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As part of Social Enterprise Day March 27 in British Columbia, Urban Systems went public with a Social Enterprise pilot project of its own, Urban Matters.

  Ken Gauthier

The project has been in the works for almost two years. Urban Systems principal Ken Gauthier is leading a small group of team members to shape the new project. I recently caught up with Ken to explore social innovation and enterprise, the community, and the journey towards the next wave of business thinking.

Q: How did social innovation and social enterprise capture your attention? What were the aha moments along the way?

Ken: This was developed through activity of our charitable foundation which encourages our staff to get out into the community and funds initiatives they want to plug into, generally centred around underprivileged youth. Through that vehicle we’ve been finding ourselves increasingly drawn into complex situations, complex in a positive way. It looked like we could give more, be more, and participate more than we were, based on our professional services.

Q: Can you share an example?

Ken: In our Kamloops office we offer a program called Powerstart through the Kamloops Boys and Girls Club which assists underprivileged kids. A good percentage of our staff take a half hour out of their morning to help kids gets set up for their busy day.

All of the activities are self-identified by staff.

Q: Was there a project that moved your thinking in the direction of social innovation and enterprise?

Ken: One that was a lynchpin for us was working with the YMCA. They have a camp called Silver Lake in the Okanagan. It’s in a little isolated community in the woods. We started working with them through our Foundation and it started to need support in asset management, water- and power-source development. It started to become a small engineering assignment. We thought: There are many organizations like this one with maybe a hundred camps across Canada.

About two years ago questions started coming up. Could we start participating more on a professional basis? That's when the idea of social enterprise came on to the radar screen. It was timely. There was a lot of dialogue going on in our community and network. David LePage’s Enterprising Non-Profits (ENP) road show had just had kicked off. There was a lot of Google fodder on social enterprise. It just started to make sense. We were getting these requests for activity.

We are a very community-minded organization. We wanted to find a way to build business while building impact. We have viable, tangible evidence that the need is there. We had a preliminary client network that could provide us with the feedback. If we could have access to engineers and planners we might do things differently and better.

Some of the classic training of engineers includes a more systems-based assessment of any situation. That kind of thinking, that kind of mind, is valued in the sector. Engineers are able to look at problems they might not necessarily have the background in and get to the root of the problem.

That brought the seed of the idea, about 18-20 months ago. We started to play with that and take a business mindset to social impact. We just loved all the language that was out there at the time. That’s the only sustainable path to change. If we could reinforce social impact through business models, this could become a sustainable model.

Q: What are the notions or ideas you find most satisfying as you are going through this journey?

Ken: Michael Porter put out a YouTube clip telling a very similar story about the milestones along the way. In the January 2011 Harvard Business Review, he published a seminal piece on this. We were sitting here trying to ponder it ourselves: Is it possible that we could find a social impact and a business bottom line competing for space equally? It was serendipitous.

It was a validation. For a few of us it was a ‘Eureka’ moment. I don’t know why we needed the validation but we were getting into new space. We were probably going to take a chance on it anyway but it was nice to see what Michael Porter and David with ENP were up to.

  Child and youth worker Justine Calder from the Boys and Girls Club of Kamloops welcomes children as they board the bus on their way to school.

Q: How many people in your small group connected to the idea?

Ken: The seed discussions were with less than a half dozen senior people in the organization. There are about two dozen now thinking through how to plug in. It inspires them. It connects to their values. We’re having all kinds of discussion about how this connects to professional practice, what can I do? A lot of people have very active social impact lives outside of work in other organizations. They volunteer after 5 p.m. all over the place.

How do we start to marry these networks and these connections to this idea of social impact?

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from peers if any?

Ken: It is a tough concept to explain and that’s something we found out early on. Then there are a lot of very interested parties around the periphery but they haven’t been able to make the connection. We’re talking and thinking differently about a hundred years of capitalism. It’s going to take time.

Q: Is it necessary to bring everyone alongside?

Ken: It’s a movement within the company. So no, I think the stories that emerge, the stories of engagements and impacts are going to create the Eureka moments for the rest of the company.

We want the whole company to be aware. These are inspiring stories.

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between the group looking at something new, and those doing the breadwinning in the meantime? What value do these two different activities bring to one another?

Ken: There is a tendency in this space to drift to ‘cause and feel good’ and away from business and vice versa. You can almost tangibly see it in the conversation depending on who the people are. The cause-driven, impact-driven, crowd will drift away from the business imperative pretty easily. Of course those who have been operating in the revenue generating paradigm are inclined early to see this as an extended range of philanthropy for the company.

The two need to come together, and they are very complementary. They need to learn to build on each other.

