Two weeks ago, The Agency (self-described as a hub for social innovation) held its first annual Social Innovation Conference at U of T, at both the St. George and UTM campuses. While the downtown campus hosted over 10 breakout sessions and various activities, here at UTM, the IMI department held a Social Innovation workshop at the I-CUBE HQ within the Kaneff Centre to celebrate the event.
The Agency consists of founder Cindy Ross Pedersen, a former tech entrepreneur and previous president of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, executive director Keita Demming, an OISE Ph.D. graduate, and project manager Igor Samardzic, who is currently transitioning into U of T graduate studies.
In an interview with The Medium, Demming explained that “the idea behind The Agency is that if you look around the University of Toronto, it’s very difficult to know where to go if you’re interested in […] social entrepreneurship. We wanted to create, just like a travel agency, somewhere where people can choose their own journey around social innovation and social entrepreneurship. There’s a lot happening at the University of Toronto already, but nobody is pulling it together.”
Demming and a friend applied for funding to spread the idea of social innovation through a conference to be held in the summer.
“That’s how we met Cindy. So we decided to do that conference because we thought part of the conference would be about educating people about the potential for social innovation,” Demming says. “Eventually what Cindy decided was that she needed to super-size what we were doing, because what we were doing was a on a small scale, and would have been on a student level. She was able to bring us into a wider conversation across the University of Toronto.”
The conference that Demming is referring to was an exclusive event held by The Agency on June 27, 2016. It was limited to a select total of 60 individuals, who were students, faculty, and staff at U of T. According to The Agency’s website, discussion revolved around aspects such as enriching the student experience (i.e. helping students see themselves as “capable agents of change”) and fostering a culture of innovation at U of T.
This event was meant to be a “precursor” to last week’s conference. It was also how Demming became a part of the core team at The Agency.
“Cindy and I worked really well together,” says Demming.
“She asked if The Agency was something that I wanted to be a part of. For somebody who’s just finished their Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, what better way or next job is there than to make social innovation a real endeavour at the University of Toronto?”
The Agency then used their findings from their summer conference to plan a second conference, held last Monday, titled “It’s Time to be Bold/Social Innovation @ U of T.”
According to Demming, almost 275 students had registered for the conference, where a total of approximately 219 students attending the event.
The workshops held at Hart House included topics such as “city level social innovation,” “health equity,” “careers in social innovation,” and “funding social entrepreneurship.” Event sponsors included UTM, U of T’s School of Graduate Studies department, and U of T’s Institute for Global Health Equity and Innovation.
Demming believes that there is a lot of potential for social innovation.
“We wanted students to walk away with a connection […] [and] a better sense of what social innovation is. […] I think a lot of [them] walked away with that because we chose people who were very articulate,” says Demming.
The Agency is not done yet—they are planning to hold more events.
“We are hoping to do a speaker series in the winter […]. A lot of people have been connecting with us to do interesting events related to social entrepreneurship [and] social innovation, so we will definitely be doing other events. A lot of this is focused on students—how do we support students [in their future endeavours].”