Editor's Note: This story written by Marina Kim, first appeared on ashokau.org on 4 Aug 2015.
Over the past decade, there has been an incredible increase in student and institutional interest in social innovation and social entrepreneurship educational programs. This has implications that blend into the curriculum, co-curriculum, campus culture, institutional strategy, branding and PR efforts, budget and staffing plans, and often creates new Centers, Offices, positions and roles on campus.
Here are four key evolutions of social innovation education that Ashoka U has observed from our 30 Changemaker Campuses and our global network of 150 colleges and universities advancing social innovation:
1. Terminology: From “Social Entrepreneurship” to “Social Innovation”
While social entrepreneurship is still a popular term, social innovation is also becoming increasingly popular and relevant. While on the surface this shift can seem minor, it actually signals a big shift in attitude and tone. “Entrepreneurship” can be polarizing for non-business disciplines who feel it doesn’t relate to them. “Innovation” on the other hand, expands the tent for a variety of disciplines and approaches to social impact.
For example, the New Challenge at The New School is a social innovation competition that encourages students to submit entries of all types, including technology apps for social change, documentary films, policy-oriented initiatives and performance projects, all in addition to the traditional social ventures and business plans. This expanded definition of social innovation allows students from a range of backgrounds and skills to participate, rather than just those who self-identify as founders of new ventures.
2. End Goal: From Everyone a Social Venture Founder to Everyone an Intrapreneur, Entrepreneur or Changemaker
The original framing of social entrepreneurship education was to drive students towards launching ventures while in school and becoming full-time social entrepreneurs upon graduation. However in reality, that post-graduation trajectory rarely holds true. Instead, it is the skills of entrepreneurialism and changemaking (such as creativity, empathy and teamwork) that stay with students long after graduation. There are also ways for students to gain these skills outside of launching a venture.
The most basic skill is changemaking, which Ashoka defines as the proactive mindset needed to solve problems. Changemaking does not have to be a full time job, rather it’s the ability to feel a sense of agency, take initiative and be creative to solve problems large and small. Individuals can exhibit changemaking in their local community, within their family or as a volunteer.
Intrapreneurship is the idea that you can launch initiatives and be an entrepreneurial force while operating within an existing organization (whether for-profit, nonprofit or government). Successful intrapreneurs are adept at gaining buy-in from diverse stakeholders and can effectively communicate the need for their initiatives within a broader context that aligns with their organization’s goals.
3. Skill Development: Moving from narrow skills for launching a venture to broad tools and methodologies for creating maximum social impact
As more and more students turn to social impact careers higher education must meet their need for relevant skills. Increasingly campuses are looking to create “student pathways” and “learning journeys” that allow students to learn about a range of social change and community development methodologies, in a focused and deliberate manner.
There are lots of relevant insights students gain by first participating in a service-learning experience, followed by a design thinking training, then using their new skills and mindset to create a community engagement project, and finally finding a role within the social innovation ecosystem. This community-based learning journey, paired with an understanding of social innovation methodology gives students a more robust framework to create social impact.
4. Unit of Analysis: Moving from Heroic Individual to Team Orientation
Social entrepreneurship has been said to glorify the “hero” entrepreneurs who found and lead social ventures. However, when you look at what makes organizations and social movements successful, it is more often a series of dedicated teams that have a range of skills and are committed over the long-term.
The skills needed to be a part of a high-performing, collaborative team are just as complex and nuanced as the skills needed to lead a team. Founders must be aware that they must create an enabling and motivating environment if they want to be successful in the long run. Here is a recent article about how Ashoka U balances building a diverse team while valuing unique skills and strengths that each individual brings.
Continued Areas for Improvement
While the social innovation sector has made major strides to be a more inclusive and equip students with a more diverse and culturally appropriate skillset, there is still much room for growth. The next wave of social innovation education must continue to evolve and address these complex dilemmas:
Innovation for the sake of Innovation: In a recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, authors Eric Mlyn and Amanda McBride state that “innovation alone won’t solve social problems.” A new approach to addressing a social problem is not necessarily better than what currently exists. In fact, doing due diligence on both the issue and the already existing organizations/approaches must be done before any new solution is implemented on the ground. There is much to learn about what is already working well, what’s not, and why not. Don’t forget that there are many organizations to learn from and partner with before deciding to start a new organization or pioneer a completely new approach.
Problem-Solution Mindset: Many of us in the social innovation field have been critiqued for rushing in with superficial solutions and treating everything as a problem to be solved, without always understanding the larger context. It’s first important to listen and engage in what’s happening with existing stakeholders to gain a deep understanding of the local culture and context. Technical solutions with minimal cultural alignment are likely to fail (and even cause harm) if not done through real relationships with people who are living the reality the innovators are attempting to address.
Short Time Span: Short-term interventions, often compounded by the inherent time boundaries of educational programs can also cause significant harm, especially if students aren’t able to follow through on a long-term commitment. Tempering our impatience, removing the expectation of immediate results and reframing “success” criteria to look beyond just one semester or a single summer can help shift the priority to long-term projects and outcomes. While students can be a great resource to drive forward projects, the responsibility must be on faculty and program directors to ensure continuity of quality and effectiveness beyond any single student’s tenure.
Lack of Humility: Professor David Scobey from The New School summarizes this in his phrase, “young people have more chutzpah than humility” when approaching complex issues and problems. Student enthusiasm should be met by educators with a clear framing and structure for how to approach their change-the-world idea. It’s important that students learn about all sides of an issue in historical terms, understand the communities and people involved that are already working on the issue, and have a objective understanding of existing solutions already at play. Without this “homework” the context and complexity of an issue will be lost and the potential for long-term damage is high.
So Where do we go From Here?
In a recent Forbes.com article about new trends in liberal arts education, the author states that, “social entrepreneurship is quickly becoming a higher ed staple.”
While it is encouraging to hear that social entrepreneurship and social innovation is taking hold at more and more institutions, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that our field has it all figured out. We must continue these difficult conversations, self reflection and growth in order to achieve the long-term impact that we so frequently talk about.