Q: When you say “business imperative,” what kinds of things do you have in mind?

Ken: We have a fixed amount of resources whether it’s financial or consulting time we can make available. We have to filter opportunities. It has to make business sense for Urban Systems to engage in cause-driven opportunities through Urban Matters. We have to ask ourselves some questions: What is the impact, what is the cause, what is the return for Urban Systems in engaging with this group or that initiative? That’s not home base for philanthropic people .They are into helping. They show up. We are adding a step for both parties, to both sides, of this conversation. We’ve got to check on social and business impacts.

It is early days. You do see some interesting reactions at the front end.

Q: You are leading an Urban Systems team to create a new social enterprise platform, Urban Matters. Share a little bit about the work and the milestones.

Ken: Ultimately the goal here is to bring social innovation more fulsomely to Urban and inspire deeper thinking about social impacts in all of the work we do. That’s the broad goal. We want to see things celebrated in the parent company and we think we have an open door. Urban has always been socially and community minded. It’s a matter of bringing more stories and tools to the table, and how to think this stuff through.

Urban Matters is basically an interface to provide support service to community groups, foundations, NGOs. It’s what I’d call a non-traditional client base for us. We are starting to see legitimate opportunity to help these organizations who, in their role in community and society, were playing small roles increasingly looked upon by government to provide critical services, like social services, social housing. They may have covered a very tiny niche that wasn’t covered in provincial or federal government programs.

Some of these groups are now getting handed huge cheques by governments to look after entire sectors of social need. This is part of the broad process of downloading activities through feds to provinces, now to communities. We see leaders of these groups with roles in community, in many cases lynchpins in society and community. We are seeing a lot of need for help and support. We can’t fix everything in that arena, we have some skills to offer and they may be as much organizational as they are technical.

This special project is to create some breathing room from the parent company. Because we are looking at different value networks and different currencies we didn’t want it to become a distraction internally while we figure this out. We don’t know the answers. I could not put a definable, reliable business plan on the table. At this point in time we do have to go out and figure out how this may or may not work through different engagements. We wanted a little bit of separation from our core business. We wanted to capture the spirit of the social enterprise movement. We wanted to build a social enterprise system and we couldn’t do that to the entire company in one shot. It is the success of the for-profit company that allows us to take that chance. We need to respect that.

Q: Are you doing scouting or recon on the future?

Ken: Yeah. From an Urban Systems perspective there are so many upsides to being engaged; developing expertise and knowledge in this network in these circles, all add value to the core business. That knowledge does transfer into the core business and we will see more socially impactful core services as fundamental as a hard civil engineering project.

In the business model as we’ve played it out internally, at least tentatively, there’s a huge qualitative benefit. It’s not necessarily quantifiable at this point in time.

This isn’t about a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or philanthropy program. This is about evolving a core business model to social and community impact — to more fulsomely embrace social and community impact. It’s about aligning your core competencies with the core needs of community and society. Everyone’s got something to bring to the table. It’s about figuring out what your something is, what your core competency and your social issue can be. That’s where, hey, if every business does a little piece of this, not in a cheque-writing way — I’m not knocking philanthropy in any way, that’s part of the solution — but, we really need everyone turning their minds, their core competencies, to evolving this.

That’s what makes us unique in the BC Partners scheme. There aren’t too many businesses I can see who are turning their minds to organizing their core competencies and business around deeper and more evolved impact.

Q: I understand you are reaching out to retirees to be part of the social enterprise. What’s the thinking there?

Ken: We are trying to feather the nest. Who do we have available company-wide? The first filter for us is going to take advantage of the resources and expertise in Urban Systems, perhaps underutilized.

The under 30 crowd hovers around this conversation easily and without a whole lot of push, but there is corollary to that — they don’t have a lot experience yet. So we a have a lot of access to production, willing bodies to go out and take on some of the work. We do need to get seasoned leadership.

We want this to be a top-notch, top-shelf service. There is a cohort we affectionately call Urban Masters, across our multigenerational company that are in early phases of retirement, working causally throughout the week, two or three days a week, stepping into retirement.

They are at a point in their careers where giving back and connecting to something more meaningful is a draw. Some have self-nominated. We’ve nominated a few others to dive into this and explore how they might contribute. Many have huge networks, in community groups and non-profits already, so they are bringing conversations right to the table.

We’re trying to align some high-quality people while simultaneously doing the external marketing. We’re trying to find high-quality clients so we have a meaningful impact and generate an inspiring story.

Q: How many in the Urban Masters cohort?

Ken: About 48. The idea isn’t that they come in and do all the work.

