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The Role of Universities in Creating Social Innovation

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Natalie Wong, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum’s Oxford Union Debate.

Yesterday, the Oxford Union Debating Chamber opened its doors to Skoll World Forum delegates, Oxford students, and the public to host the first ever debate during the Skoll World Forum. With spontaneous outbursts of stomping, snapping, applause and hooting, by-passers may have wondered what was going on inside the Chamber. The lively audience had come to watch six global leaders from the public, private, and academic sectors engage in a debate on the following Proposition: “This House believes that universities lack the necessary ‘proximity’ to be effective agents of social innovation in the 21st Century.”

Over the past week, I learned from creative entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating for the benefit of the users they served. Alloysius Attah, Founder of Farmerline, shared in the Farmer-Centered Design session that by staying proximate to his farmer-users, the venture expanded their information delivery mechanism from text to voice in local languages. Coupled with my own experience of venture investing in East Africa, I was in support of the proposition at the start of the debate—how can aspiring changemakers possibly conjure up effective social innovations while being literally and/or figuratively thousands of miles away from the problems they aim to solve?

Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College, delivers her speech for the proposition.

Bill Drayton, the CEO and Chair of Ashoka, kicked the debate off with a challenging assertion, one that was reinforced and developed by Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, and Nicola Steuer, the Managing Director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Mr. Drayton proposed that universities as a system is structurally—and perhaps dangerously—broken. Their culture, organizational arrangements, and systems reinforce one another, driving them away from the capacity to contribute to innovation. Ms. Fallone added that the universities’ system prize literacy above experiential learning, which hinders the responsive thought process necessary to be a truly social innovation organization. Using the example of Bright Simon, who germinated mPedigree to leverage mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting, and diversion first in Ghana and now globally, the debaters suggested developing real solutions demands that we deal with the messiness of human beings and assume real risks. Yet, in a system where the perceived success and legitimacy of universities are reflected by rankings tied to the financial earnings of its graduates, their individual academic success, and other indicators, there is little room to promote risk-taking associated with innovation. This is particularly limiting in an age where the rate of change in innovations and global issues is increasing exponentially. Finally, Ms. Steuer concluded that universities systematically exclude far too many individuals with direct social inequities experience and are unable to connect to the people facing the greatest injustices in society. Indeed, as Ms. Fallone noted, the largest movement of real social innovation of the past came from individuals who lost themselves to be in close proximity to those they served.

Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO of Minerva Project, closes the arguement against the proposition.

In rebuttal, the opposing team, composed of Agnes Binagwaho, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Keith Magee, Senior Researcher Fellow of Culture and Justice at UCL, and Ben Nelson, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva Project, wove an argument that illustrated how universities have adapted to the changing landscape through innovation, and the vital roles universities have played and will continue to play despite their shortcomings. Using her own university as an example, Ms. Binagwaho argued that more universities are embracing pedagogies that engage students where they live, solving problems through the necessary proximity. Mr. Magee asserted that universities have blended creativity, compassion, and culture to remain as relevant agents of social change and innovation. Mr. Nelson solidified that assertion by highlighting that proximity is necessary but not sufficient—it enables students and individuals to contextualize the systematic knowledge that must be learned through institutions of higher education. Furthermore, he suggested that the proposition only required universities to be effective catalysts of change. The audience would be mistaken to confuse Oxford University, where the debate was held, as a prototypical university. In the United States, at least, the majority of students live at home, attending colleges or universities in their communities and remain proximate to the these communities’issues.

In the end, the audience decided the opposition team presented a more convincing argument, and voted against the proposition. Personally, I remain unconvinced and believe that universities indeed lack the proximity needed to be effective agents of social innovation. However, I stand with the opposition team in acknowledging the crucial roles universities play in convening and inspiring students and experts alike, holding their ideas to the highest academic integrity, and teaching skills such as systemic thinking that supplement the insufficient beneficial condition of proximity in solving world-scale problems. As Ms. Fallone quoted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[1] Universities must commit to equipping their students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers to understand the kaleidoscope of a rapidly evolving context or risk becoming irrelevant as social innovation flourishes elsewhere.

Watch the recording of the debate

[1] Alvin Toffle