What can universities do to support social innovation?


Rose Cawood, Glasgow Caledonian University

From the outside, universities often appear as isolated and removed from society, especially for communities that have never accessed university education or resources.  However, in recent years, universities are beginning to recognise the need to have a stronger link with society and industry outside of the academia bubble. With the profound and complex challenges we face as a world today – from climate change, overpopulation, health crises to political turmoil – there is no doubt that collectively we have many difficult issues to tackle in the coming years. This is where a change in the way that universities behave and link with societal change can bring solutions. Universities contain a wealth of knowledge, research, resources, education and influence which is much less hampered by political agenda than a local or national government. This affords universities great freedom in supporting the development of creativity and social innovation. Social Innovation is defined as the creation of novel concepts, policies and applications to address complex or ‘wicked’ social problems such as environmental change, and also enhance the application of solutions to create greater impact. In short, social innovation meets a societal need to tackle the challenges we face today in ways with greater efficiency and impact.

Many universities recognise their role in supporting societal change and the influence they could have through actively promoting social innovation. However, most universities are still not taking a strategic approach, despite the increasing importance placed on research impact and requirement from funding sources to provide demonstrable evidence of active participation in supporting societal impact and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This means that there is currently a gap between universities and the outer world, and an opportunity for universities to set themselves apart and put themselves at the front of the change process around the world.

There have been a number of initiatives aimed at supporting social innovation acceleration and incubation through universities in recent years. At Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), we have undertaken a number of such projects, often funded through the European Commission under the Erasmus Plus programme. GCU is a Changemaker Campus recognised by Ashoka U, a worldwide network promoting and stimulating entrepreneurship and social innovation within universities.  The Social Innovation through Knowledge Exchange (SIKE) Project is one such example that focusses particularly on creating a supportive Social Innovation network both within GCU and also amongst external SIKE partners. Other projects, such as the South East Asian Social Innovation Network, Latin American Social Innovation Network, and Common Good First, are GCU projects aimed at establishing support for socially innovative entrepreneurship in HEIs outside Europe. Support needs to be multi-faceted and comprehensive to facilitate sustainable innovations and an environment for creativity. As such, the SIKE project has a broad plan of action to establish this in the context not only of GCU, but also within Glasgow and Scotland more widely, as well as in the other participating regions.

Often, social innovators have creative ideas and grassroots knowledge of their local context, but lack knowledge and skills in business development, marketing, robust research of the focus area, man power, design processes and more. They may also lack access to prototyping facilities and/or appropriate professional networks with whom to co-design and co-create their ideas. This is where support through projects like SIKE comes in and can lend real value to innovators. The project provides in-depth needs analysis and monitoring of flagship case studies throughout the project, (providing detailed knowledge qualitatively and quantitatively), as well as supporting the journey of innovators along the social innovation spiral. The project also aims to develop capabilities and skills through a programme of training, workshops and supplying tried-and-tested online tools that can be applied to support social innovation at varying stages of the social innovation process. This and much more will be accomplished through the core element of the project – the creation of the Social Innovation through Knowledge Exchange (SIKE) Units. These can act in many different capacities, depending on the needs and local context. In some universities, it may function in a multitude of expected and unexpected ways, while in others it may focus on just one aspect of social innovation development.

At GCU, the SIKE Unit will act as a co-working space; business incubator; catalyst and events space. Future plans may see it also function as a Makers Space. Each partner in the SIKE project will construct and curate their Unit differently depending on their local context, and indeed over time all may evolve to better meet local needs. The users of the Unit at GCU includes current GCU staff or students as well as members of the local community. The Unit will also be a platform for the development of a hybrid idea or relationship between a few different internal and external stakeholders. It is also important to note that this is a reciprocal relationship and the university is not only there to just offer support, but also to facilitate the two-way flow of knowledge and expertise between users, stakeholders and the university. Successful social innovation requires there to be a rich and diverse network of relationships directly or indirectly supporting its development, and the GCU Social Innovation Support Unit will build and cultivate this for years to come.

At GCU we have divided up the offering of the SIKE Unit to give a menu of what is available to support innovators. These fall into different categories; with the opportunities at GCU listed as examples.

Training (formal)

  • Common Good Curriculum is inbuilt to GCU degree courses;
  • GCU offers a Master’s degree in Social Innovation;
  • Undergraduate module on Social Innovation reviewed by Ashoka U;
  • Undergraduates across the Glasgow School for Business and Society study Employability Enterprise and Entrepreneurship for three years, including running a consultancy/business in Year 3.

Training (informal)

  • Knowledge exchange workshops e.g. the CanDo Festival in collaboration with the Melting Pot in May 2019;
  • Knowledge Exchange events such as the Professorial Lecture Series;
  • Extra-curricular activities and programmes are also available, for example the Student Leaders Programme offers workshops in Social Innovation and Advanced Social Innovation;
  • Conference outreach with scholarships for interested organisations e.g. the International Social Innovation Research Conference in September 2019.

Research – Theoretical and Practical (measuring impact)

  • GCU has established a rich social innovation culture across all three Academic Schools focusing on cutting-edge research in civic participation, social policy, health, the environment and more;
  • GCU researchers are engaged in a variety of local, national and international research projects investigating social innovation funded by a range of stakeholders including UK Funding Councils and the European Union;
  • Publications on social innovation by GCU staff across a range of disciplines are available on request.

Ecosystem – Network, signposting, promotion, internationalisation

  • Local, and national networks through a number of local or national organisations that co-host events with GCU – Social Innovation Exchange; SENScot; Social enterprise Academy; Third sector First Interfaces; Glasgow Social Enterprise Network etc.;
  • Internationalisation through networks and knowledge exchange including Challenges Worldwide; the British Academy and the creation of a Global Social Innovation Unit Network;
  • Promotion internationally through knowledge exchange within and across projects including SEASIN, LASIN, CGF; ENPRENDIA, NEXUS, INDOEDU4ALL, FREE NETWORK – focussed on different elements but forging a link and information in Social Innovation;
  • Signposting through our knowledge exchange activities, academic partnerships and UHatch at GCU.

Incubation – Spaces

  • UHatch at GCU;
  • Links to external incubators in other geographic locations e.g. The Melting Pot (Edinburgh), Tontine?

Specialist technical knowledge

  • Academic expertise in social innovation across disciplines and contexts including Business, Society, Engineering, the Built Environment, Health and Life Sciences;
  • Networking and workshop planning;
  • Social entrepreneurship;
  • Partnership funding expertise. social innovation research, specific research applied to social issues.

Financial support

  • Pump priming funding/capacity building funding/leveraging funding sources;
  • Free information sharing and skills/training from across University and skill set.

Public communication and engagement

  • Public events e.g. GCU Research Day; Partnership workshops etc.;
  • Local and international social innovation networks;
  • Open source information and resources;
  • Representation of staff as trustees and Board Members within numerous third sector organisations;
  • Partnerships between GCU and a range of external organisations including the National Health Service and the Poverty Alliance.

Business support

  • GCU UHatch co-working incubator space;
  • Undergraduate and postgraduate Business degrees;
  • Graduate Apprenticeship support;
  • Professional doctorates;
  • Knowledge Transfer Partnerships;
  • Expert Consultancy;
  • Knowledge support from within the University – research expertise and professional support

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