Back to top

How can universities embrace social innovation -- Learning reflections from Latin America

Author: So Jung Rim
Published Date: 28 June 2017

In April and May, SIX went to four cities in Latin America, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Panama City (Panama), Bogota (Colombia) and Santiago (Chile) to run the Social Innovation Studios as part of LASIN, a project co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The 8 universities that are part of LASIN are committed to changing the role of university in the community. The universities have set up Social Innovation Supports Units (SISUs) to promote and support social innovation, bringing together the academic community, staff, students, practitioners and community organisations, indigenous, youth and women’s groups, local authorities, NGOs, SMEs and other actors in the society.

The Social Innovation Studios provided an opportunity to build a shared meaning of social innovation across disciplines and sectors, and discuss how the group can help build a new role of the university in the community.

Through our learning journeys with different universities in Latin America, we gained unique insights and reflections on how universities innovate.

University and political crisis
While we were in Brazil, cities across the country,l including Rio de Janeiro, went into shutdown as a result of the biggest general strike in 20 years. The protest was against the President’s proposed pension reforms but there was also, a complex legacy of corruption, distrust and questioning of legitimacy of the government. The streets were empty, no public transportation was running so most of the participants came to the Studio we ran, by helping each other through carsharing. There was general sense of disillusionment and anger about what was going on in Brazil and our Studio created a safe space to talk about this in an honest and sensitive way, in real time.

What role does university have in a political crisis? What role does universities have in creating a safe space to discuss the pressing issues and opening up dialogue between different perspectives? Should a university's role be challenging power dynamics in the society?

Where does innovation start?
Each university we met during our visit had a very different approach of embracing social innovation. In some universities, there was strong leadership from the top that led the organisational and operational change across the organisation. In some universities, we saw innovation agenda being driven by academics and departments that understand the theory and practice of social innovation. Some universities were very focused on creating the right physical space for innovation to flourish.

The question is not about whether top-down or bottom-up model is better, but how we make sure innovation trickles down and up the system. How do you make innovation mindset spread across university? How do you break out of little silos? How do you demonstrate impact and convince people to join in?

How can universities learn from each other?
The importance of creating a learning community of universities embracing social innovation is clear, particularly in you are in the same city, country or region. It can be a  lonely task pushing for change within your own organisation. You need friends and partners outside your own organisation who can share their own experiences so that you don’t reinvent the wheel. The connected network can also help you convince and influence people who are inside the organisation.

How can universities connect and function as “embedded brain, immersed in its society and economy, inside cities not outside, actively collaborating, a node in networks rather than just a producer of knowledge which others consume”

Nurturing future leaders of social innovation
Each Studio had a different mix of people - from young people, to professors to community leaders. We were energised and inspired particularly by all the young people who took part  from various disciplines -- from health, sports, design, business to engineering. They all shared deep curiosity and passion for social innovation. In Colombia, in particular, we were impressed by the intergenerational learning that happened throughout the workshops. The students built a very strong relationship with community leaders working with Afro Caribbean community in Colombia, through activities, arts and music.

What is the role of university in creating a space for different kinds of relationships to flourish and grow? What kind of mindset is needed for 21st century?