Burns et al., 2011). The data collected during each iterative cycle is analyzed using a Development Evaluation model to assess the real-time impact of the lab's outcomes. Over time, the combined impact of the CILs will develop a repository of open-sourced place-based research within the CILN.

The CILN's transdisciplinary approach acknowledges that participants have fluid roles in the research process, with all participants serving as co-designers, co-researchers, and co-evaluators (Sanders and Stappers, 2012). The "Living Lab" structure also recognizes that the research philosophy must respond to real-world constraints and social complexities within the participatory design research and evaluation stages (Norris et al, 2022).

One of the key benefits of the CILN is its ability to bring together diverse community stakeholders to work together on complex social, environmental, and economic issues. This not only promotes collaboration and community building, but also ensures that the solutions generated are informed by the perspectives of those most affected by the issue being addressed. For example, the Social Isolation in Specialized Older Adult Populations Lab is a perfect example of how the CILN is utilizing community participation and systemic design to tackle a pressing social issue.

Social Innovation at Georgian’s work on flourishing communities and economies through the Community Impact Lab Network and its individual Community Impact Labs is a powerful example of how post-secondary institutions can play a critical role in supporting local communities and driving positive change. The Community Impact Labs bring together diverse stakeholders to collaborate on solutions to complex community challenges and provide a platform for students, faculty, and local partners to co-create and test innovative solutions. The goal of the Community Impact Lab Network is to support the development of thriving, inclusive, and sustainable communities by empowering residents to take an active role in shaping their future. Through this initiative, the DSI is demonstrating that colleges can be more than just centers of academic excellence, but also centers of community impact and innovation.


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