In her new role as Culture & Strategy Lead for Urban Matters, Delyse Sylvester recently reached out to Urban Systems CEO Martin Bell to discuss Urban Matters’ genesis — and how it continues to contribute to a culture of resilience and intrapreneurship at Urban Systems.
A decade ago, says Martin, “we were operating on a hero-based leadership style, with very few people expected to carry the whole thing, top-down. And that was very, very heavy.”
In the intervening 10+ years, Urban has worked hard to shift from that ruggedly individualistic leadership style to one that’s more collaborative, where people at all levels are empowered to bring their diverse skills and passions to the table.
As Urban Systems began that shift in 2008, one of its C-suite leaders and engineers was undergoing a similar, parallel metamorphosis. “Some people might jokingly call it a midlife crisis,” observes Bell about his colleague Ken Gauthier’s journey, “but I think it was a profound questioning of his purpose, and the value of the work he was doing versus the value of the work that he could do.”
That crisis of conscience led Gauthier to found Urban Matters. The “community contribution company” (CCC) was incorporated to generate new opportunities and outcomes in the social- and community-service sectors. Urban Matters acts as an innovation hub, working with citizens, municipalities, governments, not-for-profits, NGOs, First Nations, social entrepreneurs and businesses to address complex social issues, like opiate addiction, homelessness, teen suicide epidemics, poverty, climate change — or global pandemics.
Strikingly, Gauthier didn’t have to leave Urban Systems to create Urban Matters. Instead, he chose to stay within it, capitalizing on the company’s wealth of talent and skill — and also challenging it to shift, to embrace disruption and uncertainty.
For its part, the parent company made the (at times controversial) decision to support this unknown quantity.
“I’m not going to lie: it was a hard sell at times,” says Bell. “But people were also excited about the idea of contributing to communities in more meaningful and diverse ways. The issues we were dealing with were becoming stickier and more complex; they couldn’t be solved with a pipe in the ground or change in water pressure. And there seemed to be a lot of potential in creating something that would allow us to apply our skills for good in less familiar arenas and with less traditional partners. I don’t think we understood then how valuable our own skills and networks were to meeting social purpose. Urban Matters showed us that.”
It’s noteworthy, he points out, that Urban Matters is not Urban Systems’ charitable arm. It develops funding for its initiatives, and invests in and shares profits with the communities it serves. “Urban Matters is financially sustainable all on its own, while also creating opportunity for Urban Systems.”
A central tenet of Urban Matters involves including people with lived experience in the process of developing solutions to systemic problems. That might mean recruiting people with experience of addiction to help craft a municipal response to the opioid crisis, or convening conversations with people who are or have been homeless to provide insider knowledge on a community housing strategy.
That focus on community, says Bell, is in the firm’s agrarian DNA: “Most of the gang that started Urban Systems in the 70s were farm kids from the Prairies. So, they have that streak of individualism and industriousness, that resilience, but they also have that sense of community-mindedness that you see in the agrarian tradition. There’s an understanding that you band together when there’s need in the community, and you do that for the broader good.”
Urban Systems, says Bell, saw in creating Urban Matters an opportunity for more than simple corporate social responsibility. Rather than just write cheques to good causes, “we were seeking to empower our people to build their skills, to take those skills back to communities, to work together in arenas that mattered to them”.
“Lots of decision-makers were talking about doing that kind of thing, but nobody was actually doing it,” he says. “Our clients wanted meaningful engagement with the communities they lived and worked in. And we asked, ‘How do we actually do it? How can we help our clients make the community impact they really want to make?’ We are showing that these things are possible through our partnerships with Urban Matters. It’s part of an ecosystem of social contribution, where the two organizations adapt to and play off each others’ strengths.”
Urban Matters, says Bell, is a tangible and prominent testament to the firm’s real commitment to intrapreneurship, at every level:
“We chose to make the transition in our leadership and structure because we felt it was a successful business approach, especially with younger generations coming on board,” he says. “They don’t want to wait until they retire to make a difference. They want to do it now, and so do we.”
Urban Matters, says Bell, is transforming its parent company from within. “We are better regarded in the eyes of our clients. We lead better. We create more effective solutions. We are so much more resilient today than we were 10 years ago. There are more eyes on the street, more people committed to each other’s success. It’s lighter, because there are just so many more hands lifting us.”
“What Urban Matters has shown Urban Systems is that we are part of a community, and that when we take seriously the diverse, lived experience of our community members, we create a better culture.”