When volunteers are innovating in a crisis, experts say it's time to rethink government's role
TORONTO -- Vaccine Hunters Canada has become an invaluable online tool to help alert thousands of Canadians of vaccine clinic pop-ups. They’ve since partnered with the City of Toronto.
Engineer Zain Manji recently developed a tool allowing Ontario residents to use their postal code to find vaccine clinics where they live.
And -- before being legally stopped by the City -- Toronto-based Carpenter Khaleel Seivwright and 40 volunteers had been building tiny homes for the homeless population. He said the idea was to give vulnerable people who feel unsafe in traditional shelters “somewhere warm to go.”
These were some of the most innovative social initiatives over the past year. The common thread? They were all spearheaded by unpaid volunteers. And business and innovation experts say their involvement speaks volumes about how poorly businesses and governments have handled those problems during the pandemic.
“It's a really good illustration of the sort of the resilience of a modern society: when push comes to shove, if something isn’t getting done, some folks will find a way to do it,” Ken Coates, a policy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“The social innovation sector has been doing that kind of thing for a long time. But the pandemic has given it a sense of urgency,” said Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the school’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
Equity and social work expert Kathy Hogarth said community-led, grassroots efforts are more nimble to react to problems with unique solutions and, unlike government, are less likely to be tied up by bureaucratic processes.
“What it really gives is an indication to the power of community,” Hogarth, an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s School of Social Work, told CTVNews.ca.
But York Univesity professor Charles Cho, who has expertise in responsible business practices, laments the fact that the vaccine rollout was so inefficient that it led to such “heartwarming” grassroots efforts as Vaccine Hunters Canada.
On the part of elected officials, he told CTVNews.ca over the phone that there was “unfortunately a lot more talk than action.”
He asked “why must we rely on citizens’ free labour… free time and energy?” He said this question should be giving leaders great pause.
Hogarth agreed, warning that relying on unpaid volunteers and grassroots efforts doesn’t absolve the government of its duty to now learn from them or help fund these projects.
“Because oftentimes we have these great ideas coming out of community… but we also know we need resources.”
Hogarth also urged the city to see that if people were flocking to Seivwright and his tiny houses -- which have insulation, a vapour barrier and a carbon monoxide detector -- it’s because government-led temporary hotel rooms or the shelter system for the homeless weren’t enough.
With that in mind, she said Toronto should be partnering with or at least learning from Seivwright, instead of issuing legal threats over claims the houses are neither safe, nor a long-term solution.
COMMUNITY-LED EFFORTS MEAN GOV'T IS FAILING
Coates, who is in Saskatoon, noted that governments are typically more reactive rather than proactive.
“Government has the capacity to scale up -- they don't always have the capacity to innovate,” he said, calling for governments to be much more symbiotic with community or private efforts, especially now. Otherwise, great ideas behind community-led efforts remain hyper-local.
He challenges elected and public health leaders to use the pandemic as a chance to think bigger.
“We never really had a robust conversation in this country about what is the role of government,” Coates said, explaining that the last time this happened was in the 1950s after the Second World War and the Great Depression.
“They improved old-age pensions [and] brought in public health care -- a thousand things that the government wasn’t previously doing,” he said. But he warned that, based on history, changes won’t be made soon enough for people in need now.
“My guess is that what you're going to see is a rethinking of the role of government in the next decade to come. It's not going to happen during the crisis itself.”
But Coates said change won’t happen without recognition of the grassroots innovation happening in communities across the country.
LEGACY ISSUES ARE LESS FOCUSED ON BY GOV’T
Hogarth in Waterloo said “what the pandemic has done is to highlight the grave inequities in the system,” such as unequal access to health care, housing or a steady supply of food.
“They’re legacy issues whereas the pandemic is new,” Hogarth said, suggesting that’s why Toronto partnered with Vaccine Hunters Canada, for example, but not the tiny houses project.
“There’s a perception that there is more at stake in dealing with the pandemic than there is to do with the legacy issues of housing insecurity and food insecurity.”
But she had a stark warning for leaders who are not tackling these issues now.
“We can create vaccines for people, but if they die from not having sufficient food or inappropriate housing, what good are our vaccinations?”
Without tapping into unconventional, innovative ideas from the community, Hogarth said long-standing issues will persist long after the pandemic ends.
Cho, the Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability at York University’s Schulich School of Business, agreed and said leaders appeared to have found it easier to close their eyes to long-standing “elephants in the room.” He said it’s “very unfortunate” that government has created stronger partnerships with groups related to vaccines rather than these issues.
“I think it's basically an exposure issue,” Cho said. “I think it's a strategic and opportunistic way to also demonstrate and sort of make up for what they have failed to do [most recently].”