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Expanding the role for universities: Developing social innovation units across Latin America

Author: Louise Pulford
Published Date: 2 February 2016

Universities have the potential to play a significant role in creating better, fairer and more equal societies all over the world. As Geoff Mulgan predicts, ‘in 2016 new kinds of universities will emerge, mobilising some of the world’s 150 million students to work on our most pressing problems.’

It’s only February in 2016, and SIX is already working with more than 10 universities across Europe and Latin America who are demonstrating new ways of doing things, connected to some of the pressing problems facing Latin American societies.

The LASIN (Latin American Social Innovation Network) project will develop a network of Latin American universities who are explicitly supporting social innovation in the communities around them, and engaging their students beyond the classroom. 

With the explicit objective of fulfilling the new mission for universities that Mark Anderson at Glasgow Caledonian University laid out in his recent article ‘A new mission for universities’, LASIN will promote, develop and connect universities supporting social innovation across Latin America. It embodies how universities can exploit not only academic skills, but also their networks, skills, physical space, and their greatest resource, their people. 

Funded by the EC’s Erasmus+ programme - a forward looking funding stream that supports education, learning and development around the world (not just student exchanges of the traditional Erasmus programmes) - this project involves a group of 8 universities across 4 countries in Latin America: Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Panama, plus the University of Munster in Germany, University of Alicante in Spain, GCU in Scotland and the only non-university partner, SIX. Our role is to ensure these universities plug into existing Latin American social innovation networks, of which there are many! 

Over the next 2.5 years, LASIN will run an exercise to understand how universities engage in social innovation and their surrounding communities, and as create units in universities which will specialise in supporting social innovation and which are sustainable. This is not just a traditional knowledge transfer network. By expanding to other universities beyond the 8, and beyond the countries currently engaged, the work will also develop programmes for education in social innovation.

All of this will be kick started at Social Innovation Studios, which SIX will run, bringing in leading practitioners and sector specialists to raise awareness of social innovation projects, how they work and social innovation methods (see previous workshops SIX ran in Colombia for the Government’s Centre for Social Innovation). The participants will develop their projects over three days, and selected projects will be taken to Europe to discuss with university partners and learn about SI in universities in the EC.

Latin America has its own specific challenges and universities are at the front line of many of them. Every day in universities, the very poor meet the very rich, who meet the growing middle class. They come from favelas as well as some of the most expensive land in the world. Universities in Latin America are a true melting pot, full of tension but also promise of social mobility.

Some of the universities at the centre of the LASIN project already run activities that connect with and influence communities outside their four walls; University of Antioquia (Colombia) wrote the policy on social innovation for their municipality; Universidad de Desarrollo (UDD) (Chile) has a dedicated social innovation support unit with students working in collaboration with local communities on joint projects; and the DESIS Lab has been running at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) (Brazil) over the past eight years, enabling students to have an impact on society, whilst learning design skills. The drive of all of the universities in the project to simultaneously mix teaching, research and societal impact makes this project not only extremely interesting, but also potentially extremely impactful. 

Building on SIX's existing work on developing a network node of innovative foundations, and another of innovative NGOs, we look forward to connecting the network of these leading Latin American universities to the SIX network. By connecting LASIN with SIX we will be able to accelerate the learning between the leading universities globally; we will be able to connect them to players outside traditional university networks and rebrand these universities as innovative supporters and connectors.

You can follow the progress of LASIN on the SIX website here

There are several other universities around the world doing things differently. Some of the ones we are interested in right now include: 

  • The University of Northampton in the UK are deeply committed to improving the student experience and having students work together to solve real life challenges. UoN is England’s first and only designated Ashoka Changemaker Campus and this year they will host the annual Global Changemaker Conference. Students from across the world will come together to establish teams which will work on tackling one of the UN’s sustainable development goals over the next year, e.g. collaborative working on reducing inequality. SIX is working with Northampton Student Union to design this programme.


  • Tsinghua University’s Open FIESTA Masters programme in China is leading the way in cultivating the next generation of leaders. Open FIESTA (Open Faculties for Innovation, Education, Science, Technology and Art) is co-established by Tsinghua University and CRI (the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity at Paris). With a focus on social value, global vision and entrepreneurial meta-skills, Open FIESTA aims at developing a world-leading interdisciplinary institution and a global collaborative network to collectively develop cutting-edge science, technology and methodology for future learning and innovation.


  • The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship is the first academic centre in Africa dedicated to social innovation. It is not only providing a new kind of thought leadership on the role of universities in impact investing, but also deeply embedding their activities in the communities around them. This includes establishing a lab in the public hospital and moving a campus to the middle of a township so that students are working with real life challenges in real time.