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Posted on Jul 19, 2013

“Empathy, an unanticipated consequence of a year well spent”

“Empathy, an unanticipated consequence of a year well spent”


By Geraldine Cahill, Communications Manager, Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National

In 1709, Alexander Pope wrote that a little learning is a dangerous thing. If Pope felt that learning about the world may call us to question how well it is operating, then it may be dangerous indeed. However, as I come to the end of my year in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, I think I can put Pope’s fears to rest.

Throughout the diploma’s course work, participants took a deep dive in systems thinking and resilience theory. To tackle increasingly complex social and environmental challenges, change makers best get started by understanding that our systems – social, political, industrial etc, are interconnected and interdependent.

At its best, systems thinking aims to address the root causes of big problems. For example, while food banks effectively manage hunger issues, there are people who use systems thinking to figure out why hunger is still such a challenge, and how it’s connected to other issues, policies, etc. Through identifying the root causes of hunger, systems thinkers are able to search out and support opportunities to decrease or eradicate hunger. Systems thinkers see the whole picture, understand the relationships in the system and can identify opportunities for highly strategic interventions that might make a difference.

As a consequence of applying a systems framework to see the world, I am struck by what I can only describe as a deepening empathy in myself. The Graduate Diploma was intentionally designed to be cross-sectoral with participants joining from the private, public and community sectors. Once engaged in the class modules, we were generously showered with insights, analyses and theories that enabled us to see the world from multiple and diverse perspectives.

It is in researching systems that one is exposed to the various perspectives needed to adequately test and posit a possible solution to a complex problem. In reflecting on the key learnings, I feel that in learning how to see our world’s systems and understanding how we may work together more effectively to produce positive change, I have built a greater reserve of empathy for differing points of view and experience. While empathy was not necessarily the principle outcome or intention of my study, it was certainly a welcome bonus.

During the 2012 Skoll World Forum, Huffington Post President and Chief, Arianna Huffington wrote:

“The role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Assuming we agree about the importance of empathy, how do we cultivate it? Huffington quotes Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon in her article; an Ashoka Fellow and social innovator whom SiG has spoken to about the unique opportunity presented by increased empathy. The problem as Gordon sees it is that without empathy, we have insufficient traction for conflict resolution. Developing empathy is the key to building understanding and breaking cycles of violence.

While Roots of Empathy has expanded to include programs for young and mature adults, it is primarily designed to work with young schoolchildren. AshokaFounder, Bill Drayton similarly sees the merit of developing empathy in children. In an April edition of Forbes online magazine Drayton states:

“If you aren’t given the tools of applied empathy as a young child, we shouldn’t be blaming you—we should be blaming us,” Drayton said. “We have to have a revolution so that all young people grasp empathy and practice it. This is the most fundamental revolution that we have to get through.”

Scaling up programs like Roots of Empathy offers future generations great hope and I believe should be broadly embraced. In the meantime however, it may well be possible to inject complexity and systems thinking into later stages of our educational systems to produce some complementary results. Pursuing this theory may even allay Paul Bloom’s concern that only concentrating on building empathy will not help us create a resilient world for billions of people.

In May’s New Yorker, Bloom writes that our natural tendency is to feel empathetic to situations we can see and relate to; for example the story of a baby that falls down a well. Bloom states: “If a planet of billions is to survive, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed.” I tend to agree that empathy alone isn’t enough; we need to have a framework to understand how we can explore the root causes of problems to propose solutions that help many. Consequently, by applying a social innovation lens with an understanding of systems thinking, we can tackle our complex challenges fuelled by the empathy to see the challenges from multiple points of view.

By enrolling in the diploma program at the University of Waterloo, my purpose was to better understand transformational systems change and to broaden my vocabulary for articulating the benefits of approaching complex problems with a social innovation lens. I did not anticipate that in achieving these goals, I would also tap into greater reserves of empathy.

If this past year’s experience is anything to go by, it could be helpful to build a healthy dose of systems thinking into more curricula and professional development programs, in the spirit of the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. For us further down life’s road, it could be a beneficial companion to the empathy programs we are rightly providing for our children.

Aligning with this thinking, the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum has invited Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon to speak at the conference as part of their exploration into social innovation and systems approaches to social change. This is a terrific opportunity to deepen understanding of how systems thinking can help scale your efforts to affect positive change in our world. The conference takes place October 2-4 in Calgary, Canada. Click here to learn more about Mary’s SEWF 2013 presentation.

NB: This post has been adapted from its original and re-published with permission of the author. Feature picture c/o Thoughts on Leadership

About SiG:

Print Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National is a partnership of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, the University of Waterloo; and Vancouver’s PLAN Institute. By fostering social innovation, SiG enables the creativity of social innovators to tackle the profound social and environmental challenges facing Canadians.

SiG’s role is to help enable Canadians’ ability to innovate to overcome large scale complex social and environmental challenges through change- or solution-labs and new forms of cross-sectoral partnerships.

SiG convened the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, a blue ribbon panel that proposed a seven-point agenda for mobilizing private capital for public good.

SiG is an organizing partner for SEWF 2013.