This is an inspired calling and we need people in the room who passionately want to be there.

Think of the trajectory of an individual’s career. The 30- and 40-something crowd are pretty consumed, often at the peak of their game, and have a lot going on in their consulting capacity. So I’m not saying that isn’t a target cohort. But the cohorts on the front and the tail end have room. At the front end, by their generation they get this and they want a different world, their values align and they may get leadership opportunities out of this.

Q: Is there a chance this project competes with Urban System’s core business?

Ken: There are sensitivities obviously. We’ve been careful to be very clear. As quickly as we announced the concept ideas surfaced for projects that didn’t quite fit the mould. We’ve been very clear that this is a social enterprise interface for the non-profit community group, NGO group. That sector does not tap into the mother ship and has not historically tapped into the mother ship. We need to keep that front of mind. We need to keep that separation. I think we’ll be okay with the overlaps.

There are going to be moments and these are moments I’m looking forward to, when quite frankly the community groups we’re dealing with through Urban Matters are as important to a government-led project for example, as any stakeholder out there. We are going to be seeing collision points between two clients where our for-profit business is engaged in solving a commissioned project for government and the lead stakeholder is an agency Urban Matters is working with.

That’s a great moment. That would be a measure of success. It’s brought up in the conversations internally as a dangerous what if. We have been nothing but successful at creating the win-wins that need to emerge. I see this as an opportunity for both businesses to thrive.

Q: What’s the expectation with regards to self-sustainability for Urban Matters? Is it intended to become sustainable by itself or will it require subsidies and inputs from Urban Systems' core business?

Ken: We’re open to a lot of different outcomes but the goal in terms of our role in community and as a business in the sector would be to achieve sustainability within a couple of years.

Some things might spin out of it, maybe they belong in Urban Matters or a special initiative gets launched and becomes a Community Contribution Company onto itself.

Q: How does the work you are doing on Urban Matters and working with groups like BC Partners feed into the work and health of Urban Systems itself?

Ken: We think this is the new model for business. Period. This is the model for capitalism down the road. It needs work. It needs shape and it needs time. We can do this in a fairly risk averse, high impact way in community over the next few years. What we hope to glean is some know-how.

This becomes an innovation for a few years. It allows us to take some risks to experiment with community and impactful groups, experiment with how we capture value and how the currencies of value are exchanged. This is very consistent with the breakthrough capitalism model from the Volan’s group.

We can’t take a 40-year-old business and just do that. This becomes a bit of a way to start to learn and develop expertise.

Q: Imagine you are listening to a speaker at a gathering like BC Partners. You nod off. When you wake up it is ten years later. You’re in the same room. Some of the same people are there but they are a bit older.

Ken: I’m not.

Q: Yep, you can choose whether you want to be or not, it’s your imagining. What is the group talking about now and what are they celebrating?

Ken: Hmm. I hope there are younger leaders around the room. I would expect to see business leaders who have managed to blur the lines between social and financial sustainability.

The topics of the day are different. I like to think some things got solved. Maybe some of the Aboriginal issues that are stealing headlines today are not stealing headlines in a decade. Maybe there are other issues of the day.

The term social innovation fades into the psyche because everyone is socially motivated and that’s just how we run our business and communities. It’s not as catchy maybe.

I don’t want to take away the reality that something else is going to need changing. We’ve gone through this from an environmental perspective but we’re two decades in, and we’re not out of the woods. Certainly the psyche and awareness around climate change, however successful things have been communicated, is certainly in the dinner table conversations.

The system has changed. Early adopters, maybe we have something in the order of 50% of the system changed in a decade but we’re still looking at means and ways to complete this movement, to complete these transitions across the second half of the more latent adopters to this kind of thinking.

In a decade this is national conversation. Not a BC conversation. That’s not even a decade, I’d put that at five years. Part of the quiet conversations with Al Etmanski, “you know this is great but these issues don’t limit themselves by political boundaries.” The same issues exist in Manitoba and PEI so we owe it to our broader community to make this a broader conversation.

That does speak to creating a bit more of a limitless partnership.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

A version of this article was originally created by Axiom News for the Urban Systems news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post. To learn more about generative newsroom options for your organization or community, please contact peter(at)

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Peter Pula

In 1991 Peter founded a community newspaper because he wanted to read a different kind of news. He knew communities and organizations always have aspirations and the gifts and assets necessary to fulfill them. He believes to this day that a key to making dreams come true is for someone to ask the right questions and share the resulting stories.

Twenty years and several business iterations later, Axiom News continues Peter's intention to build a news agency for the sole purpose of bringing to life the story of people's gifts, ignited to create the world they envision.

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