THE BLOG

Why Canada Needs a Solution Economy to Solve Our Society's Challenges

09/28/2013 09:29 EDT | Updated 11/28/2013 05:12 EST

One door slammed after another yet Samantha Held showed true grit. It took more than a year, and gruelling hours spent filling out hundreds of job applications, but the 23-year-old single mother and new college graduate eventually landed her first job.

"It feels absolutely amazing. It's a great gift to be able to work, gaining confidence and getting off social assistance," the Hamilton bookkeeper explains, who joined the tire and auto repair centre, Active Green + Ross, a year ago.

Held counts her blessings, thankful to the social-service agency that connected her to the company and to Active Green + Ross for the opportunity. Little does she know, however, that she and thousands of other newly employed Canadians owe their job fortune to a do-gooder with a revolutionary take on an old problem.

It was 2001, at the height of the tech bubble, and Bill Young couldn't shake the feeling that he had to do more to help the dispossessed and disadvantaged -- single mothers, at-risk youth, new immigrants and the disabled who had a tough time cracking the job market.

Young had just pocketed a tidy profit from the sale of a software company he had built from the ground floor up. Rather than sit back and enjoy the spoils of his labour, he decided to turn that same entrepreneurial spirit to founding a new kind of venture. Social Capital Partners would help underwrite businesses willing to hire people on unemployment rolls.

It soon became obvious that businesses, once gaining access to these previously invisible labour pools, actually didn't need incentives to hire them. So, Young set his sights higher. If there was such a significant and systemic problem -- a fundamental disconnect between the demand and supply of workers in Canada -- why not reform the entire system?

Young is a "Wavemaker," one among a breed of social entrepreneurs, business leaders and citizen activists working to make a difference in the world. They bring new energy, ideas and resources to seemingly intractable social problems. In the process they are breaking down barriers and challenging old stereotypes of what we should expect from business, government and society.

They are part of a global movement in which social benefits are seen as outweighing outdated models of public vs. private sector interests. They are giving rise to a new solution economy, in which there is also a growing recognition that debt-crippled governments can no longer satisfy all of their citizens' wants and needs.

The U.K. has been quick to embrace and encourage this trend, with the government calling on its citizens to roll up their sleeves and pitch in as part of "the Big Society." The government's call to action has triggered widespread reforms in return-to-work programs, criminal justice and social assistance.

The U.S. is following suit. The Obama administration and state governments are also looking to encourage for-profit business and not-for-profit social enterprises to propose innovative solutions to problems governments have traditionally been tasked with solving. These wavemakers are not only motivated to find a solution to a problem they feel passionate about, but by return-on-investment. If a solution achieves its goal, the government pays the investors a share of spending that is saved.

In Canada, Young's job is made harder because we haven't yet begun to question the effectiveness of our labyrinth of social programs. Never mind that we spend well in excess of $200 billion annually on an estimated 5,000 programs. Or that their costs are growing at about three times the economy. The bigger concern is that few if any of these programs have a payment for results structure. Meaning, we have little or no way of influencing how effective they are.

Young has a better plan: give business a much bigger role in decisions about government-sponsored job training. He calls it "Demand-led" skills training. It's not about spending more money. It's about a more market-based solution to a chronic problem that takes a huge toll on millions of Canadians.

The global initiatives encouraging new entrants into social problem-solving reflect a growing awareness that civil society and business have an important role to play. Recent announcements that the federal and some provincial governments will explore social finance alternatives indicate a tentative interest in new approaches.

But caution should not be tantamount to protecting the status quo. The evidence is mounting: erasing time-hardened barriers between the public and private sectors offers the best hope for people like Samantha Held, companies like Active Green + Ross, and ultimately our nation.