Commentary

Innovation Alone Won’t Fix Social Problems

David Cutler for The Chronicle

February 02, 2015

Innovation as a cure for societal ills is overrated. This is a controversial claim, but one we encourage our colleagues in higher education to ponder as our institutions seek to solve some of the world’s most pressing social problems through research, teaching, and service. The emphasis on social innovation in higher education and the social sector is ascendant; however, this current collective obsession can be an obstacle to real social change and should not be treated as a substitute for it.

We define social innovation as the development and introduction of something new, be it an idea, device, or approach, with the intent of improving the human condition and responding to crises in urban education, poverty, and public health. Across our campuses, among the most important foundation and corporate investors, and even in the government, the emphasis is on the development of the new, the novel, and not the tried and proven; the pilot is emphasized over the adaptation of an existing successful practice. The supposition is that we have not found the idea that will solve the social problem.

Examples of this flood our email inboxes daily. This past summer, the Corporation for National and Community Service announced its "Social Innovation Fund." At one of our campuses, an experiential certificate in "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" has attracted great interest from undergraduates. Small liberal-­arts colleges like Middlebury have centers for social entrepreneurship, and larger state institutions like the University of Virginia have pan-university social-­entrepreneurship efforts. Ashoka, one of the leading social-­enterprise organizations, now designates more than 20 campuses as "Changemakers." Tulane University, where civic engagement and service learning have been deeply entrenched in the curriculum since Hurricane Katrina, has a new president, Michael A. Fitts, who suggests that it is through social innovation that societal ills will be remedied:

"My goals are straightforward: to deepen Tulane’s commitment to excellence in teaching, research, and public service. This effort will not only strengthen Tulane’s position as a leading institution of higher education, but also enhance its reputation as a place where the best minds meet to seek solutions to the world’s most pressing problems through social innovation."

For the better part of the last decade, we have been telling our students that they are social, entrepreneurial agents who hold the next big idea for solving social problems. We tell them that the seed of the next cure is just buried within them. With those messages, we are creating a generation of students who view social change as synonymous with innovation, yet who are not learning the fundamental civic skills necessary for social change.

While modern civilization, the advance of society, and longevity of the human species surely rest on innovation, research, and development, social change fundamentally rests on social cooperation, political negotiation, and persistence. The real challenge is in the doing, not in the thinking up. Consider the legions of people needed to institutionalize public education; start the March of Dimes; make blood donation commonplace; and spread the Race for the Cure. Social change occurs through the ability of people to work together, rally others, compromise, and adapt. Large-scale change also undoubtedly depends on policy and financial investment, as well as on organizational leadership—and the ability to leverage and engage them all.

Related to the emphasis institutions place on social innovation is the emphasis on leadership. Often "leadership" is used to describe the entrepreneur or the one who generates the idea. Leadership in the arena of social change, however, demands much more than the idea. For example, how much innovation does it take to fund early-childhood education, something we have known for decades can make a huge difference in educational and social outcomes? Doing so is a question of political will, reordering of privilege and hierarchies, and reallocation of resources—but not necessarily of innovation.

Creating a generation of citizens capable of mobilizing a civic response is what is truly needed. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times, "When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die."

In fact, it is government funding—which requires political activity—that is often what is needed to bring successful pilots to scale. To be sure, higher education embraces its role in developing citizens, but often at the margins; that role is encompassed under our "service" mission and perhaps is considered more of a nicety than a necessity. We want students to know the world beyond their own, embody empathy, and be active citizens. But are we teaching them how to do so?

A careful examination of our curricular and cocurricular activities is warranted. Where are we teaching our students to assess community needs, as well as community assets and ideas? Where are we teaching our students (not just encouraging them) to work in groups, debate issues, compromise, use the tools of political action, and commit to a cause for the long term? Where are we teaching our students about the political and social processes and infrastructures that are necessary to make an idea a reality?

Engaged citizens know the roles of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and the tools that leverage their work together. They know how to research issues, consume the research on what works, exercise their voice to advance a solution, and apply their skills on boards and commissions and as volunteers. Imagine if we developed courses on teamwork and organizing at the rate that we have developed social-entrepreneurship courses. Imagine pedagogy where students learn how to organize movements, advocate, and lobby as well as model decision making for groups under conditions of resource scarcity. Imagine programs that involve students in helping communities research existing effective practices and plan to adopt them.

Research on the Millennial generation suggests that its members have a hard time submitting their egos to another’s, yet that is exactly what is needed. We need people willing to commit to spreading and carrying out the good ideas that exist as well as the good ideas that are yet to come. Committing comes easier when you have the civic motivation, knowledge, and skills you need.

We in higher education would do far better by our students—and by society—if we were to join, within and across our institutions, the social innovation-and-entrepreneurship movement with the values, methods, and tools of civic and political engagement.

Amanda Moore McBride is an associate professor and director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service at Washington University in St. Louis. Eric Mlyn is assistant vice provost for civic engagement at Duke University.