Toronto’s Top Dozen Social Innovations

The rest of Canada can get petulant about Toronto. Once it was even fashionable to describe Toronto as dull. I doubt it was ever true. Or that Toronto was any duller than any other place in the country – except of course Montreal which was/is never dull!

Regardless this world-class, creative and culturally diverse city has been a hotbed of social innovation for more than 150 years Here in alphabetical order are a baker’s dozen of Toronto’s top social innovations:

  1. Blue Box – Jack McGinnes, conceived of the blue box and curbside recycling in the late 1970’s. It’s now in 100’s of cities around the world.
  2. Inclusion ­– Jack Pearpoint, Marsha Forest and Judith Snow invented the concept of inclusion and popularized circle of friends for folks with disabilities.
  3. Institute Without Boundaries and Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibit – design thinking applied to sustainability. Swept us away with their boldness.
  4. Insulin – the discovery of insulin by Banting and his student Best saved the lives of millions. No patents and no personal attempts to financially benefit. Banting’s modesty on display with this quote: “I have always thought that Science was greater than the individual and that Insulin therefore spoke for itself and the story needed no further telling.”
  5. Jane’s Walk – in honour of Jane Jacob’s approach to urban vitality, cities for people and walkable neighbourhoods. Jane’s walk is now in 134 cities in 25 countries.
  6. JUMP MathJohn Mighton is igniting a numeracy movement and changing the way all of us, particularly children, are taught math.
  7. Mad Pride –  A mass movement of users and former users of mental health services and their allies. Reclaiming misuse of terms such as ‘mad’ and ‘pyscho.’ Now a global movement teaching us that no condition precludes people from making their contribution. Lisa Brown’s Workman Arts is a driving force.
  8. MaRS Discovery District and Centre for Social Innovation – Any city would be proud to have either of them. Different but effective containers for continuous innovation. (Yes they each deserve a spot of their own but hey, I’m trying to squeeze as many on the list as I can.)
  9. Responsible Government – Toronto resident Robert Baldwin and his Quebec counterpart, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine were the architects of responsible government in Canada. They blocked Britain’s attempt to assimilate French Canadians and enshrined the notion of the public good in our public institutions.
  10. Roots of EmpathyMary Gordon and her team are a major reason for the world’s attentiveness to emotional literacy. They have taught empathy skills to more than 600,000 students on three continents.
  11. Saint Elizabeth – the largest home health care organization in Canada. As government reduced support for home care 20 years ago, they pioneered and became the biggest caregiving social enterprise in the country.
  12. Toronto Atmospheric Fund – endowed by the City to combat global warming and improve air quality in Toronto. Great and early example of government led innovation and impact investing.
  13. Toronto City Summit Alliance (now CivicAction) – David Pecaut led the rescue of Toronto from the doldrums of the early 2000’s by convening, building consensus and collaborating across diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Darn I didn’t get to Towers of Renewal, Pathways to Education, Me to We and…

What/who else did I miss?. Send them along. Let’s complete the list.


Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting.

Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion

Talkin’ ’bout the right time to be workin’ for peace

Wantin’ all the tension in the world to ease

We wantin’ love while walking on the streets

We want to be free, we want that be free

(Rise up rise up) Oh rise and show your power

(Rise up rise up) Everybody is dancing into the sun

(Rise up rise up) It’s time for celebration

(Rise up rise up) Spirits time has come

     Rise Up by Parachute Club with Lorraine Segato

Have a listen to RISE UP here.


Social Change is Enlightened by Love

Singable Songs for the Young at Heart

Beautifying Social Change

Social Innovation – A Definition of Opportunity

Impact 6 is Ready to Make a Dent in the Conversation

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  1. Andrew Simpson

    Great list Al – like the balance of established vs new, big and small, known and not so known.
    Looking forward to part II.
    Don’t forget Centre for Social Innovation – a few on your list were housed or incubated there.

    Andrew Simpson

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