Social Innovation and Connector Organizations: Facilitating Clusters in Montreal

A few days ago I was ruminating about how one social innovation might interact with another and considered the idea of clusters.  The next day I saw an article had been published on clusters and social innovation in the International Journal of Technology Management by Juan-Luis Klein, Diane Gabrielle Tremblay and Denis Bussieres.

This research explores an area of Montreal adjusting to change in the garment industry.  Montreal had for many years been a centre for the garment industry in North America but in recent years has struggled to compete with products produced more cheaply in emerging economies.

The researchers identified the importance of “community economic development corporations” (CEDCs) that encouraged the development of a new working model.  These organizations facilitated the move from a focus on production to one focused on design. Providing ideas, resources and networks CEDCs were able to encourage a new cadre of fashion designers. CEDCs could enable the sharing of resources and knowledge.  The effect was to produce a cluster of independently operating businesses in an area of the city that gained benefits from close proximity.

It raised a couple of questions for me.  First, about the importance of “connector” organizations, the forms that they can take and for how long.

The importance of  “connector/bridging” organizations in facilitatating social change has long been identified (eg, Brown, 1991*) as a way of connecting diverse interests and actors to tackle complex social problems. In my mind I often have the image of formal inter-agency collaborations – working committees on particular social issues – but they needn’t look this way.  Mumford (2002**), in his case study on Benjamin Franklin, highlighted the importance of “gentleman clubs” as playing a key connecting role and in my own research on the establishment of North America’s first supervised injection site, a key bridging role was played by a group that had an informal weekly lunch time meeting. Over lunch representatives from diverse agencies were given the space to explore issues and ideas away from the constraints of their “home” organizations. But I wonder whether connector organizations may need to take different forms at different times and may in fact need to have an inbuilt expiration date. The researchers in Montreal provide a very positive account of the benefits of the CEDCs but I wonder how over time these organizations work to reduce a self-serving bias.

My second question is around whether proximity to other innovators necessarily leads to further social innovation.  While the research on Montreal highlights all the positive benefits from clustering, I can imagine that there might be challenges and difficulties. While it may generate lots of ideas it could also lead to conflict and risk aversion – those in a cluster may prefer to copy each other for reasons of legitimacy rather than risk standing out from the crowd.  Also how does the connector organization deal with those in the cluster who have competing and perhaps contradictory ideas? It makes me wonder how important the role of competition and collaboration are to social innovation and the role they might play in different stages in the creation, development and diffusion of social innovations.

To find out more about CEDCs and the garment industry in Montreal click here

* Brown, L. D. 1991. Bridging organizations and sustainable development. Human Relations, 44(8), 807-831.

**Mumford, M. D. (2002). Social Innovation: Ten Cases From Benjamin Franklin. Creativity Research Journal, 14(2), 253-266.

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