Blog Post

Defining innovation in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector

By: Marco Campana
October 14, 2021

Phase 1 of the Settlement 3.0 project included a brief exploration of how various SPOs across Canada conceive of the word “innovation” in practical terms. I recommend you read the entire report and appendices.

(Most of this document outlining sector definitions of innovation comes, with permission, from the evaluation work done for a North York Community House (NYCH) IRCC SDI-funded project. The evaluation was conducted by Cheryl May, Maggie Greyson, and Marco Campana. The document includes references from other sources as well, credited and linked to in the text.)

Defining Innovation in Settlement 3.0

In this project, the definition of innovation was considered to be: “the digital and non-digital practices and approaches that foster the adaptability and agility needed to enable the settlement sector to stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing migration and settlement landscape, with the goal of better serving newcomers to Canada.” We noted a distinction between innovation (a process of developing something genuinely new) and iteration (a process of refining what is already working to make it even better). Focus group participants added to our understanding of what innovation means within the settlement sector. 

Regarding innovation and iteration, some refer to this as big “I”, and little “i” innovation instead. Big “I” innovation refers to big or disruptive innovations that totally change the landscape of a business, its products or the dynamics of the market. In contrast, little “i” innovation refers more to incremental changes or improvements to businesses and products. Another way to look at little “i” innovation is as iteration.

This is best outlined and explained in this webinar recording: Inside Innovation: Co-designing with Newcomers presented on May 13, 2020 by the Innovation & Experimentation Team at North York Community House (NYCH).

Innovation is a moving target.

While interested in the notion of innovative service delivery, there is a concern that “innovation” remains poorly defined in the settlement sector.

In some cases, sector stakeholders suggest that the first innovation the sector can adopt is a return to core values and create human-centred service design.

While innovation is attractive to agencies, an entire service model cannot simply and quickly be shifted. Workers, as well as clients, expect and need certain types of services and levels of services. There is much work to be done with organizational culture and leadership that needs to work with the current system and those who have always worked in it, while creating new systems and approaches.

The question of disruptive, transformational change is of interest. The sector does not tend to feel respected or recognized for the essential (and low cost) work that it does. When disruption is typically brought up, it's in a derogatory "be more like a business" perspective that doesn't take into account at all the longstanding roots, values and perspectives of the sector itself in making disruptive, transformational change. Also, who decides what disruption or transformation is? 

It might also be interesting to move from the conversation about disruptive innovation to constructive innovation:

“I find that disruption is an inevitable outcome of innovation and that we need innovation to adhere to changing markets and consumer needs. HOWEVER, once 'disruptive innovation' becomes the core goal of platforms, industries and organisation, it tends to ignore and dismantle existing ecosystems with minimal regard to the outcome. Basically, it becomes an innovation tantrum masquerading as a process, harming the most vulnerable individuals and societies… Disruption works when you have something to break. With all the broken industries and lives, perhaps it is time to embrace a 'constructive innovation' attitude. Let’s talk more about organic growth, ways to evolve industries and platforms in a more realistic way.”

The sector has tried to articulate a positive future in The Agency of the Future "project’s overall strategic goal is to map the landscape of opportunities and constraints that will face settlement organizations between now and 2020 and, based on this mapping, to identify the strategies that will enable the sector to prosper.” Like many short-term funded IRCC initiatives, this one sprang up, made recommendations, convened and consulted the sector, showed promise, seemed to fall on deaf ears of the organization that funded it, and then became an archive of interesting ideas and frustrating consultations.

A sector definition of innovation - six elements

  1. Asset-Based Community Development 
  2. Community Innovation
  3. Critical Reflection
  4. Knowledge Mobilization 
  5. Participatory Action Research
  6. Scope

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

Connect innovation practice more intentionally with Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).

Place-based neighbourhood work engenders connectivity and highlights the assets of the community. ABCD recognizes the skills, experience and energy of newcomers, and their potential to be long-term contributors to local community health, wealth and well being. Furthermore, ABCD is a global community of practice with ongoing professional and organizational development activities.

