Glenn Sigurdson, Executive-in-Residence, Adjunct Professor, Beedie School of Business, and leader of Global Energy, Minerals, and Markets (GEMM).

Glenn Sigurdson, Executive-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor at the Beedie School of Business, and leader of Global Energy, Minerals, and Markets (GEMM).

By Glenn Sigurdson.

When we think of innovation, our minds turn to the solitary inventor – someone whose inspiration makes possible the work of the innovator, taking the idea from a lonely discovery to an everyday reality. That is not the world of the social innovator.

Monica Ospina, Director and founder of Socio Economic Development firm O Trade, describes herself as a social innovator. She works in the most challenging of spaces, the ever-increasing gap between projects and people in resource driven countries. Here, projects and people collide – farmers, fishermen, and miners are wary of the prospect of a mine, a mill, or a well.

Ospina was the recent guest at the inaugural GEMM Connect event, one of the components of the GEMM Dialogue Series – of which the Beedie School of Business was a founding partner – housed within a partnership of Resolve and the GEMM team.

At GEMM Connect, Ospina described a situation at a mining project in a water-starved land in Northern Mexico where subsistence farmers struggle to eke out a living. In this land a mine brings fear, not hope – every precious drop of water going to the mine is imagined as one less going to their crops. Monica’s goal is find ways to turn fears into hopes for the farmers and miners alike.

She knew that drawing upon the advice of the “experts” – hydrologists, geologists and mine engineers – was essential, but there were others with whom she must first speak. Many in this situation would have come loaded with tool kits and best practices. Ospina came with wisdom to “walk and talk” with the farmers across thirsty fields and creek beds dry for all but a few weeks each year.

This social innovator knows that in her business, truth from a book is easy to find – the hard work is in understanding truth from the ground. At the right time she brings them together, but it is too early to know whether solutions will enable them to co-exist as neighbours, bringing with it opportunities for the community and the mine.

I have worked over a long career in the middle of big problems and big organizations. In my world power, values, and interests collide around complicated issues over land, water, and resources. The cast of players is wide: communities, companies, First Nations, civil society groups, local governments, ministries, business units, professional orientations, and diverse factions. Each is interconnected in different ways around certain problems, and – because of the problems – to each other.

My role is as a mediator when differences harden into seemingly intractable disputes. Today much of my work is helping others build platforms on which to work together effectively, armed with deep experience that the best way to deal with a dispute is not to have one.

I usually greet the inevitable question, “What do you do?” with, “The man-in-the middle”, or, whimsically, “A recovered lawyer”. I can now add that I recently published a book, Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, which has helped me understand, “Who I am, what I do, and why”. To which you might ask, “What could lost Vikings possibly have to do with your career?”

The book began through the transfer onto paper of memories from a boyhood growing up in a fishing family on Lake Winnipeg. As my journey turned inwards, I came to realize how the Lake and its Icelandic, Cree, and Ojibway fishermen and communities had shaped my life’s work. This trajectory continued into the first phase of my career as a lawyer for the Cree and Ojibway peoples indigenous to the lands along the rivers connecting to Lake Winnipeg, who were impacted by hydro developments and mercury contamination in the 70s and 80s.

As I wrote, I found myself retracing the path my career had taken to developing processes for problems, not force fitting them into a legal framework – a transition I now realize began when my career widened to include labour relations as a mediator, and adjudicator. I moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver in 1989 and built what has become a complex career involving high profile public disputes, organizational dynamics and leadership, teaching, writing, and speaking.

I learned from many places and people that those who make their livelihoods from the water or the land understand the world viscerally. They observe how things and people work, and feel when things are changing, while the experts with books and lab coats record, analyse and interpret. They derive their identity from their relationship with the world around them, while the experts build credentials with titles and papers.

Knowledge does not begin or end with a credential, nor with experience and wisdom. We need them both – and they need each other. I have come to understand that when the voices that speak truth from the ground sit around the table with those who bring truth from a book, they make solutions to seemingly impossible challenges possible.

Ospina and I journeyed along a different path to the same destination, helping build bridges across divides. As a foreign currency trader in a major bank she was paid well, but was energized by people, not money. Major clients of the bank were large flower producers, whose livelihoods were collapsed into short windows of time, so currency exchange became a critical factor in determining profitability. She became the bridge between the farmers and the banks – dealing in flowers and money. Now she works between miners and farmers – gold and grain.

Our work and experience – while there is much that differentiates it – stands on common ground. We both search for simplicity inside complexity. We look for new ways to bring old ways back to life, pulling the past into the present. We search for words that speak plainly. We walk and talk with people aspiring to earn respect by giving respect.

Now when asked, “What do you do?” like Monica, I say, “I am a social innovator.”

Glenn Sigurdson is Executive-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor at the Beedie School of Business, and leader of Global Energy, Minerals, and Markets (GEMM). For information on his book, Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, visit