Unleashing the Okanagan – Ten Noteworthy Social Innovations

Few would deny the importance of geography, soil composition, climate, sunlight and other growing conditions to produce memorable wine. In wine making this is, of course, referred to as ‘terroir’.  The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia has a fine grasp of its ‘terroir.’ The wine it produces is so good virtually all of it is consumed here in BC. (I do my part!)

The Okanagan also has a fine grasp of its ‘social innovation terroir.’ Like other regions or locales, it has a heritage of ingenuity that is serving it well as it confronts today’s tough social challenges.

In honour of an upcoming visit to Kelowna here is a sample of some of the top social innovations in the Okanagan Valley. Many, like their wine, deserve to be exported.

  • En’owkin is an ancient Okanagan Nation decision-making process that involves clarification, conflict resolution and group commitment.  The intent is to come to the best solution possible through respectful dialogue and consensus. A humble reminder that our latest social innovation technologies are not all that new. See also En’owkin Centre the custodian of this and other cultural aspirations of the Okanagan (Syilx) People.
  • The Return of the Sockeye: Thanks to the Okanagan Nation Alliance, sockeye salmon are returning to the Okanagan Valley. Somehow they’ve found their way all the way up the Columbia River past dams, urban encroachment, pollution, channelization and predation. They are thriving in the middle of a desert.  I can’t think of a more powerful metaphor for determination, destiny, social innovation and resilience than salmon and their partners the Sylix People.
  • Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Okanagan – their bold strategy of seizing business opportunities and launching social enterprises sets a standard for non-profits seeking financial self-sufficiency. A great example of mobilizing your economic power to enable children and youth to reach their highest potential.
  • Enactus Okanagan College is a team of college social entrepreneurs who are quietly launching social ventures and supporting the community sector throughout the Okanagan Valley. The scale and depth of their activities is impressive as are the national awards they have picked up.
  • Kettle Valley Railway is one of the most scenic sections of the Trans Canada Trail drawing hikers and cyclists from around the world. The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire of 2003 destroyed all the wooden trestles in the breathtakingly beautiful Myra Canyon. They are now fully rebuilt  thanks to the volunteer efforts of the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society.
  • Shane Koyczan is a spoken word poet and social activist. Arguably he has performed in front of more people than any other Canadian poet.  (sorry L Cohen fans.) His anti-bullying poem To This Day inspired an international movement against bullying in schools. There is no greater testament to the power of art to transform and magnify social movements than Shane Koyczan and his creations.
  • Metro Community is an accidental church. Its origins are on the street with the excluded, labeled, vulnerable and ignored. They treat strangers as treasured guests. In the old days this was called living the gospel. Seems more like rediscovering the gospel.
  • Nk’Mip Cellars – The Osoyoos Indian Band has been described as the most business minded and prosperous First Nation in Canada. Its signature venture is Nik’Mip winery but also includes a vineyard, resort, desert museum, golf courses and a gravel and concrete business. The net result – no unemployment and some of the best wine in Canada. (I do my part.) Yet another great example of surviving, reviving and thriving despite the land theft, attempted assimilation and other ravages left by the mid-1800’s Okanagan gold rush.
  • Harold Rhenisch – incorporates tradition, rock formations, ancient sea beds, mythical creatures, ancestors, the future, life’s infinite variety and so much more into a new way of seeing, feeling and understanding the spirit of the places we call home. He’s a modern alchemist using writing as renewal and metamorphosis.
  • Urban Matters is the first Canadian business to embrace the new business/social enterprise hybrid called Community Contribution Companies. Urban Matters tends to a veritable garden of social innovation and social enterprise to address tough community issues in the Okanagan and beyond. Two of their noteworthy projects are Okanagan Car Share Co-Op and purppl a community enterprise accelerator. A great model for businesses wanting to move beyond the traditional CSR template.

Oh my I’ve run out of space and I haven’t even mentioned the Okanagan food movement. I recommend a visit to taste the above social innovations as well as the ones I’ve surely missed. I will be there March 9th for an afternoon workshop and for an evening ‘unlaunch’ of my new book Impact. It will be an evening of storytelling, poetry and music.

One more thing…

Who is this anonymous Public Servant? There was a time when Okanagan wines weren’t very good. This unpalatable situation was rescued by a remarkable act of public sector innovation. An unidentified BC public servant did a soil and slope analysis accompanied by extensive recommendation as to which vinifera varieties best suited the Okanagan’s terroir. The old vines were pulled out and a 100% changeover to new varieties followed. The result – an explosion of wineries from 14 in 1981 to more than 120 today. Does anyone know his or her name?


Imagine looking up at the hill and seeing the spirit that has been there for 12,000 years for the first time.

     Harold Rhenisch, Spirit of the Okanagan

Have a listen to “On a Roll’ by K.A.S.P. a multi award winning hip hop artist. This indigenous rapper from Penticton is a force to be reckoned with. “When they think it’s improbable, I do the impossible, believe the unbelievable, that makes me unstoppable.” Could also be a tag line for the Okanagan. Purchase his music here.


Cherry Blossoms and the Social Innovation ‘Terroir’ of Canada

Social Innovation Isn’t a Matter of Choice for Many People

Beware of the Statu Quo Values of Social Technologies

8 Questions for Thinking and Acting Like a Movement

Play the Field with Concepts; Stay Faithful to Your EthicsMother D’Youville – A Woman of Note

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