September 2008

"Engagement--in which institutions and communities form lasting relationships that influence, shape, and promote success in both spheres--is rare. More frequently, there is evidence of unilateral outreach, rather than partnership based on mutual benefit, mutual respect, and mutual accountability."

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada informs us that our universities produce one-third of the roughly $10 billion in research and development generated in Canada. Our post-secondary institutions house some of Canada's most talented inventors and analysts as well as some of the best laboratories and think-tanks. The full value of this innovation is achieved when a university is able to successfully engage with the local geographic community in which it is based, including specific communities of interest that reside in the locality.

Such meaningful and continuous community-university engagement (CUE) at the local level is a crucial pre-condition before a university can successfully execute partnerships with open source communities, which by their nature are dispersed across the globe, to create social value. By effectively engaging both the local and open source communities, Canadian universities can play a pivotal role in social innovation that addresses challenges in our own country as well as overseas. Accordingly, universities across Canada should increase their CUE factors by deepening and broadening their teaching, research and volunteering activities with the external constituencies that have the greatest need for sustainable solutions to the challenges they face every day. If social innovations are to make a real difference, Canadian universities must step forward in a major way. This article sets out a dynamic model for CUE and provides examples of creative local initiatives.

Social Innovation Matters

Canada's need for robust, creative and relevant social innovation isn't a purely academic matter. Volatile commodity prices in the lightning-fast global economy, the vapourization of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, urban homelessness, stagnant rural regions, an aging workforce, Aboriginal poverty, climate change, and pollution are only some of the challenges we face in our country. While these challenges are not unique to Canada, Canada's low population density adds to the difficulty in providing effective solutions. Universities can play an important role when they engage with their local communities.

What exactly is social innovation? The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Canada's largest private foundation, defines social innovation as: "Innovative approaches to addressing Canada's social and economic challenges in ways that are related and sustainable." The Stanford Social Innovation Center refers to it as: "The creation of social and environmental value. New ideas that solve social problems."

Many advocates of social innovation, like the MaRs Centre in Toronto and Ontario's Talent First Network (TFN), emphasize the application of new technology, or new uses of existing technology, to solve social problems. Others, such as Frances Westley and her colleagues at the University of Waterloo, highlight innovative organizational and policy processes, practices, partnerships and resource flows. All of these elements, of course, are important.

Social Solutions Through Open Source

The list of possible social innovations that meet urgent needs seems endless. Some examples include:

  • software to improve the accounting, fundraising, management and on-line service delivery of non-profits working on the front-lines of social change
  • telecommunications innovations for low-cost connectivity and collaboration in the social sector and to access market data and business opportunities for social enterprises that employ marginalized citizens and offer reasonable-cost products and services
  • green energy technologies, including wind turbines, photovoltaics and small-hydro systems
  • water and air-purification technologies
  • green construction design and materials for affordable housing and social infrastructure such as health centres, seniors facilities, day-care centres and hospices
  • low-cost prosthetics and other aids for persons with physical disabilities
  • medical and health-care applications of nano-sensors
  • GPS-driven landmine clearance technologies
  • biotechnology innovations for faster-growing urban-agriculture produce
  • conversion of single automobile technologies into mass-transit components
  • design of social-finance products and tools to finance the beta-testing then scaling up of social innovations

While some open source projects exist to address these needs, developing applications for social innovation is an emerging software field where the needs far outweigh the available software. This provides interesting opportunities for universities to engage their local community in the establishment and cocreation of niche open source projects.

In his 2008 University of Regina PhD dissertation "The Role of Free Knowledge at Universities and its Potential Impact on the Sustainability of the Prairie Region", Roger Petry found that a free/libre open source software (F/LOSS) approach to research on sustainable development is compatible with the values and career priorities of university-based researchers. Petry concludes that a F/LOSS orientation is better aligned with the motives of academic researchers than is a purely commercial approach. In general, university researchers tend to be committed to freedom of inquiry, advancing knowledge in their fields, using their research to contribute to positive social and environmental change, and collaborating with their peers. These findings have strategic and policy implications for universities and governments, both of which have assumed that the conventional intellectual property rights (IPR) approach is the correct model. In contrast, the Petry study indicates that free licensing, open source and copy left constitute an alternative in the university. While further research is needed, it is clear that both the IPR and F/LOSS models provide value in social innovation projects.

