“People are our power and you just never know when you might need their help. It doesn’t cost you anything.” — CEO Q&A with Fiona Descoteaux of Innovate Communities

CEO Q&A, Interviews, Thought Leadership | Wed 4 May | Author – Business & Finance

Fiona Descoteaux is CEO of Innovate Communities, a leading Dublin-based social enterprise that empowers communities to work together to solve local problems at a local level.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

My main priority is to empower my incredible team to roll-out our strategic plan 2021 – 2025, which aims to promote a community-driven innovation model across rural and urban communities nationwide. My aim is to facilitate our team to deliver both operational and financial targets attributed to this plan and achieve actionable change in communities across Ireland, for the better.

The aim of community-driven innovation is to engage and empower citizens, businesses, civic society organisations (CSO) and local authorities to work together, as a collective to mitigate or remove challenges through collective impact plans and solve local problems at a local level. 

The model is a new concept to Ireland, but has been demonstrated and proven in the US and Canada to positively impact the lives people and promote the economic development of communities, sustainability and in turn, positively impact society as a whole. 

Through this model, my goal is to spearhead Innovate Communities as leaders in community-driven innovation in Ireland. 

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

As a CEO of a social enterprise, I have a few (!) but two come to mind: – Generating income through traded services that can be reinvested back into delivering our community supports and; funds to support PR and Communications. They are interlinked as we need to promote and share our story and the stories of people whose lives have been enhanced by our services, in order to win grant funding or attract investors. 

How do you keep your team / staff motivated?

As a leader, to keep my team motivated, I listen to their needs, play to their interests and strengths, and be agile. Yes, we all have job descriptions, however, it is a leader’s role to know their team’s interests, strengths and what makes them tick – keeping the line of communication open and fluid is essential. On various projects that we have on-going, we assign team members roles that they are interested in, it could be something different from what they were working on in the last project but if they are interested and it plays to their strengths, it will drive them and will support the delivery of the project. 

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Formation of policy. We are in the world of Social Innovation, and this is an emerging space that does not yet have a specific government department assigned to it, and I believe it shouldn’t be aligned to one government department. Every area; social welfare, business, education, health, community etc., all need to socially innovate to achieve change.

From a business perspective, this is more to the fore than it has ever been in terms of working towards mitigating climate change and encouraging sustainable business practices. Sustainability is an important topic us all and for the future of our economy, society and environment, therefore I believe it should have an interdepartmental effort, and policy.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

In our space, not necessarily a trend but a need to focus on is looking at the system, identifying a problem or challenge, who is part of that problem and then devising a solution to that community challenge or problem. The community-driven innovation model aims to do just this, by working in and with communities, empowering them with the space, tools and guidance necessary, to solve local problems at a local level. When mastered, this in turn could significantly change community development and significantly reduce the cost of serving our communities whether it is in health, education or community development. Solving the root cause of a problem would take an initial investment of time and money, but long term, it could save the government a considerable amount and would help to future-proof our services, by empowering our local economies.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

As we face the challenges of climate change, inequality and environmental decline, sustaining is not enough. I would like to see our Government and local authorities take a more active role in co-creating frameworks to build regenerative communities; to unleash the potential of local people and bring together their diverse skillsets to help shape an equitable future for us all.  To do this we need to increase regenerative leadership and transformational capacity at individual, community, and organisational levels, bring people and their ideas together to show how our future could look, act and feel – building awareness, capacity and demonstrating what it is in practice. We have the infrastructure in communities already through social innovation hubs – which are neighbourhood spaces that co-create, nurture and develop community ventures that enhance community life.  

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

As we are growing, we are now finding it more challenging than ever to attract talent in Ireland. We need candidates with skillsets in design thinking, donut economics, circular economy, systems thinking and experience in the use of innovative engagement and participation tools for communities. As this is a relatively new concept in Ireland, we are finding there is a significant skills gap in this area. We would like to see more opportunities for education and funding in this area. 

However, in the interim we are working on the development of a certified training programme with two universities in Ireland and three countries in Europe to grow the competencies and build the capacity of architects, urban planners, community development workers to facilitate a more human-centered and citizen-led regeneration process. The programme aim is to bridge the gap between urban regeneration and planning sectors, residents and those working to develop and enhance their communities. This is only a small part of the puzzle, but it is a start, and once launched in 2023 this programme can be rolled out nationally – leading the way to develop similar education and training programmes around Ireland.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

At the start of the pandemic, we took the opportunity to evaluate our strategic plan to roll out community-driven innovation in Ireland, despite being only 18 months into delivery, we could not keep delivering our operations based on a plan that wasn’t fit for the environment. We had to pivot, if we didn’t we would not have survived. We challenged ourselves and adapted our strategy to the ever-changing world we found ourselves in and our new 2021 – 2025 strategic and operations plan was born – more agile, resilient to change, and better than before. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to incorporate adaptability and scope for change. 

How has Brexit affected you?

As a social enterprise in Ireland, it has not directly affected us as of yet.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector?

Like most, many of our clients who we support had to close their doors, and therefore our trading income was affected. We are fortunate that we have diversity in our traded income and contracts to survive, and this, combined with our revised strategic focus, ensured we managed to enter into 2022 with a more positive financial outlook than 2021!

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

In business we talk about the needs of our customers, in my world, it is understanding the lived experience of those we are supporting – providing space for them to speak, hear their voice, listen and get to know the individual and their world, and together understanding how to empower and build their capacity to reach the next step on their journey – achieving this over and over again, changing someone’s world – even in a small way is what drives me and defines success for me. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Build relationships. It doesn’t have to be considerable – a simple ‘hi’ to the doorman in your building every morning will start to build a relationship. People are our power and you just never know when you might need their help. It doesn’t cost you anything.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Seeing the resilience of every single person on my team and how each of us has brought to the fore who we are as individuals, outside of our roles, has significantly enhanced the way we work together as a team. This connection has yielded a significant impact on the social enterprise, as a whole and improved the way we work.

What’s next for your company?

We are looking for a cross-section of partners and investors; government, private sector, local authorities and academics, to test and refine our Community-Driven Innovation Model. The model was built on learnings with MIT in the US and the Tamarack Institute in Canada and builds the capacity of communities and stakeholders to see local systems, how they operate and how to facilitate them to work collectively to improve the system for social, economic and environmental gains. We urge anyone interested in this area to get in touch with us directly and get the conversations started.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I would like to secure more partners and co-produce the next iteration of the Community-Driven Innovation model, with a view to rolling it out nationally thereafter. So if anyone would like t get in touch and find out more, visit innovatecommunities.ie