by Kathryn Wu. Photo by UVic Photo Services. Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Business Class magazine.
Dr. Natalie Slawinski is the director of Gustavson’s Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation (CSSI). Having joined Gustavson from Memorial University of Newfoundland, Slawinski’s interest in studying social enterprises started in 2011 when she learned of registered charity Shorefast’s work to revitalize Fogo Island—a community significantly impacted by the collapse of the cod fishery.
Slawinski had been studying large corporations in the oil and gas sector and their response to climate change, but learning the story of Fogo Island put her on a different course. Business Class sat down with Slawinski to hear more about the new Gustavson researcher’s interest in Fogo Island, social enterprises and how exactly a focus on regeneration can change business.
BUSINESS CLASS: What do you wish someone would ask you about your research?
DR. NATALIE SLAWINSKI: What I actually enjoy about research! For me it is about discovering the “both/and” between rigour and relevance. It is finding a way to advance academic knowledge and to have a meaningful impact on organizations and people.
BC: Where is Fogo Island and how did it lead you to where you are today?
NS: Fogo Island is a community of 2,200 people, located off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Like other fishing communities, Fogo Island was hit hard by the collapse of cod stocks and, in 1992, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fishing that caused many people to lose their livelihoods and to leave the community in search of jobs. In 2006, Shorefast set out to contribute to cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island. Their first social enterprise, the Fogo Island Inn, is designed to honour the place and create jobs, and to deliver all profits back to the community. I was intrigued by the ambition of this work and its transformational potential, and it was then that I started shifting towards studying social enterprises.
BC: What was a big finding in your research?
NS: That social enterprises can play regenerative role in communities. Social enterprises have an incredibly important role to play in addressing sustainability challenges because they pursue a social mission, and they leverage business tools and markets to achieve their social mission. In the case of Fogo Island, the island was hit hard by disaster and yet, a social enterprise came in and did what seemed impossible: It sparked new energy and pride in a community that for years had been experiencing economic and population decline. Shorefast built new capacities, infused an entrepreneurial spirit onto Fogo Island and captured people’s imaginations, attracting visitors from around the world. If that can happen on Fogo Island, why can’t it happen in other places in need of renewal and regeneration?
One research finding that I personally found very interesting was how a paradoxical mindset can create transformational positive changes for people and organizations and, ultimately, for how we interact with natural systems. That means instead of approaching decisions as a choice between either the community or the business, Shorefast looked at ways to serve both the community’s needs and its business needs. I found many examples of Shorefast using a paradoxical mindset in the data that my research team and I collected and analyzed.
BC: Can your research from Fogo Island be extrapolated to address how social enterprises can revitalize other communities?
NS: Yes. I have been extending this research to other communities in rural Newfoundland. Together with my Newfoundland-based research team, we have been studying five communities across the province, and the findings from that research are being written up in an edited volume titled Revitalizing PLACE through Social Enterprise. It is organized around the PLACE Framework of Community Revitalization—a framework that came out of the research on Fogo Island and a workshop for community leaders that our research team co-organized with Shorefast in 2018.
BC: What are the findings of your most recent paper?
NS: Social enterprises that work on building stronger communities often confront tensions, such as those between local needs and global pressures. By creating conditions for meaningful exchanges among various stakeholders and taking a patient approach, they can facilitate both the discovery of place-based opportunities and the regeneration of place.
BC: What is the difference between regenerative sustainability and sustainability?
NS: In the business sense, sustainability focuses on this notion of “doing no harm” and how to make sustainability profitable. While that idea continues to be important, we are still not seeing enough positive societal and environmental impacts to get on a path that effectively addresses our climate crisis and other sustainability challenges, and progress has been slow. The term “regenerative sustainability” pushes us to think more ambitiously about sustainability. Regeneration is about bringing things such as devitalized communities and damaged ecosystems back to life. It encourages businesses to find ways to become net positive instead of just doing no harm. Some people call it a paradigm shift—it’s about pushing ourselves to make things better. Even more broadly, regeneration invites us to think about how our social systems and ecological systems are interdependent. Successful businesses depend on healthy communities and ecosystems, and we must contribute to keeping them healthy, and regenerating those that have become depleted.
BC: What role do business schools play in fostering sustainability?
NS: Business schools have a huge opportunity to shape what sustainability looks like in the business world by inspiring future graduates to think about regeneration early on. In Victoria, we are lucky to be the home of many sustainable businesses and social enterprises. One goal would be to incorporate more social enterprises and sustainable business cases into the curriculum of business schools. Another opportunity is to partner with such organizations to create meaningful student experiences that allow students to experience firsthand what regenerative sustainability looks like.
BC: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing in your new role as director of CSSI?
NS: To contributing to building a community of scholars and practitioners aiming for net-positive environmental, social and economic outcomes on Vancouver Island and beyond.
Slawinski, N. & Smith, W.K. (2020). Fogo Island shows how social enterprises can help rebuild communities post-coronavirus. The Conversation