September 2008

"All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual."

Albert Einstein

This article describes key conditions that enable a successful university agenda for social innovation. Integral to this success is an overarching institutional commitment to the value of social innovation so that it pervades the university's activities, ranging from the active encouragement of collaboration across the disciplines to policies regarding intellectual property. It is suggested that it is important that social innovation activities transcend disciplinary boundaries and social sectors. Finally, facilitating open access to information and resources may be foundational to achieving relevant and sustainable solutions.

Five Conditions to Successful Social Innovation

Social innovation seeks to provide sustainable solutions that benefit its recipients, rather than its creators.

Universities are rich in resources that can be mobilized to contribute to solutions to social problems. Researchers have the expertise that provides them with: i) theoretical frameworks that guide the development of solutions and identify potential potholes in the implementation process; and ii) the technical skills to collect and evaluate empirical data addressing the viability of the innovation and measure its impacts. Moreover, universities can transmit information across sectors, through student training and partnerships with funding agencies, private investors, public policy regulators, and the communities themselves.

As suggested by Jackson (this issue), there are five conditions that facilitate a successful social innovation agenda emanating from a university:

  1. An institutional strategic policy commitment to social innovation.
  2. An inclusive, institutionalized process for mobilizing all faculties and disciplines to advance social innovation.
  3. A robust and diversified approach to community engagement.
  4. A university-wide commitment to employing free licensing and open-source software (F/LOSS) values and strategies to the research and innovation-transfer process.
  5. Mobilization of internal and external resources to support social innovation.

Although there undoubtedly exist numerous other factors that contribute to successful social innovation, our experience suggests that these elements are relevant to mobilizing individuals to work collaboratively across the institution. Social innovation requires a commitment to the resolution of social problems, most of which involve a complex web of interactions that present numerous points of intervention. However, these interventions might also have unintended consequences; some good, some bad. This is where the combined efforts of multiple disciplines might more effectively introduce solutions with manageable, if not foreseeable, long-term outcomes. Finally, although universities typically operate on a not-for-profit basis, the intrinsic motivation of researchers committed to social innovation needs to be acknowledged as valuable, and supported in a manner that ensures that their commitment is not stifled by institutional processes that work against them.

Strategic Policy Commitment

Universities are governed by traditions such as academic freedom. These traditions enable disciplinary checks and balances that ensure that researchers conform to normative lines of inquiry and paradigmatic approaches. These norms are enforced through the peer review system that is fundamental to publication, funding success, and tenure and promotion decisions.

It is widely recognized, however, that the disciplinary peer-based review system impedes interdisciplinary research, as well as knowledge transfer outside the traditional routes of patents and licences.

Conforming to a disciplinary mainstream can be a straightjacket to real innovation. As there is greater recognition that the problems facing society today cannot be solved through restrictive disciplinary channels, there is an increasing effort to overcome these intellectual boundaries and to encourage cross-sector partnerships. Unfortunately, many of our academic journals are not only oriented to disciplinary audiences (and are reviewed accordingly), but are often specialized to specific fields within a discipline.

Granting agencies, like universities, are publicly accountable, and so efforts are being made to identify opportunities and processes that might support research that breaks from disciplinary traditions. Universities can play a crucial role in promoting such a paradigm shift by making a conscious commitment to promote innovative activities, facilitate links with the community, encourage interdisciplinary initiatives, and reward researchers for engaging in activities that transcend traditional expectations.

If universities are to truly take responsibility for contributing to innovative solutions to social problems, they need to take the lead in revising internal processes and reward systems to promote such cultural shifts within the academic sphere.

Institutionalized Process

Various universities have established research centres focused on social innovation. Most build on specific disciplinary roots, such as Social Work or Business.

At other universities, stand-alone institutes or centres have evolved that presumably facilitate collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, and foster more comprehensive outreach to the social sector. However, these institutes themselves can run the danger of becoming isolated silos unless their activities are intricately woven into the fabric and activities of the various contributing units and the community that benefits from their work. Such inclusiveness requires a combination of grass-roots efforts within disciplines committed to social innovation and conscious outreach initiatives on the part of the social innovation leaders of the institution.

Inclusiveness and outreach initiatives need to be buttressed by institutional support that acknowledges the strategic value of promoting social innovation through the synergistic efforts of various disciplinary perspectives and expertise. Institutions can do this by strategically committing to the resolution of specific social issues, such as environmental sustainability or social inequities in a global economy. The prioritization of such pressing and far-reaching issues provides a rallying point to establish dialogue across disciplines, creates a basis for partnerships between universities and external organizations, and attracts the attention and interest of students who continue to hold before them the ideal of generating social change to create a better world.

