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Introducing the North Coast Innovation Lab

Prince Rupert, a town of around 12,000 people in northern BC, has been historically dependent on resource-based activities and vulnerable to boom-and-bust economic cycles. It’s a microcosm for many remote communities dotted across Canada who are seeing increased unemployment as jobs move overseas, fewer benefits going to locals from the natural resources near them, the loss of young and educated people to urban areas, and seasonal employment.

But residents want to turn this around. To support this shift, Ecotrust Canada has initiated the North Coast Innovation Lab (NCIL), which aims to bring local people together to try out new ways of creating lasting, positive change for both the economic and social systems of the community.

Our Project Manager, Nathan Randall, explains what this model of social innovation looks like, and how it’s getting started with the community.

Nathan, what is the North Coast Innovation Lab?

The NCIL draws on Ecotrust Canada’s learnings from eight years of community-based work in Prince Rupert and our award-winning LEDlab in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While a strong economy is necessary to provide the employment and services needed by a community, the harder-to-measure aspects of a community – such as quality of life, culture, environmental health, and human connections – are also imperative to a community’s health and growth.

I can see that the NCIL will work to enhance collaboration across silos, sectors and cultures to align efforts and resources towards practical initiatives that will have triple bottom line impacts for the community. Unlike many economic development or civic engagement projects, the NCIL doesn’t have a specific structure or roadmap of outcomes – its role in the community and future impacts will emerge as the design-thinking process itself unfolds.

This may seem counterintuitive to some, but we believe that the best ideas for building local economies and communities come from the people and organizations that reside there. Our goal is to support Prince Rupert’s “movers and shakers” and their “game-changing” ideas by providing human capacity to advance ideas, a safe space for design and experimentation, and a supported process to develop and evaluate projects that enhance social and economic resilience.


How are you getting it started?

We spent 2017 figuring out if a North Coast Innovation Lab would be a good fit for Prince Rupert — whether we were in a position to add value to the existing initiatives and organizations in the community; could we bring capacity and attract funding to this work; and whether the social innovation lab approach was the right one. Our work, soul searching, and partnership discussions led us to the same place — yes.

The next step was to conduct over 40 community interviews with local leaders and community builders to help scope and design the NCIL. We want initiatives to complement the community development efforts already underway, not compete with them for resources, so listening and learning are key components of the NCIL. We published a report, Interview Reflections and Program Design, to share what we heard and what the scope of the NCIL will be moving forwards.

Most recently, I’ve been thrilled to hire two Project Coordinators to focus on our first projects:

  • Rabia Ahmed is pursuing her Masters in Environmental Studies with a focus on Planning at York University, and will be taking a deep dive into opportunities for access to the local fish and marine economy in Prince Rupert, and,
  • Kara Herbert is a student in the Masters of Public Policy program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and will be working in the NCIL to enhance co-working, information sharing, and resource sharing.

What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learnt so far?

It’s been amazing to see how networked and connected people in Prince Rupert are, and how important those relationships are for both personal and professional reasons. That sense of community connection really acts as the glue that holds Prince Rupert together, and I love being a part of a community like that. The fact that my role in the NCIL is to strengthen those networks that already exist means my work is super rewarding. I’m excited for what’s to come, so stay tuned for more updates on the North Coast Innovation Lab.

North Coast Innovation Lab project manager, Nathan Randall. DEVLIN FERNANDES PHOTO