Social innovation at the heart of a university
During 2012 the RSA and the University of Northampton will be collaborating on a series of activities and discussions linked to social enterprise, innovative thinking and the development of socially creative solutions linked to becoming ‘a leader in social innovation’. Our first joint event (a roundtable discussion) took place on Tuesday 17 January 2012 at the University outlining our shared strategies for encouraging social change and innovation. The event was co chaired by the University’s Vice Chancellor and Matthew Taylor. The group consisted of a number of fellows from the University, other RSA fellows, colleagues from the public sector and local authorities, Simon Tucker, CEO of the Young Foundation and Allison Ogden-Newton, Chief Executive of Social Enterprise London.
The University has put social enterprise at the centre of its strategy, with ambitions to be involved with partners in developing the surrounding area as a national centre for social innovation
The University has put social enterprise at the centre of its strategy, with ambitions to be involved with partners in developing the surrounding area as a national centre for social innovation. However, what does this mean?
Inevitably if you bring together a number of people you explore different perspectives and ideas. Fundamentally the event questioned what the University was for and where does social enterprise fit within the institution – is it merely a ‘bolt on’ to an existing structure or is it about organisational change with the student at its core. This then brings you into looking at the University’s connection with its surrounding areas and how students could be involved in the wider social enterprise agenda that is slowly changing the face of the public sector.
As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions
One approach that has proved successful in generating ideas is the University’s ‘Social Entrepreneur in Residence’ (a joint project with the Young Foundation) – but has that changed the University and enhanced the student experience? On one level it has by using social media to generate ideas through the ‘We do Ideas’ initiative, but like many social enterprises this is only small scale and perhaps it has not changed the University radically, a fact that was not lost on one participant who pointed out that Universities are not really innovative and have not changed much since the 19th century. Part of the difficulty in developing the strategy may be a tension between the social and enterprise.
As an ‘Anchor Institution’ the University needs to connect with and help develop local innovation systems if the strategy is to succeed. As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions. If this is to occur the University needs to create space for people from different disciplines to come together.
Essentially we need to ask searching questions of ourselves, recognise that although we have come a long way in one year, we need to step back and ensure that our core values are at the centre of all we do and that everybody – staff and students alike are ‘signed up’ to these values; values that are articulated in the University’s strategy. It is these values that will provide the added value and the parameters for engagement with students, staff and surrounding communities.
Although the discussion posed more challenging questions, it will help us focus our strategy. This was an event that is a key element of a developing relationship with the RSA; this small event is part of our journey and the contribution of the RSA and its network of Fellows is already proving invaluable.
Chris Durkin is Associate Director, Northampton Institute of Urban Affairs at the University of Northampton.
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You can continue the conversation around this topic in the RSA Social Entrepreneurs Network online group.
For guidance and inspiration on how to organise an RSA Network meeting, see previous blog post ‘RSA Networks – how do you set one up?‘.