Approach to Community Engagement

Just as socially innovative solutions reflect the synergies among disciplinary approaches to address pressing social issues, their sustainability comes from the internalization of the value of social innovation across contributing sectors and uptake organizations. This can happen at many levels. Universities are particularly well placed to engender a commitment to social innovation in our next generation by integrating innovative thinking, a commitment to the community, and experiential learning among the student body. The university that embraces social innovation as a strategic priority, that ensures that its professoriate experiences reward for engaging in social innovation through their own research and outreach, and facilitates the capacity to integrate such experiences for students in and out of the classroom will figure largely in contributing to the innovative solutions to the issues of today and tomorrow.

Many community groups are intimidated by the ivory tower of the university, and others simply view the university as disconnected from reality. The greater the university's capacity to create connections with local communities, profit and not-for-profit organizations, and public institutions, the greater its ability to make a difference.

Connections to local communities can be achieved through student placements, public talks, carrying out joint projects to address social issues, and by pulling community leaders into university decision-making processes. The outreach efforts of the university are likely to be reciprocated with open communication and dialogue with communities that recognize themselves as equal partners and benefactors of this process, which in turn expands on the opportunities available to students and researchers alike.

Commitment to Open Source

In the past, university innovation has been associated with technology transfer, and the creation of patents and licenses within a closed system. Increasingly, organizations are recognizing the value of open systems that encourage contributions from expert users and benefactors of new technologies. Universities committed to social innovation can contribute to this process by establishing an innovation transfer process that promotes the development of ideas at initial stages, including collaboration among students, faculty, and potential industry partners. Supporting innovative ideas, and fostering open source access and development, results in technology that best suits the end user, and provides a robust platform for further development.

Open source software (OSS) for education purposes was identified as being of particular interest to UNESCO for use in developing countries. It is equally relevant to disadvantaged segments of our own society. OSS can be used for providing education (including the development of non-traditional educational tools) to disadvantaged groups, democratizing social change through citizen journalism and social advocacy, and providing tools for effective organization and governance to not-for-profit organizations. These efforts are typically initiated by volunteer educators, students, and researchers. They may be financially backed by investors, including innovation transfer offices, but are often able to generate revenues by providing additional services related to the software.

Universities have the talent to develop open source technologies. By establishing an approach to intellectual property that facilitates open innovation, they can make a considerable contribution to maximizing the extent to which effective solutions are developed and distributed.

Mobilization of Resources

Critical to the success of any innovative solution is the political will to support new approaches, the human resources to provide the time and commitment to developing and implementing a solution, and the will of the private and public sectors to provide the tangible resources necessary to do so. However, the sustainability of socially innovative solutions depends on their capacity to reduce resource requirements and to demonstrate cost effectiveness to the public sector and profit gains to the private. Universities have a unique role to play by providing the resources that reflect an institutional commitment to social innovation, by facilitating the ability of researchers to acquire external funding for relevant projects, by enabling outreach efforts and partnerships with the community, and by maximizing opportunities for students to be engaged in the process from the development of the ideas to the implementation and evaluation of the solutions. This represents a huge commitment of human and financial resources.

To the extent that social innovation is intrinsic to the values and objectives of a university, the resources to support the necessary infrastructure can be mobilized with relative ease. These include co-op offices that identify appropriate opportunities for placements, research offices that pro-actively match funding opportunities to research initiatives, and human and financial support for outreach activities that raise awareness among various potential stakeholders and investors. The commitment to providing the institutional support that enables community engagement will inevitably pay off to a university as it establishes a reputation for success in the domains in which it has strategically committed itself to making a difference.


Universities often operate in a manner that is relatively rigid in processes, structures, and reward systems. Universities have to consciously consider strategies that support alternative models for how disciplines work together, how they work with communities, and what their researchers are rewarded for producing. Although the appetite of researchers and students for cross-disciplinary communication to find innovative solutions to social problems is considerable, numerous institutional and disciplinary practices present obstacles to acting on these interests. Embracing social innovation requires visible support at all levels of the institution in order to instigate a cultural shift supportive of social innovation. The five factors presented in this article provide a framework for universities to evaluate operations, prioritize efforts, and guide a course of action. Universities are rich with resources to contribute to innovative solutions to pressing social problems; it is incumbent upon them to ensure that they are a part of the solution, and not the problem.

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