Blog Post: Starting a Social Innovation Lab on Campus, Tips from the Guelph Lab

Posted on Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Written by Sam Laban, Guelph Lab Facilitator

This article was originally posted on ReCode.

Are you interested in social innovation, or are considering starting an innovation lab on your campus? Make sure to read these few tips from CESI's Guelph Lab Facilitator Sam Laban:

Large group of people sitting at desks attentively listening to speaker

Tip #1... Consider your friends in the social sciences

In the WISIR Lab Guide, a social innovation "challenges and over time changes the rules, routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs…" in a system. The Helsinki Design Lab called this "Dark Matter" - the "organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models and other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture and national identity, the habitats, situations and events…" that shape decision-making.

But unlike actual Dark Matter (the stuff that makes up 25% of the universe but we can't see it and don't know much about it), organisational cultures, policies and habits are not imperceptible and we actually know an awful lot about them and about how to uncover them. It's these "rules and routines" that are the subject of study in the social sciences and humanities.

At the Guelph Lab, we're focused on innovation in local government, and work on topics like procurement, budgeting, and the sharing economy. But while many of the emerging campus-based Labs are located in business schools, we're based in a college of social sciences. We've worked with political scientists and sociologists, with researchers in public health, geography, and psychology. And really, who better to uncover the policies, beliefs, priorities, incentives, and concerns that drive decision making inside City Hall?

Small group of people gathered around table activity for city planning initiativesA geographer, an anthropologist, and two rural planners worked with frontline staff from Guelph's Solid Waste department.

So, if you're starting a Lab, and are trying to change systems, how will you uncover the "Dark Matter" you're actually trying to change? Perhaps a social scientist can help.

Tip #2... Find allies in engaged scholarship/civic engagement

When universities attempt to make a direct, positive impact in their community, there are practical barriers to overcome, like aligning University calendars with community timelines, as well as ethical questions to grapple with, like if your students, faculty and/or staff have sufficient knowledge of relevant local context, including issues of power, access, and privilege, to make a meaningful impact. The field of Labs and social innovation on campuses is relatively new, so these issues can feel novel. They aren't.

3 participants at a CESI event smiling and talkingIntermediary organizations know a lot about how to partner with community. (Whether that's through a Lab or any other form of engagement). Participants at a Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI) event guiding community organizations through the different ways they can access research and teaching on campus. Photo credit: Dana Bellamy, the Ontarian

The Guelph Lab is a project of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute and the vast majority of Canadian universities have similar "intermediary organizations" that have a long history of thinking about the ethics, practice and methods of community-university partnerships. These are hard-won lessons, and you can benefit from them.

"Reciprocity" is important to consider when you're engaging with a community. It also applies to Labs on campuses. These intermediary organizations know how to make reciprocity work in practice. You should talk to them.

Tip #3... Find allies in (social) entrepreneurship, but be sure to make your voice heard amongst the interest in student-led ventures (important though they are).

Universities place close attention to their economic and commercial impact. It's reflected in their agreements with the provices (the "Strategic Mandate Agreements" in Ontario for example), and it helps to explain why social entrepreneurship programming far outstrips social innovation programming on campuses in Canada.

Clearly, administrators already support (and will likely continue to support) initiatives on campus that lead to new ventures, and things that get "launched" (ideally with $). Those starting Labs, if they aren't already part of business schools, would do well forge relationships with those places on campus.

But if you're interested in changing systems (see above), student-led ventures are not the only answer. Many Labs are engaged in policy advocacy, community organizing, engaged research etc., and the metrics that might accompany these change-strategies are much harder to capture than the number of ventures launched and the amount of dollars attracted. This deeper change, which is more difficult to measure, is no less valuable.

The next round of SMAs in Ontario are being drafted right now. Wherever you are, you likely have similar agreements. If you're looking to launch a Lab that isn't focused on student-led ventures, how will your Lab fit with the metrics your administration is measured on?

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