Reflections from the 2014 Ashoka U Exchange
The Ashoka U Exchange, affiliated with the global Ashoka network for social entrepreneurs, is a yearly conference of colleges and universities teaching social innovation. From “Changemaker Campuses” (such as Portland State University) already recognized for their efforts in the field to those just beginning to incorporate social innovation into the curriculum, the aptly-named Exchange offers just that: a way to exchange best practices and new approaches. This year marked the release of Trends in Social Innovation Education, featuring the results of a comprehensive global survey and thought-leadership pieces by authors including our own Director, Cindy Cooper. I recently returned from the conference, held in Providence, Rhode Island and Brown University, where I was struck by some of the emerging trends in the field.
Social Innovation education has exploded in popularity, with the number of offerings nearly tripling in the past five years, from almost 200 to nearly 600 worldwide. Much of this growth has been driven by student demand in programs that support their desire to make a positive impact on the world and enter careers that will allow them to do the same. The quick expansion of the field means that most universities are still developing their strategy, experimenting with different approaches, and working to identify appropriate learning outcomes.
Despite the popularity of social innovation programs among students, funding for these programs has lagged. A lack of funding was identified as the largest single challenge facing universities in this field, and anecdotal conversations at the Exchange confirmed this. Public universities and small private colleges struggle to secure endowments or grants for their work. At Portland State University, some of our programs utilize an earned-revenue strategy that enables them to be self funded, but this is relatively uncommon.
The term “social innovation” spans a vast array of approaches, from sustainability to social justice to service learning, but is linked by an emphasis on transformative innovation. Social entrepreneurship is an emerging pathway to social innovation based largely out of business schools, where tools such as design thinking, the Business Model Canvas, and the Lean Launchpad are seeing widespread adoption. Recognizing the breadth of approaches to social innovation, and organizing them under terms such as “changemaking,” has better enabled interdisciplinary approaches and community collaboration.
The biggest takeaway is that social innovation is here to stay. As an organizing principle for teaching students to become leaders and innovate around ways to make a positive impact on the world, it offers a way for practitioners and educators of diverse fields to come together in our common work of creating a better future for all. As Linda Kay Klein of Echoing Green said at the Exchange, our goal is to help students do “what is right for them, good for the world, and bold.”
By Jacen Greene
Program Manager for Social Enterprise Initiatives
School of Business Administration
Portland State University