Attendees of the 2013 Thinking Like a Movement gathering. People have said it’s the most profound event they’ve ever attended. Invitations have been extended to host it in other parts of the world.
Thinking Like a Movement
What’s needed to solve social and environmental problems, and the critical role for business

From Social Innovation Generation in Canada to the MindLab in Denmark, the Design Lab Studios in Helsinki and Reos Partners’ international work — containers are being created around the world where people from diverse sectors are laying aside their differences, admitting they don’t have answers and committing to co-create solutions to economic and social problems.

“People are becoming much more deliberate, intentional, conscious and strategic about approaching problems in a whole-systems way,” says Al Etmanski, co-founder of an effort with a similar focus called Thinking Like a Movement, when asked about the greatest possibilities he sees in this new zeitgeist.

“They’re understanding that addiction or drug abuse is related to mental illness is related to poverty is related to mental health is related to homelessness.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.
  Al hosts the 2013 Thinking Like a Movement gathering, the high point of which was the enthusiasm toward the guest speakers, he says. These included Tim Draimin who proved why he is the godfather of social finance in Canada and Molly Harrington who revealed a senior public servant with heart and soul.

“Each one of those is a tough problem on its own, but they’re actually interlocking. More people are approaching (social and economic challenges) from that broader perspective. Their analysis makes allowances for all of that, and the resources are becoming much more focused on that.”

“It’s a very hopeful sign, and I think we’re at the beginning of it.”

Thinking Like a Movement was designed by Al and his wife Vickie Cammack as a forum to share with others what they were learning about how to create change that doesn’t just thrive in one place but is spread and scaled.

“We tend to agree with Bill Clinton who said the world has already invented most of the solutions that we need to our social and environmental problems, and the real challenge is not coming up with new ideas — the real challenge is scaling proven solutions that are already there,” Al says.

Al and Vickie cut their teeth on igniting large-scale change through their experiences with the institute they co-founded, the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). PLAN facilitates the creation of social networks around people who have a disability to secure their futures.

Al and Vickie learned they could be creating personal networks for “hundreds of years” and still not “make a dent” in ensuring the future economic, physical and social well-being of people who have a disability.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.
  Al Etmanski

That’s because the organizational vehicle “just wasn’t enough.”

So they began to think in a much different way, “to think and act like a movement,” Al says.

As a result of that shift, the Registered Disability Savings Plan was put in place, now almost a billion dollars in the bank accounts of people who have a disability that they can use and the government can’t touch or claw back.

Over the next 10 years many more billions of dollars will be added to those accounts.

That’s the power of moving from being organizationally focused to being systems oriented, Al says, adding the experience has since been a powerful motivator for him and he now works daily “trying to think about how to apply that to the other tough problems that we have.”

The Silver Bullet, the Biggest Challenge

It’s relationships that ultimately determine success in a movement, Al has had confirmed, as complexity theory also teaches: in such complex problems as society is grappling with, it’s not so much the solution as it is the connections and the relationships among people that’s of greatest importance.

But creating effective relationships across such diversity is typically the biggest challenge. People who join in working together across business and government, community and social services, aren’t used to each other. They often make wall-creating assumptions about one another and they’ve been hurt in the past, so tend to act defensively.

“The challenge then, of spread and scale, is really about working authentically with people who are friends and allies, as well as strangers and opponents,” says Al, pointing to the former B.C. Council on Social Innovation, now Partners for Social Impact, as an example of a group representing varying perspectives and sectors that has managed to be fairly successful on this front.

The group has overcome differences and assumptions to not only bring 11 recommendations into being but now, with an expanded partnership, to work collectively to implement those recommendations.

Again, this has been as much about relationships and connections as it is about having the “most perfect” recommendations, Al says.

A key benefit to bringing in the whole system to address challenges is creating connections that would have been extremely unlikely in the past, including with people like Ken Gauthier, a director with the Western Canadian consulting firm Urban Systems.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.
  Ken Gauthier

The Critical Role of Business

Now a leading member of Partners for Social Impact, Ken cares as much about the environment and social circumstances as anyone, and he’s looking to bringing the discipline and resources and aptitude of his company into the mix, Al notes.

“I would say he is the pioneer. He is at the vanguard of businesses trying to apply what he knows about business to social and environmental challenges,” Al says.

“We need more of that from business,” he continues, noting for-profit companies have significant contributions to make to solving the world’s social and economic issues — in ways many haven’t been doing before.

While the traditional approach has been for business to make a profit and siphon off a portion for charity at the end of the year, the new and most pressing opportunity is for businesses to integrate their business objectives with the social objectives of the community.

It’s not too long ago that having someone like Ken join discussions about social and environmental solutions would have been met with suspicion, with people questioning his intent, but that’s much less the case anymore.

“The reality is these problems are so tough and so complex, we can’t do it on our own. We have to learn to work together with people we don’t know very well,” Al says.

“And people generally in the world are realizing that,” he adds, noting he’s especially seeing this in B.C., once the proud home of pioneer social entrepreneurs and now wanting to be known as a place where people are looking up from what they’re doing individually and seeking to work together to solve their tough problems.

“I think that’s starting to shift in this province over the last two years; I can almost touch it sometimes,” Al says.

— More to come

A version of this article was originally written for the Urban Systems news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post. To learn more about generative newsroom options for your organization or community, please contact peter(at)