Aerial photo of a loose circle of people in a courtyard used for indigenous innovation blogpost

Building Thriving Communities Through Indigenous Innovation

Earlier this year we hosted a learning series, called Stories, Skills, and Mindsets for Inclusive Collaboration, where we heard from four inspiring leaders about the innovative strategies they’re using to support inclusive collaboration as they work toward the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals and strive for social and climate justice in their communities. In a special two-part event, we heard from Diane Roussin to learn about understanding and applying Indigenous wisdom and social innovation. 


Have you ever tried to use a service and been surprised by how dramatically it failed to meet your needs? From the DMV to the dentist, many of the services, systems, and institutions that Canadians rely on were built and designed without regard for the diverse needs of the communities they intend to serve. The result is that many of these institutions are unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst. If we want the best outcomes for our communities, it’s time we changed our approach to the way that our systems and institutions – and the programs within them – are designed. 

In February, we were joined by Diane Roussin from the Winnipeg Boldness Project for a special two-part event as part of a learning series called Stories, Skills, and Mindsets for Inclusive Collaboration. When it comes to systems change, Roussin says, “We need to centre Indigenous wisdom to make that change. We haven’t tapped into the potential of Indigenous wisdom to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues.”

A photo of indigenous innovation expert Diane Roussin, a smiling woman with long, dark hair standing in front of a grey background wearing a yellow jacket

The Winnipeg Boldness Project’s Diane Roussin

Take, for example, the child welfare system in Manitoba. Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the province’s population yet Indigenous children make up 90% of the children in the welfare system. It’s not that Indigenous people don’t know how to raise children, they absolutely do. For Roussin, statistics like these are evidence of a problem with the system itself, systems that cost millions of dollars to run and often do more harm than good, whatever their intentions.  

One of the main reasons these systems aren’t working for Indigenous communities is that Indigenous knowledge wasn’t used in building them. When a community’s unique perspectives, values, and knowledge systems aren’t centred in the systems design process, we often see a top-down, transactional approach to system-building that won’t adequately meet a community’s true needs or wants. In order to design programs that adequately meet those needs, institutions and organizations must recognize the inherent wisdom within the communities they serve, and hold space to listen to and co-design interventions with that wisdom at the centre of their process. 

How can you ask someone to share details about their personal challenges without doing the hard work of getting to know them? The short answer according to Roussin is, you can’t.

“We need to rethink our relations and embrace Medicine Wheel teachings. We need to shift away from a human-centric system and Western style relationships to communal, mutual, and reciprocal relations with everything around us.”

Using Indigenous knowledge systems to solve complex challenges is a form of innovation that often gets overlooked in mainstream spaces of systems change and innovation. In those spaces, we hear a lot about ‘thinking outside the box’, but when doing that, Roussin notes, we’re still centring the box, the system. “An Elder once told me, think inside the circle. This is a holistic and interconnected approach that centres relations and creates a circular and weblike connection,” says Roussin. Thinking this way, and centring the voices of the community, helps deploy relational, values-based decision making, instead of transactional, rules-based decision making that tends to serve institutions rather than people.

In addition to changing how we relate to our communities and one another, sometimes system change is also about not knowing the end place but trusting that the community is its own best guide to finding solutions to the challenges they face. In many Indigenous communities, solutions are found through an active mentorship relationship with Elders, which passes down wisdom and teachings from generation to generation. In learning and practicing these teachings, community members may feel more deeply connected to past generations and to the solutions they’ve designed. So what happens when challenges are tackled with community knowledge, tradition, and insight? Real, lasting solutions emerge.

The Winnipeg Boldness Project offers a perfect example of just such a solution. Not long ago in Winnipeg, infant mortality rates were a major cause of concern. A group of doctors, nurses, and practitioners proposed to address this issue with a solution imported from Finland. You may know it as a baby box, which helps to reduce infant mortality by providing, among other resources, a safe sleep surface for a baby. Through their health care network, the doctors raised funds to be able to provide baby boxes to the community. Enter: the Winnipeg Boldness Project, who got involved and checked in with the communities who’d be using this service for their feedback.

“When we presented the idea of the baby box to our community, some of the initial reactions to the box were questions like, ‘what is it, what do I do with it, and is it a coffin?’” says Roussin, “To members of the community the idea felt like a bit of a low bar. And they quickly asked, ‘why are we setting the bar so low? We shouldn’t just be talking about surviving; we should be talking about thriving.’” When the Winnipeg Boldness Project heard this, they realized that in order to address infant mortality, they needed to have a different conversation and work toward helping the community thrive instead of just survive.

Ultimately, the community went beyond the initial baby box idea and developed a baby basket. Unlike the rollout of the baby box program, it was critical that the baby basket program be customized to the community’s unique needs and practices. Working closely with parents and caregivers together, The Winnipeg Boldness Project co-designed a program that focused on celebration, building a relationship with the baby, and making sure families had access to everything they identified as needing. Hearing that the community was asking for hard-to-access items like car seats but also culture and identity through the form of ceremonies, they were able to provide a more holistic initiative that helped families and was rooted in belonging.

This prototype is not only an example of honouring and centring deep community wisdom but also thinking inside the circle. The Winnipeg Boldness Project is a model for what centring Indigenous knowledge and wisdom can do for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities everywhere. By working together with the people they intend to serve, all organizations and systems can create the social innovation needed to make systems work for people, not against them.

Missed this event? Hub members can find the video recordings in their portal to watch at their own pace:
Part 1
Part 2

The SDG Hub Learning Series and related stories are made possible with support from our partners:

Purple logo for 'Alliance 2030' The Government of Canada

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