What can we learn about scale from the world of sports?


“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So said the Great One, Wayne Gretzky in a quote I first heard spoken by another great Canadian, social entrepreneur Al Etmanski. The phrase largely speaks for itself but the implication is that you won’t achieve anything if you don’t try. I get it. But as I think of the dedicated and inspiring people who work for social justice and systems change, I can’t help but feel the Great One’s quote merely gets us onto the ice; it doesn’t get us the wins we sorely need.

There is no lack of desire, no lack of energy, grit and intelligence that goes into the quest to make this world more just and equitable. There are shining examples of programs, ways of governing, transformational policy and effective practices that create brights spots on the planet and healthier environments in communities all around the world.

Yet for all of the effort dedicated, there are still daunting and complex challenges we face every day. So, what is missing?

I believe part of the answer lies in our capacity to identify and adapt programs, policies or processes that we know work and to invest the time, talent and treasure necessary to apply and implement these solutions at the scale required to actually address the problem.

For nearly 10 years, I worked with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) supporting the work of social entrepreneurs, social innovators and promoting new approaches to solving social and environmental challenges. At SiG, we championed the social change lab and social R&D experimentation landscape. I believe these processes and mindset are critical in our solutions ecosystem. Yet it was in the execution of this work, I was privileged to meet Miquel de Paladella and learn about UpSocial — and felt the critical urgency to begin investing in methodologies that enable us to adapt what works and implement solutions at requisite scale.

UpSocial facilitates and accelerates the sourcing and implementation of innovative projects that significantly improve the lives of people. UpSocial starts with the assumption that there are solutions to many of the social and environmental challenges we face but they are too often under-resourced or isolated in a particular region. Working with local stakeholders, UpSocial helps focus the problem definition and then searches the world for solutions. They bridge the relationship between the team that developed the solution and the local stakeholders and they support the brokering of the resources required to see the innovation scale in the local environment.

UpSocial has been facilitating these processes for 8 years and now, with their support, I am officially launching the UpSocial Canada office. Impressed by their thoughtful process, I spent the past year learning their methodology from the Barcelona team as they execute a challenge with The McConnell Foundation’s RECODE program. Alongside this deep learning, I have been supported by multiple partners and mentors to get a Canadian operation started.* Thanks to Tides Canada, UpSocial Canada will be hosted from their base in Toronto.

In launching UpSocial Canada, I am hopeful we can invest in closing the scaling gap that plagues solutions innovators and our collective efforts to solve challenges.

As any NHL team manager knows, you have to invest significantly in the team to get to the Stanley Cup. Great managers scout the world for the coach, the players, the best techniques. Millions of dollars can be spent on the feeder team and on the pipeline of talent. Hockey managers recognize local knowledge, know-how and passion as well as the fact that a critical asset may need to be imported for the whole team to rise. Each investment is part of the bigger goal and the team adapts and grows stronger as a result.

Knowing this and comparing it to how we invest in solving social or environmental problems, is there anything we can learn? Are we missing a homelessness solution the likes of Toronto Maple Leaf’s No. 1 draft pick, Auston Matthews, for example, because we aren’t looking outside our local ecosystem to find it? Are we benching a local solution of the calibre of the greatest female hockey player, Hayley Wickenheiser because we don’t invest enough to see it reach its full potential?

I recognize there is far greater complexity in solving social challenges than winning a sports match. However, I think the difference in the resources invested and how they’re invested provides food for thought.

Over the past decade I have spoken with people that have made resolving certain social problems their life’s work. Take Mary Gordon and her work at Roots of Empathy; Mary is determined to eliminate intergenerational cycles of violence and she has a proven approach to fostering empathy in children that could transform society. Or consider the work of JUMP Math; JUMP challenges teaching and societal norms, creating a new educational infrastructure that eliminates the assumption that there are natural hierarchies of ability. Both Roots and JUMP have demonstrated that their programs work in profound ways, but both have also struggled to reach their full potential. During two separate UpSocial challenges, both Roots and JUMP were identified for scale in different parts of Europe. The team in Barcelona brokered the relationships and resources to smooth their path. These are just two Canadian innovations now scaling into new systems and making an impact. Imagine what more is out there?

UpSocial demonstrates that we don’t always need something new to solve a complex problem. Sometimes we need the right combination of assets and the capital - social, political and financial - to see the solution adapt and scale. This is our Stanley Cup challenge. UpSocial can help build the team that gets us to that trophy.

It’s time to drop the puck!

So, what problem should we work on together?

Geraldine Cahill
Director, UpSocial Canada

Particular thanks to Social Capital Partners, Tim Draimin, Kelsey Spitz, Allyson Hewitt, Keita Demming, Tonya Surman, Miquel de Paladella, Assiri Valdés, Viviana Urani, David Hughes, Saralyn Hodgkin and Todd Jaques for getting this office to its launch.