The sector is moving to asset-based development as a service-delivery approach that goes from needs/assets assessment to service design and implementation. This shifts the focus on the assets that clients and communities have, and build on these to work together on goals. There’s a natural connection with ABCD methods.“

ABCD was introduced by John McKnight and John Kretzmann in their 1993 book, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets. Over time, ABCD has become an approach that is used in community, social, and health services. Since 2016, Tamarack Institute’s Deepening Community Practice Area has been home to ABCD Canada.”

ABCD looks at communities from an asset lens and an appreciative lens and is naturally inclined toward equity-based work. It is also place-based and is used to drive change forward. ABCD also connects to community development. The Aspen Roundtable on Community Engagement and Community Impact tackled the question of engaging community in collective impact. In an interview, Marty Zanghi describes collective impact in a way that reflects the perspective of the sector:

“It’s a method, a strategy, a way of creating relationships for people who have been affected by poverty, social and economic injustice, and racism. It’s about providing people who haven’t had a voice the opportunity to share leadership and develop their skills to get practitioners and policymakers to actually listen.”

The ABCD goal is, in part, to shift the perception of newcomers, viewing them as an asset to the community rather than people with needs or vulnerabilities.

Community Innovation

One of the defining characteristics of community innovation is that it is place-based, an core aspect of settlement organizations. The community innovation model also places a dual emphasis on community development approaches and a commitment to up-skilling and re-skilling staff for innovation. 

“Place-based development, in contrast to conventional sectoral, programmatic or issue-defined perspectives, is a holistic and targeted intervention that seeks to reveal, utilize and enhance the unique natural, physical, and/or human capacity endowments present within a particular location for the development of the in-situ community and/or its biophysical environment.” - Sean Markey

My colleague in New Zealand said to me, “In neighbourhoods, they call it brainstorming; in social innovation, they call it ideation.” – Liz Weaver, Tamarack Institute

The Tamarack Institute suggests there are five interconnected practice areas for community change.(Tamarack Institute. (2019, Changing how I think about community change: a multisolving approach):

  1. Collective Impact
  2. Community Engagement (which includes Asset-based Community Development)
  3. Collaborative Leadership
  4. Community Innovation
  5. Evaluating Impact

Building competency in any one of the Tamarack practice areas is beneficial, but skill across all the practices has shown to lead to more durable impact. Community innovation requires an appreciation of the issue one is hoping to address and an understanding of the unique characteristics of the community. It is essential to know the place (and the people within it) where the innovation will be implemented. 

Sector community development approaches align well with community innovation and Tamarack’s five practice areas:

  1. Agencies deliver place-based activities within a neighbourhood service boundary.
  2. Agencies incorporate community change goals in service delivery models. 
  3. Staff view innovation as starting with and involving clients and community through all phases. 
  4. The community innovation model for service delivery acknowledges interdependencies. 
  5. Community innovation also takes specialized skills, experience, knowledge, and resources into account.

Embrace the concept of community innovation as the sector’s core innovation model moving forward. One of the defining characteristics of community innovation is that it is place-based, an aspect of the sector’s core values and role in communities. The community innovation model also places a dual emphasis on community development approaches and a commitment to up-skilling and re-skilling staff for innovation, which will be critical components in the post-pandemic new normal.

Critical Reflection

Include time for critical reflection in staff schedules. Agencies need to adapt learning cultures suited to reflective practice, and it can also be continued externally with colleagues in their partner and service ecosystem.

An inclination toward reflective practice was the most pervasive of all the themes that emerged from interviews. Reflective practice allows professionals to update their skills and knowledge and to interact more authentically with their colleagues. Critical reflection considers the levers of power and hegemony, and their constant pressure on affirming the legitimacy of power and dominant voices.

The experience can be deepened with practice and adherence to four principles, organized into a simple mnemonic, U-ACE (Brookfield, S.D. (2017) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Ltd):

  • Use inclusive conversation protocols and hold off on problem-solving or focusing on a single problem.
  • Acknowledge each person’s contribution.
  • Challenge assumptions, especially related to power and hegemony.
  • Encourage as many different perspectives on the topic as possible.