Pre-Conditions for Successful Alignment

Our ongoing work at Carleton University, together with experience elsewhere, suggests that there are five pre-conditions for universities to be able to align their capabilities fully with a social innovation focus:

  1. A high-level strategic policy commitment to social innovation by the institution as a whole.
  2. An inclusive, institutionalized process for mobilizing faculties and disciplines, individually and collectively, to advance social innovation.
  3. A robust, diversified, and effectively co-ordinated approach to community engagement through serious learning, field practica, co-operative placements, community-based research, continuing education and volunteering.
  4. A university-wide commitment to employing F/LOSS strategies to the research and the innovation-transfer process.
  5. Mobilization of significant internal and external resources for funding the design, testing and replication of social-purpose technologies, products and services.

Carleton University is working hard to put these pre-conditions in place, and is making good progress. Other post-secondary institutions are taking or considering similar steps.

Community-University Engagement Model

CUE can be viewed as a dynamic triangle with three interactive spheres of activity:

  1. community-based experiential learning
  2. community-based research
  3. community-based continuing education

These three elements are illustrated in Figure 1. Inside the triangle are other elements, such as volunteerism, access to facilities and capital mobilization. The greater the dynamism and depth of engagement within and among the spheres, the more substantial and effective is the CUE factor.

Figure 1: The Dynamic Triangle of CUE

Experiential learning refers to a wide range of practices. Community-based service learning (CSL) in undergraduate and graduate programs is growing across the country, propelled by competition for students and the use of engagement methods to bolster student retention and success. The Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning stresses the importance of achieving mutual outcomes through CSL that benefit both educational and community organizations. ncluded in the umbrella concept of experiential learning are field-based practicums, often run by professional schools, paid co-operative placements in community-based and public agencies, and non-credit co-curricular activities such as study tours, conferences and local projects. This wide range of forms and modalities of experiential learning obliges universities to find new and better ways of coordinating with a diverse set of external community partners in local agencies and industry.

In the sphere of community-based research (CBR), a wide range of forms of activity exist. Working with individual faculty members, or under the auspices of university-based research centres, students carry out qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis on issues of concern to community organizations, governments and companies. Sometimes students and faculty members are part of integrated research teams that include community members and non-academic professionals. A new Pan-Canadian Coalition on Community-Based Research led by Victoria, Quebec-at-Montreal and Carleton universities has been set up to advance further the theory, practice and impact of CBR. Such action-oriented research may also be undertaken in multiple sites across a city, such as Carleton's emerging work with the University of Ottawa on the City of Ottawa's No Community Left Behind strategy, aimed at reducing crime and improving services and livelihoods on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis. Other local examples of CBR include:

  1. Carleton University's Innovation Transfer Office working with Volunteer Ottawa, a local group of non-profits, is applying F/LOSS innovations to create low-cost telecommunications solutions to reduce the long-distance phone bills of these highly connected organizations.
  2. Carleton University's Innovation Transfer Office, the Community Foundation of Ottawa, Volunteer Ottawa, and the Centre for Voluntary Sector Research and Development (CVSRD) collaborate to run the annual Social Innovation Challenge that seeks the best student ideas to help charities address social and environmental needs. Proposals come from individuals and teams in all faculties and disciplines, and the top ideas receive advice and seed money for beta testing and implementation.

The third sphere in the triangle, building community-based continuing education programs on the basis of social-sector needs, is another important task. The Carleton Centre for Community Innovation organized a symposium on program-related investments through equity investments, loans and grants in third-sector projects for leaders in the foundation, finance, policy and research communities. Another example illustrates the potential for converting continuing education into a degree-program stream that is inherently engaged with the community. For many years, the CVSRD has undertaken joint action-research, policy analysis, networking and coaching with the voluntary sector in Ottawa and across Canada. Through an array of meetings, symposia, networks and projects, the Centre offered tools and information that informally educated leaders and managers in the sector. Two years ago, CVSRD joined forces with Carleton's School of Public Policy and Administration to offer a new, graduate-level course on non-profit governance and management. It has been over-subscribed, drawing students from the sector as well as the university's full-time student body.

Other Elements

There are several other elements inside the CUE triangle. We offer several illustrative examples for these elements.

