York, Harvard and Oxford Universities Talk Social Innovation

The following was originally posted on YFile on March 25, 2013. It is reposted here with permission.

Representatives from York University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford met on March 4 and 5 in London, England, to articulate their shared vision regarding the role of higher education institutions in supporting social innovation and social enterprise.

David Phipps

David Phipps (left), executive director of research & innovation services, and chief knowledge mobilizer at York University; Daniela Papi, program design and outreach manager at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University; Meghan O. Mahoney, assistant director of Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship at the Harvard Innovation Lab; and Jennifer Casasanto, director of external programs for Harvard University’s School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, took part in the meetings. The group explored their different models of institutional support for social innovation.

Hosted by the Canadian High Commission in London, England, they were joined by representatives from the British High Commission, the McConnell Family Foundation (Canada), Social Innovation Generation (Canada), and the Young Foundation and the Economic & Social Research Council, both based in the U.K.

Universities play an integral role in the intellectual, cultural, and economic development of their surrounding regions. In addition to producing new knowledge and talented graduates, universities contribute to innovation, productivity and prosperity through technology transfer and commercialization. However, the role of the university in the growing areas of social innovation and social entrepreneurship is still emerging.

“Some faculty members and students have been active in helping find solutions to pressing social and environmental challenges; however, universities are not making the most of this potential. Universities need to become more effective and act systematically to maximize the impact of their research and teaching,” said Will Norman, director of research at the Young Foundation.

To date, York, Harvard, and Oxford have developed slightly varying approaches to the task.

Under the leadership of Robert Haché, vice-president research and innovation, the Office of Research Services at York University provides services that support the development of social innovations arising from the research of faculty and students who work in collaboration with partners from the public and non-profit sectors. “It is important that universities play a role in social innovation as we do in harnessing innovation in science and technology,” Haché said. “The discussions started by York and our colleagues at Harvard and Oxford will help to develop an international consensus on the roles of universities in leading and supporting initiatives in social innovation.”

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, located within the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, focuses on mainstreaming entrepreneurial approaches for social change throughout the School and the University through teaching, research and practice. “While we award full scholarships to accomplished social entrepreneurs seeking to complete a one-year MBA,” notes Pamela Hartigan, executive director of the Skoll Centre, “we recognize that most students will not be entrepreneurs. Yet they can be ‘entrepreneuring’ wherever their careers take them. Our goal is to give them the exposure, the tools and the confidence to contribute their talents to improving the state of the world.”

Harvard University is also committed to social innovation. In one of the University’s centers of activity, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), students are educated in the process of “design thinking” and problem solving within complex systems. Harvard’s undergraduate engineering degrees build on a strong foundation in the liberal arts so that graduates bring a uniquely humanistic approach to design thinking for social innovation. An important partner for Harvard SEAS is the Harvard Innovation Lab, a university-wide interdisciplinary resource center for advising, mentoring and incubation of ideas.

“Our mission is to instill in our students the desire to seek out solutions and mitigations to complex global, economic, and environmental challenges,” says Fawwaz Habbal, executive dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Through our strong commitment to building students’ core technical competence, as well as enhancing their capacities for innovative thinking, leadership, and societal awareness, we prepare our students to make significant contributions to society.”

Working under the banner of Relevance through Engagement, the universities identified three interconnected ways in which institutions of higher education can accelerate the development of social innovations. The first involves applying knowledge and teaching to address real-world problems. The second will see knowledge mobilization complementing traditional scholarship by working closely with research partners. The third area focuses on continuing to develop established and emerging leaders of social innovation. The three universities will develop relationships with national agencies, foundations and funders to explore each of these aspects so they can share and disseminate practices that will enhance each university’s contributions to social innovation.

The British High Commission provided the financial support for the meeting.

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