Thousands of Graduates, Millions of Ideas: Preparing social innovators

Credit: Baim Hanif

Preparing graduates to be social innovators has, up to now, been a minority sport, writes University of Northampton senior lecturer and Ashoka U change leader Tim Curtis. However, with the help of the Ashoka U project, universities are learning to join forces and create solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.

Universities are creating new cohorts of positive change agents to revolutionise business, governments and charities”

Imagine a world where ideas and solutions come only from a tiny group of highly educated and powerful people. Imagine instead a world where ideas and solutions to the world’s greatest problems are being investigated and created by a huge mass of closely connected people across the whole world. In this way, Ashoka U is creating the world’s largest social innovation ideas funnel by creating a consortium of schools, colleges and universities around the world; all dedicated to creating hundreds of thousands of young people equipped with the skills and values to spot social and environmental problems, and to do something about them.

Tim Curtis
Tim Curtis

Universities are ideas machines. Every day across the world, researchers and professors are exploring social and environmental challenges and developing solutions for them. But there is a problem. The problem is the obsession with the subject. Students go to universities to study ‘subjects’- bodies of knowledge like biology, physics, or geography. Very few universities, however, research or teach the subject of problem solving. It was only really the invention of the technical or vocational university that established interest in real world topics. Up to that point, the best universities researched and taught for the sake of knowing. The 19th century established the first universities focused on solving technical or vocation problems, from bridge building to improving nursing in hospitals. But the instinct to define the university in relation to ‘subjects’ creates specialisation- a Fordism of knowledge. Researchers and professors focus on ever-smaller areas of investigation in their specialist subjects, becoming ever more divorced from their academic colleagues, and from real world problems.

In the last few decades there has been a move to break down the silos of specialisation within higher education, to create more collaborative research and to communicate that research to the public in creative and attractive ways. But there need to be further steps to develop the problem-solving skills of graduates themselves. This will enable social innovation to extend beyond the labs and classrooms, to be present in every workplace, every neighbourhood, every home. Employers have been crying out for this for a long time – LinkedIn in 2015, Bloomberg also in 2015 and Gallup in 2014 have all claimed that the topic and knowledge gained in a degree is important, but less important than the skills developed.

Universities have followed three main strategies for building skills into their educational programmes. The first is to insert skill-based learning outcomes into the modules, study units and programmes that they teach, mostly without a clear sense of what all these learning outcomes achieve. The second strategy is to create programmes about social innovation minors, electives, majors and even whole degree programmes. Not many students choose to be ‘social innovators’ as their career. The third strategy is to create business plan competitions, projects, workshops and a whole variety of cleverly named activities outside the curriculum. These are predominantly accessed by those students with plenty of time and money to over-perform on their studies, excluding the greater majority of students who have to work or care for family and community members throughout their studies. In the round, preparing graduates to be social innovators is still a minority sport.

Changing the rules

A new wave of universities are beginning to change these rules, to create a situation where every student, no matter what their degree major, will be developing the skills and experience to change the world. It is no longer sufficient for a small group of professors and high achieving students to participate in design competitions and launch a few solutions.

The world’s social and environmental problems are so great that it now requires hundreds of thousands of graduates creating millions of ideas to even begin to get to grips with the problems. Governments and NGOs alone can’t do this: every workplace and every neighbourhood needs to be equipped with the skills and integrity to identify social problems, and tackle them. This new wave involves those institutions that are committed to everyone being a changemaker, and are redesigning their whole institutions to make that happen.

Arizona State University restructured its school system to match the social problems it is trying to tackle, breaking down the disciplinary boundaries of the academics and pointing them to social and environmental challenges in the world.  The University of Northampton, in the UK, runs design thinking workshops with academics as they design a degree programme, embedding the social innovation skills directly into the programme creation.

A group of universities including Miami Dade College, and Central Queensland University in Australia, are implementing mass social innovation structures affecting thousands of students. Others, including Duke, Cornell, Babson, Northampton and Western Washington are designing new learning outcomes to create a coherent set of skills and behaviours that apply to any degree programme, but which explain how a degree in medicine creates similar leadership and creativity skills to a degree in anthropology.

These universities are creating new cohorts of positive change agents to revolutionise business, governments and charities. They are capable of spotting social and environmental inequalities and inefficiencies that everyone else takes for granted. They are able to carefully investigate and understand the root causes of those problems rather than mistakenly address the symptoms. They are able to crowdsource ideas and apply design thinking and systems thinking to the solutions, and above all they can get the solutions implemented, even if they are not in charge. They are capable of building, and running, the new economy.  They are creating the world’s largest innovation funnel designed to create positive social and environmental change

About Tim Curtis

An environmental lawyer by trade, Tim has used his problem-solving skills to help major corporations, charities, government agencies and hundreds of students at the University of Northampton to tackle complex social and environmental problems.