Volunteerism: faculty members, university staff and student associations are often active as volunteers and in raising funds to meet social and environmental needs. At many universities, the annual United Way campaign mobilizes a large segment of the university community. Student groups like Engineers Without Borders raise funds and send volunteers for overseas community projects to improve water supplies and other infrastructure. Universities can also offer the community access to facilities. This past summer, Black Affinity ran a pilot music and recreation program on campus for low-income children ages 10-14. Called Rise and Flow, the camp attracted 30 participants, most from the Russell Heights neighbourhood of Ottawa, an area that faces many social challenges. A local community organization is now talking with Black Affinity about offering a version of Rise and Flow as an after-school program in the community.

Robust volunteerism is evident at the highest level of most Canadian universities. The Boards of Governors of our post-secondary institutions are populated by accomplished leaders from the business, government and non-profit sectors, all serving on a voluntary basis. Community volunteers, therefore, play key roles in the governance of our universities.

Rewards and Incentives: to promote CUE in the most comprehensive manner possible, universities must align their rewards and incentives with this objective. Tenure and promotion policies must recognize the value of community-engaged scholarship, either through separate promotion tracks for community-oriented faculty or through a more thorough integration of criteria that value CUE in teaching and research into the university's overall policies and practices. A team at Carleton University from Social Work, Political Science and Public Policy animated a discussion on this topic at the 2008 Community-University Exposition. The Campus-Community Partnerships for Health network in the United States has produced a toolkit to assist community-engaged scholars in making their case for promotion.

Resource Mobilization: priority should be placed on mobilizing university funds for experiential learning and community-based research in the field of social innovation. Small challenge grants or loans can be powerful catalysts. Large capital pools managed by the institution should also be tapped to advance social-purpose projects. University endowments and pension funds can utilize program-related investments across a number of asset classes including: clean technology, green energy, low-cost health-care, mass-transit, green construction, affordable housing and real estate projects for day care, seniors' care and hospices. Such capital mobilization requires education of university executives, boards of governors and trustees. There are resource-mobilization challenges and opportunities in the community. Most non-profits are chronically under-funded. Education and research budgets should build in reasonable honoraria for community-organization staff time and expenses devoted to planning, monitoring and supervision. Where possible, universities should establish shared decision-making models with community organizations over the strategy, policy and budgeting of joint education and research initiatives.

Co-ordination: a university's CUE factor can only be maximized when there are appropriate and effective mechanisms to coordinate CUE at all levels. In the US, a number of universities have created centres that bring together student-affairs staff and services with academic staff and programs. Often such centres train and support faculty, and liaise with students and community organizations, in the delivery of large-scale service learning involving both undergraduates and graduates. Sometimes these centres provide scholarships for low-income students, fellowships for community activists, start-up grants for CBR initiatives, as well as travel and security support for students. In Canada, a variety of coordination models have emerged at individual universities. St. Francis Xavier University runs a large-scale service learning program for undergraduates. Trent University operates a centre that is directed by a community board and engages in both education and research in two municipal regions surrounding the campus. The University of Victoria has set up a university-wide Office for Community-Based Research, whose advisory board is led by a majority of community representatives. In the past year, the same university has instituted a senior-level committee of Deans and Vice-Presidents to coordinate the efforts of the university in civic engagement. At Carleton, we are developing a coordination model based on the rich experiences of numerous research centres and institutes with active, and sometimes longstanding, community partnerships. We also benefit from the work of the Community-Based Research Network of Ottawa, a joint creation of faculty and social-service agency leaders. At the university-wide level, our Vice-President (VP) Research has catalyzed a number of cross-faculty processes, including an initiative on Environment and Health. Both the VP Research and the Provost have supported a pan-university committee, the Initiative for Community-University Engagement (ICUE), which is documenting Carleton's contributions to its surrounding community and recommending ways of expanding and strengthening our CUE factor. Finally, the VP Research chairs the Carleton Social Innovation Advisory Committee, comprising community and university leaders active in various forms of social innovation, with open source a central concept in the committee's deliberations. Building on all these components, an overall coordination structure for CUE for social innovation should emerge at Carleton in the next two years.


The CUE factor is crucial to the growth and impact of social innovation in Canada, and to our contributions in this field internationally. Through effective partnerships with citizens and organizations seeking to address complex and urgent social challenges, Canadian universities can create social and environmental value and solve social problems in a cost-effective and sustainable way. In order to do so, universities must commit to fully aligning their capacities with the social innovation agenda.

Recommended Resources

Creating a Supportive Environment for Community-University Engagement

Accelerating our Impact: Philanthropy, Innovation and Social Change

Tides Canada

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