Knowledge Mobilization

Build knowledge mobilization (KM) practice and processes to broadly share NYCH’s work, while in progress and completed.KM activates knowledge transfer and has value for the organization both internally (professional and organizational development) and externally (profile, collective impact).

The idea is to go beyond what happened to suggest why it happened, what was learned, and how similar organizations could benefit from this learning. 

KM is conceptually: What? So what? Now what? 

KM activates knowledge transfer and has value for the organization both internally (professional and organizational development) and externally (profile, collective impact).

The goal of a knowledge mobilization (KM) approach is not merely to create research repositories or summarize project work. KM aims to extract practical learning from existing resources (such as reports, 37INNOVATION + EXPERIMENTATION interviews, community events) and create impact. Specific to NYCH, there is an opportunity to share learning about innovation in a service-based organization.

KM’s goal is also to enhance two-way connections between researchers/innovators and community stakeholders and highlight relevant and useful research and evidence. 

KM might help to remove barriers to implementation and improve services. For example, continuing to extract and deepen key messages, lessons, and practical recommendations from NYCH’s sector shares might target different audiences and offer them information that can help them to implement or take action. 

KM methods that are appropriate to NYCH are condensing critical learnings in a series of Research Snapshots, multimedia summaries, interviews or information sharing in the form of infographics, blog posts, and podcasts. KM supports knowledge transfer. 

Participatory Action Research (PAR)

Adapt a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to ensure that community research is complemented by service intervention when needed. 

PAR has been used since the 1940’s and approaches inquiry utilizing many methods. While there are many definitions of PAR, what is common to all is that PAR focuses on change, is context-specific, and is designed to meet the needs of a specific group. Interview comments indirectly referenced PAR in a variety of ways. The evaluators saw PAR as a method that would have satisfied both research goals and responded to client needs.

Recent research on PAR as a tool for situating youth knowledge at the centre of research reflects the perspectives of NYCH staff. Martin, S.B., Burbach, J.H., Benitez, L.L., Ramiz, I. (2019) Participatory action research and co-researching as a tool for situating youth knowledge at the centre of research. London Review of Education. 

PAR challenges the traditional ways in which data is collected and contributes to knowledge construction in ways that might not otherwise happen. This results in counternarratives that create space for youth voice, experience and knowledge to enter into dominant educational research, speak truth to power and potentiate change in education. 

Experienced-based co-design is a form of PAR that is often used in healthcare to improve patient experiences and services. The approach takes a user-centred orientation (often using ethnographic techniques) and a collaborative change process that helps to see the person in the patient and put their experience at the centre of quality improvements.


Think about scope, not just scale; recognize and value it in service design.

Recognizing success as scope or scale (and being specific about it) can encourage an innovation mindset.

In economics, scope is efficiency brought about by variety, not volume. Scale drives higher production volumes. In an innovation context, success might be ‘scaling up’ a program or initiative to a vast number of individuals categorized as the same. In a Settlement context, scope is a recognition that agencies serve diverse, nuanced communities. Success can be applying knowledge and skills to rapidly customize services for diverse groups (including diversity within groups).

Welcoming Communities as Innovation

What is a Welcoming Community

This report identifies attributes of welcoming communities:

  • Spatial dimension - a physical location in Canada – a town, city, or region – in which newcomers feel valued and their needs are served
  • Discourse dimension - a community having agency and engaging in actions that facilitate the integration of newcomers
  • A collective effort to create a place where individuals feel valued and included
  • A location that has the capacity to meet the needs and promote inclusion of newcomers, and the machinery in place to produce and support these capacities; includes both outcomes, and processes that work toward producing and maintaining these outcomes

and provides indicators of a welcoming community:

  • Employment Opportunities
  • Fostering of Social Capital
  • Affordable and Suitable Housing
  • Positive Attitudes toward Immigrants, Cultural Diversity, and the Presence ofNewcomers in the Community
  • Presence of Newcomer-Serving Agencies that Can Successfully Meet the Needsof Newcomers
  • Links between Main Actors Working toward Welcoming Communities
  • Municipal Features and Services Sensitive to the Presence and Needs ofNewcomers
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Accessible and Suitable Health Care
  • Available and Accessible Public Transit
  • Presence of Diverse Religious Organizations
  • Social Engagement Opportunities
  • Political Participation Opportunities
  • Positive Relationships with the Police and the Justice System
  • Safety
  • Opportunities for Use of Public Space and Recreation Facilities
  • Favourable Media Coverage and Representation

Operationalizing Innovation

There are a number of ways that innovation can be operationalized in service provider organizations. None of these are the “right” way. They also are not necessarily most useful in isolation, but can be combined. 


Bringing in external consultants who provide methodology expertise and project management to convene different sectors and end users in program and service design.


“Bow Valley College’s Enhancing Wellbeing and Civic Engagement of Immigrant Women Retirees project focused on co-creating a community-delivered program dedicated to immigrant women retirees’ wellbeing and engagement. The work focused on an overlooked group of seniors who fell between the service gaps of settlement agencies and mainstream senior service providers. Principles of social innovation, participatory program design, and developmental evaluation were utilized. The project provides a framework for immigrant and refugee-serving organizations and their partners for strategic co-creation, innovation methods, and tools in order to address a number of broad social concerns.” –


Creating formal internal innovation capacity (lab, team, embedded in staff roles, etc.) within the organization


“The WoodGreen Innovation Lab supports the organization in creating and testing new approaches to create meaningful impacts for our clients. Their work is grounded in best practices, informed by research, data analysis, and co-design with key stakeholders. Using a human-centred approach, they engage staff, community partners, and most importantly service users with lived experience of the systems and services they are helping transform.” –

External Convener To Community

Newcomers directly access existing external innovation consultants (working with settlement agencies) to explore innovation, co-create, and incubate their projects and ideas, focused on their identified challenges.


“The Radius SFU Refugee Livelihood Lab works to shift systemic barriers and generate opportunities for thriving livelihoods in Surrey, B.C. They seek to amplify the voices of racialized refugee and newcomer innovators. They convene “conversations to advance equity by helping shift conditions holding the problems in place and co-creating new narratives, ventures and ways of being that reflect a vision of justice, dignity and economic empowerment for all.” –

External Convener To Agencies

Using an existing external innovation lab/consultant, in their space, to convene multiple sector actors/agencies to work on their identified challenges.


“NouLAB is New Brunswick’s public and social innovation lab. It helps the public and innovators act together to address pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges. NouLAB connects change agents from across sectors, convening them around pressing issues, and facilitating their journey to deep change.”–

Community Innovation

Identifying and building on local informal community efforts and ideas in partnership with formal system actors to create systems change.


“Building a Stronger, More Connective Kingsville-Leamington is a cross-community initiative for inclusion of international workers that live in local towns and work on local farms. It started with two local residents hosting a yearly dinner bringing international workers and local community members together to “cross the road.” The main employer organization Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers created a focused and collaborative cross-community effort to work towards all workers feeling welcome, supported, safe, with a sense of belonging during their time in the Leamington & Kingsville communities. It started with a simple question of the welcoming community: “What do we want our community to look like in the future, and how will we get there, together?” A number of new programs, as well as a smartphone app “HUB Connect” were created to provide services and information to workers.” –

“Having a social impact is the result of a deliberative set of activities. MCIS Language Solutions advocates for improved access to critical information about local schools, job opportunities, civic and political rights, and access to health and legal services to make it possible for people to fully participate in civic life and for communities to remain prosperous. MCIS’ theory of change focuses on making it possible for people to fully participate in civic life and for communities to remain prosperous through advocacy on language issues and access. This includes increasing their ability to innovate and experiment with new business models and strategies, focus on long-term objectives, and form strategic partners to optimize capacity.”–

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