Innovation in times of pandemic: initiatives of the Community and Social Health Cluster in Montréal-Nord

Adapting to a new reality

The measures imposed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic required a great deal of adaptability and creativity on the part of all field-based organizations working on the front lines in order to maintain their service offering. The partners of the Community and Social Health Cluster project in Montréal-Nord—a territorial project supported by the MIS and aimed at building bridges between public and community organizations for the benefit of the overall health of the population of the borough—were about to launch their project when the containment measures were imposed on the Montréal population.

In the wake of the initiatives that the MIS has launched to support the social innovation ecosystem and strengthen its impact in times of a pandemic, our team has proposed to the cluster’s partners to adapt the approach so they would be prepared to deal with the new reality.

Let us recall that the project’s objective is to co-create with the population an offer of integrated services to reach the people who do not take advantage of services because the offer is not adapted to their needs or because of barriers such as language, culture, mobility, lack of social or other ties.

An opportune context for a consultative process

Since the people targeted by the project live in one of the territories most affected by the pandemic in Québec, the project partners, many of whom had been identified as an essential service, quickly sensed that the needs and issues the project wished to address would be exacerbated by the crisis or that new ones would emerge.

When containment in connection with COVID-19 was announced in mid-March 2020, the project partners were preparing to launch a consultation process in the context of a “territorial residence”, consisting of being present in premises patronized by the people involved in the project (e.g. grocery stores, hairdressing salons, cafés, etc.).

Inspired by artist residencies, the territorial residency is a simple method to examine an issue within a territory and understand its ecosystem. Through various workshops and activities organized in the neighbourhood, the immersion of the project team reveals needs, issues and opportunities.

Démarche d'innovation sociale à travers l'approche design dans le cadre du projet de Pôle communautaire et de santé sociale à Montréal-Nord

“A social innovation process is bottom-up rather than top-down. By listening and learning in the field, by co-constructing the project with the populations concerned, we set up the winning conditions for an innovative approach because we get a concrete and accurate understanding of the real issues and the full potential of existing resources. Who is better placed than the main stakeholders to co-produce an innovation process? This is an obvious fact that is often overlooked in well-meaning solutions. Ownership of the project by the people concerned by the project is a key criterion for social innovation, and this inevitably involves a listening process.”

Marie-Hélène Laurence, a MIS team member

The approach of the partners of the future cluster is similar to the “desire paths” of architects and urban planners who are interested in impromptu passages of pedestrians, bicycles or strollers in the urban space, witnesses to the behaviour of users who often favour the shortest or most accommodating routes over a poorly adapted layout.

Similarly, understanding the obstacles that people encounter on a daily basis in social health services and revealing how they get around them and find alternative solutions to meet their needs are a wealth of information for the partners of the future cluster. This data will make it possible to reveal, in detail, the current impasses in the system and its obstacles, to better define solutions with high impact potential.

“The cluster’s partners don’t want to limit themselves at offering what they know how to do. Rather, they want to see together—and with citizens—what they should offer them to improve their quality of life and the social health of the neighbourhood. The idea of doing things differently—and together—is being driven by the partners, which represents an important shift in approach and posture.”

Michel Lorange, Chairman of the Board of the Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Montréal-Nord

Tools for an innovative listening phase adapted to health measures

As the containment measures interrupted the establishment of a territorial residence, the MIS team quickly proposed to the cluster team to adapt the tools of the listening approach to enable them to maintain connections in times of pandemic and to reinforce the impact of the future cluster by identifying the emerging needs of their beneficiaries who are struggling with the effects of the containment measures.

“The MIS helps the project team to foster non-standard collaborations between different stakeholders who are not used to working together. Continuing to work in this way in this demanding context for Montréal-Nord was important to maximize the impact of the project.”

Nathalie Rodrigues, Director of Programs, Generation of Social Innovations at MIS

For example, activity booklets customized to the needs of the partners and the people with whom they planned to speak were developed. Thus, interviews and conversations held remotely and later on in person in outdoor spaces, were organized with residents by Paroles d’excluEs and the Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Montréal-Nord (two partners in the Cluster project), in collaboration with the MIS team. These activities aimed to draw a portrait of daily life in times of confinement and identify project allies, information relays and the strategies deployed by the populations to inform themselves and meet their emerging needs.

“The interview conducted for the cluster’s project made me understand the challenging path the mother had to follow to get her child diagnosed, which is all the more complicated in the context of a pandemic. Beyond the support offered to the child, I now realize that it is also necessary to reflect on the needs of the parents and the importance of making known the obstacles encountered in order to facilitate the journey of families in similar situations.”

Alice Fessard, Psychomotrician at the Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Montréal-Nord

A learning process that will keep going this fall with several face-to-face activities

Carried out in a context of trust and respect, this listening approach, which took place in the spring and summer, was very positively received by the people involved in the project. In addition to gathering information useful to the project, these discussions provided an opportunity to exchange on the realities experienced in a context of loneliness and isolation due to the confinement imposed by COVID-19.

The process revealed, in particular, the contribution of religious communities and relay persons as ideal channels of communication with the local population. While religious communities are trusted interlocutors to whom people naturally turn in times of crisis, relay citizens are committed individuals and natural leaders who play an important role in reducing the isolation of vulnerable people and in assuming a unifying role for greater social cohesion in their community. Many community players in Montréal-Nord have initiated this system of relay persons.

“The relay citizen enables the project partners to connect directly with users and to engage in an empowering approach to build on social capital and emerging community resilience in times of crisis, but also beyond the pandemic. It is a model which, in the times of COVID-19, has once again demonstrated its great effectiveness and which should be explored in the framework of the future cluster for its leverage effect in terms of communication, information, and bringing together users and providers of community and social health services.”

Michel Lorange, Chairman of the Board of the Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Montréal-Nord

In the coming weeks, the team of the Community and Social Health Cluster will continue the listening phase that began in April 2020. We can only raise our hats and thank these partners for their determination to work together to carry out a social innovation project for the benefit of the residents of Montréal-Nord, while playing a key role in being on the front line in times of pandemic.

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