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SIX Global Council Ideas for the Future: A new mission for universities?

NOTE: This article was originally published on July 2, 2015 on the Social Innovation Exchange website, and has been cross-posted with permission.This article is part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future.


Universities’ defined mission has in recent decades been founded on a combination of three intrinsic elements: teaching, research and what has loosely been called knowledge exchange, the process by which universities innovate and externalize the knowledge that they generate. This latter element traditionally involves a combination of various processes including intellectual property management, spin-off creation, licensing, access to funding, entrepreneurship and consultancy. It depends on a supply chain that ‘is multi‐dimensional, it has to be sustainable, and it has to have quality, strength and resilience. These attributes can only be secured through close collaboration, partnership and understanding between business and universities.’ (
Wilson Review “A Review of Business-University Collaboration” – 2012). But if this is how universities orthodoxly support innovation, how do we support social innovation? Can universities do more to support social innovators and is there a way of structuring this support to make it more effective? Universities have certainly begun to adopt the terminology and embed it within their teaching and research programmes but how much is social innovation considered part of the third mission of universities, or should there be a fourth mission defined at an institutional level?

Back in 2010 the study on Social Innovation prepared by SIX and the
Young Foundation for the Bureau of European Policy Advisors underlined the problem: “Civil society and the grant economy have long been rich sources of social innovation, but they are not well-placed to develop rigorous methods for innovation, lack R&D capacity, and find it hard to spread risk.” The report categorized four key barriers to social innovation: Access to finance; Scaling models; Skills and formation; Networks and intermediaries. Clearly, universities represent ideal partners to help break down or at least mitigate against many of these barriers. Most importantly, they can serve as intermediaries between the subversive nature of SI and its need for institutional and political recognition. They can provide appropriate R&D for robust, empirical evaluations of the effectiveness of SI, offering an understanding of what can accelerate and scale-up SI, beyond the anecdotal. Just as technical expertise in specialized areas can support commercial businesses and give them the means to help grow and expand, the same technical expertise can be offered to social innovators. But in addition to this, Universities are providers of a range of logistical support to their community that can provide real added value to SI: through the exploitation of their tacit and codified knowledge (including Open Access); through capacity building, mentoring and training; through the use of specialized equipment; through the provision of real and virtual spaces for networking, hot-desking or more formal incubation facilities; through selection and evaluation expertise; through lobbying. Just as social innovation has existed as an ill-defined, undervalued phenomenon for decades, universities have always supported civil society through a variety of activities without necessarily being able to categorize them under a unified terminology. However, I believe there are two interrelated, fundamental characteristics of university support for social innovation that need to change: i) social innovation support activities tend to be ad hoc and largely altruistic, universities have not recognized or systemized a process to measure the social return on investment; ii) as a result, while commercial innovation is recognized and institutionally supported by well-established knowledge transfer offices, there is no professional support function within universities for supporting social innovation.

Glasgow Caledonian University is one of a number of universities attempting to develop support and expertise in a number of areas, which, in combination, help to define the institution as a socially innovative university. The central mission of the University – ‘For the Common Good’ – and the philosophies of its Chancellor, Muhammad Yunus have helped to frame an increasingly consolidated vision for supporting civil society:

  • Social Entrepreneurship: In 2014, the University was granted Changemaker Campus status by the Ashoka Foundation in recognition of its research and teaching in the field.
  • Research: The Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, has established itself as a hub for research into social innovation, and has attracted funding from major competitive sources (such as the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the European Commission and the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government’s Department of Health).
  • Brokerage: In 2013 the University’s London campus hosted the first Social Frontiers conference in collaboration with NESTA and the Young Foundation, bringing together top researchers from 17 different countries.
  • Inclusivity: The Caledonian Club, GCU’s flagship widening participation programme raises the educational aspirations of schoolchildren, their parents and guardians in the communities we serve. To date this has engaged 9000 children and 2500 parents and over a third of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Teaching: In addition to a Masters Programme in Social Business and Microfinance, all our students are encouraged to be socially entrepreneurial through our Leadership and Volunteer programmes.
  • International Development: Our activities are not just limited to Scotland. Our Grameen Caledonian College of Nursing in Bangladesh was established as a social enterprise in 2010 and in 2014 won the Unilever Global Development Award. Meanwhile, our Centre for Climate Justice works with the Mary Robinson Foundation as well as international development agencies through out the world addressing issues of gender, social equity, poverty, management of natural resources, climate induced migration and food security.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way universities approach knowledge exchange, to make it more inclusive and less dependent on closed systems of intellectual property management.


Other universities are also beginning to adopt an institutional approach to social innovation support. As funders of research and innovation activities place an increasing emphasis on social impact and explicit references to social innovation are introduced within calls (most notably from the European Commission) universities are recognizing the need to place civil society at the forefront of their activities. It presents an opportunity but also new challenges: how can universities build a meaningful relationship with social innovators that is both mutually beneficial and sustainable? There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way universities approach knowledge exchange, to make it more inclusive and less dependent on closed systems of intellectual property management. It is not just about stating a mission, but actually investing in it, and doing so in ways that still meet the conventional needs of universities, for prestigious research funding but also, now, to ensure impact from that funding. And social innovators need to recognize the potential of universities as partners and facilitators for social innovation.

Oct 31, 2017 |