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The Agency fosters social innovation at U of T

Keita Demming, executive director of The Agency, a U of T social innovation lab (photo by Romi Levine)

University of Toronto graduate student Tricia Jose is helping Canadians learn to save money so they can reduce financial vulnerability. 

Vicis, the financial technology company she founded with U of T students David St. Bernard and Christopher Villegas-Cho, has its roots in the social innovation movement.   

“Social innovation means you’re making an impact beyond the bottom line,” says Jose, who is studying biomedical engineering.

“The really exciting thing is that our generation is really focused on impact and brands with purpose. More and more people want to give back. They want to do things that serve a greater purpose.”

Read more about Vicis

The Agency – one of U of T’s social innovation labs – wants to help students like Jose, faculty and staff look at ways to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The Agency will be hosting a free conference on Nov. 21 at U of T's Hart House for anyone interested in getting involved in social innovation initiatives. Speakers include Ilse Treurnicht, CEO MaRS Discovery District, and Kouroush Houshmand

“Let’s make University of Toronto the place where the world comes to for social innovation – that’s a dream people can get on board with,” says Keita Demming, The Agency’s executive director. 

Demming says the key to creating programs that promote change is to bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines. 

“It’s called the Agency because it’s meant to be a travel agency – you come, and you decide your journey,” says Demming, who just completed his PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“As we meet new students, students can pick up ‘travellers’ that speak different languages – so geography versus computer science, arts and science with literature.”

Read more about The Agency

Universities are well-suited to foster social innovation, says Ann Armstrong, social enterprise initiative director at U of T's Rotman School of Management.

“We can use our research findings to imagine new ways of living better lives and then engaging the community to experiment based on evidence, new models of social impact,” she says.

And U of T can lead the charge, says Demming. 

“What U of T offers is a wealth of experience, a wealth of capacity around going deep on problems and saying, how can we bring that to the world? We have some skills around commercializing ideas already,” he says.

“What strengths can U of T leverage when we address things like climate change, equity, unequal distribution of wealth and poverty?”