The Promise & Perils of Social Innovation Education

Craig Zelizer

I recently attended the 2017 Ashoka U Exchange in Miami. The event is the key annual convening of the global social entrepreneurship and higher education community. Around 700 people including academics, students, civil society members, funders, social enterprises and others attended the event.

The Exchange is hosted by Ashoka U, Miami Dade College (the first community college to be an Ashoka U Changemaker campus) and many amazing partners. The changemaker campus is a global network that recognizes colleges and universities globally that are innovating and embedding changemaking practices across their campuses and beyond. Becoming a certified changemaker campus is a rigorous process that involves extensive consultations with Ashoka U staff, partners and strong evidence that an institution has adopted and embedded a broad and multi-level/stakeholder approach. There are currently 37 changemaker campuses across seven countries and two more are being inducted into the network this year, including CQ University in Australia and Laurier University in Canada.

The opening session on the first day included four key experts in the field who addressed the theme Promise & Perils of Social Innovation Education. The panelists included

In introducing the panel, Marina talked about key trends that have emerged over the past 10 years in the social innovation/social entrepreneur and higher education space.

1) Terminology — There has been a dramatic shift from using the phrase social entrepreneurship to more frequent use of social innovation. 10–15 years ago most programs were based in business schools and thus social entrepreneurship was likely the more appropriate term. Over the past decade, programs have expanded across university programs and fields, thus social innovation has become more popular to refer to the field.

2) End goal — In the past there was almost a sole focus on encouraging people to setup their own venture. Nowadays, the field is shifting where people may still setup a venture focused on change, but it is now becoming equally valuable to be an intraprenuer, or changemaker in existing institutions. Change needs to take place in many ways and we need innovators both inside of existing institutions as well as in new ventures.

3) Skill Development — There has been a strong shift from focusing on the skills needed to scale a social venture, to the broader skills (technical and soft skills such as empathy, working in teams, strategic thinking) needed to advance change in diverse areas.

4) Unit of Analysis — There has been a move from idolizing the “hero proneur” to also seeing the need and the importance of fostering teams and coalitions to achieve change.

A conversation is also taking place within the field and with other sectors, as to how social innovation fits within the broader ecosystem of change, whether it be through design thinking, advocacy etc. As Marina said, “While it [social innovation] is one amazing tool, it is one of many.” The field is exploring how to more effectively link, integrate and align with other changemaking fields.

In terms of the next wave of changemaker education, some key themes that Marina stressed included:

Inclusion and access — Who’s at the table? Who is participating or attracted to the programs. Are we representing and including broader communities or mostly serving elites? Are people working to create change at home or just running off to “save” others in more distant lands.

Breaking down silos — To achieve more effective change there is an increasing push to create more integrated and strategic changemaker systems on campuses that go beyond a single program or field.

Apprenticing with the problem — There is increasing emphasis of the importance of helping students deeply understand and explore problems and the broader context before jumping into solutions.

Variety of pathways to creating an impact — Everyone a changemaker regardless of age, background, title, or discipline.

In terms of the biggest challenges the field faces, the panelists emphasized the following:

The importance of public education — Andrew stressed a key reason for the success of the US in the 20th century was investment in public education. Too often people in social innovation are cynical of the role of government and believe they can do things better and faster. But we need government policy, innovation and investment and have to work in partnership with and not ignore policyamkers. We need to prepare students to undertake the long-hard slog of policy change.

We are educating (often) elites to think they have the responsibility to solve problems elsewhere — Daniela said increasingly many students are pitching ideas at business plan competitions for communities or sectors they know nothing about. For example, she joked many students will put forth an app for helping farmers in Nigeria. However, they often don’t know anything about farmers or the country.

Part of the fault lies with how we are teaching and preparing people. Social change happens in systems, governments, and students and others need to understand this.

A key question is who are we funding? There are many young people who want to take on issues they haven’t lived. How do we start giving money and support to students who have the relevant lived experience.

Social innovation is a broad solution — Sonal emphasized business models by themselves are not enough. The current practice of philanthropy and financial often sucks and too often targets tech or entrepreneurial approaches to change, without looking at broader ecoysystems. She stressed that we need to invest in a broad range of solutions. Also, not everyone needs to start their own venture, but can facilitate change through working within organizations, doing research, working on policy or other approaches

To take broader approaches to change — Daniela commented that too often there has been an overemphasis on startup and pitch competitions that only support students at an early stage. However, often people with experience will have the wisdom and experience to undertake ventures and advance change. At the Skoll Centre, they used to only allow students to apply to their funding competitions. They now have opened their competitions to alumni as well. This has really shifted the type of people applying. They have also started providing funding for students to apprentice on the problem they are exploring (do research, an internship, etc.) to better understand existing approaches, context and more. Instead of needing to have a finished business plan, now they joke they have an unfinished business plan competition in which students can show how they will go about understanding the problem and existing solutions.

Andrew stressed the need for universities to model changemaking across the campus. It needs to be built into human resources, the curriculum, purchasing and the entire campus. Moreover Andrew said our students are coming to us with radically different experiences due to the very unequal nature of our societies. Some have experienced and confronted very challenging circumstances while others come from a very elite and privileged background. If our students are going to learn both the humility, and others need to lean the confident “We need to think about who they are when they walk through the door”

Overall this was an excellent panel that highlighted the tremendous advances in the field of social innovation and higher education. It has gone from a niche area to one that is attracting tremendous interest across university campuses, communities, donors and others. Sonal commented how when she helped establish the White House office Social Innovation, many people didn’t understand or support the idea. Now the field is booming as evidenced the surge in programs, courses, incubators, and of course and the over 700 people around the world attending the Ashoka Exchange.

There are still many hurdles to be overcome including. How do we define the boundaries of what social innovation education and practice are and aren’t? Do we run the risk of overselling the field or does the promise match the practice? As a number of the panelists discussed, there is also a need to better link social innovation to broader social movements for change and foster structural change. Are we preparing students and others with the skills, knowledge and support for movement and coalition building? As the field has expanded and bloomed into a wonderful myriad or diverse academic disciplines engaging in innovation how can we have clearer conceptual terminology as talking about what innovation is and isn’t can be confusing? Moreover, all panelists stressed the need for change to be seen as a long-term process, requiring coalitions, and interacting with diverse stakeholders, including policymakers and the field needs to do a better job of promoting this type of engagement.

I look forward to seeing how the field continues to evolve over the next decade and seeing this community grow as well as engage in critical and engaging reflection about our ethics, value, practices and impact.