Social innovation and researchers at Southampton Solent #SSURE13

social innovation
Key words and phrase around social innovation

On Tuesday of this week I attended the Research and Enterprise Conference held at Southampton Solent University (#SSURE13). I had been invited to speak on social innovation, enterprise and researchers based on some of my previous work in this area. It was nice to be asked to contribute my thoughts on the topic, recognition I suppose for the enthusiasm I have for social innovation and how researchers can contribute to that agenda.

This was the programme for the day.

I had a mixed audience comprising of doctoral students, academics and professional support staff and so I tried to cover what I believe to be important to the success of researchers. The slides I used to support my talk are embedded below.

I started out by introducing a few of the phrases that I was going to cover – about half of the audience had heard of the term “social enterprise” and only a minority had an understanding of the term “social innovation“. I also talked a bit about what I think is important both personally (what I stand for) and professionally (who I am). I then highlighted the important outcome of a doctoral degree, that of a skilled researcher. I argued that most of the skills acquired by researchers occur as a natural consequence of working on a research project and that the role of skills developers like myself was to help researchers to understand what is happening to them, to encourage them to recognise the importance of this development and to find a vocabulary to communicate this to others. The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is a useful tool to help researchers contextualise this development journey.

I then focussed on the development of enterprise skills with doctoral researchers – how the typical stereotype of a researcher is one of a lack of commercial awareness, a naivety with respect to how private sector organisations operate. I suggested that this is an unfair representation of the state of play, more that researchers do understand profit maximising business models but are just not inspired by that approach and are motivated by other factors.

I believe that most researchers are motivated by their research endeavours, to make a contribution to the body of knowledge, to generate new ideas that make some sort of difference to the world in which we live. Rarely are researchers motivated by being rich and famous! This led me to talk about why I believe that social enterprise is a pretty good vehicle to engage researchers with the idea that generation of profit is not necessarily a bad thing, that different models of business can generate social value and make that all important difference to society. I used this video, “Society Profits”, produced by Social Enterprise UK to illustrate my point.

I talked about a number of social enterprises, briefly explaining the business model behind each one: Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Restaurant, The Eden Project, Divine Chocolate, The Big Issue, Give Me Tap and a social enterprise in Southampton Who Made Your Pants.

It has been said that the key criteria for success in social enterprise are Resources, Expertise, Passion, and Contribution. My experience of talking to many social entrepreneurs is that the Passion and the motivation to make the Contribution are the key drivers to making the “social” bit of the social enterprise work and that the skills, expertise and general nous about how to run a business are things that can be learned if not already known. It is for this reason that I think researchers would be well placed to start a social enterprise should they choose to.

I then moved on to explain that social enterprise is just one way of tackling some of the social/environmental problems we face and that it is one strand of a much larger concept, social innovation. I started by talking about Professor Muhammad Yunus and the journey he started in the 1970s that began the microfinance movement. I used the following video to support that…

Social innovation isn’t new, it is a concept that has been around for quite some time although I believe that the term and the challenges we face as a society have brought about a renewed interest and explosion of activity. I used one (of many) definitions of social innovation to make a point about the place that researchers and universities have in this endeavour.

innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations whose primary purposes are social. [Social Innovation: What it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated]

Therefore, I posit that universities are indeed organisations whose primary purposes are social and that the research undertaken within is inherently motivated by the goal of meeting a social need. Research is a key strand of social innovation and, more importantly, researchers have a valuable set of skills, knowledge, attributes to bring to the table in collaboration with others in order to tackle the grand challenges.

I talked a little about how the common features of contemporary social innovation are important to understand:- (full source paper here)

  • Cross-sectoral
  • Open and collaborative
  • Grassroots and bottom-up
  • Pro-sumption and co-production
  • Mutualism
  • Creates new roles and relationships
  • Better use of assets and resources
  • Develops assets and capabilities

This ties in neatly with the approaches that universities and researchers need to adopt to tackle the grand challenges – I used the cross council priorities from the UK Research Councils to illustrate with a particular nod to the Lifelong health and wellbeing priority.

I ended my talk by referring back to the quote from Peter Drucker …

The problem in my life and other people’s lives is not the absence of knowing what to do, but the absence of doing it.

Researchers are often not short of great ideas, they are fantastic problem solvers. Though sometimes, just sometimes, we need to be reminded that we have to implement the ideas to make that difference in society.

Further links/resources

Vitae – National organisation supporting the skills development of researchers http://www.vitae.ac.uk/

Social Enterprise UK – National organisation promoting social enterprise http://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/

Development resources for researchers on social enterprise UWE, Bristol/Vitae http://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy-practice/352301/Social-Enterprise.html

HEFCE/UNLTD Support for Social Enterprise Start up in Universities http://unltd.org.uk/hefce/

Guardian Social Enterprise Network http://socialenterprise.guardian.co.uk/

Pioneers Post – A web magazine for social innovation/enterprise http://www.pioneerspost.com/
Social Innovation Europe – Europe wide resource for social innovation https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/socialinnovationeurope/
Social Innovation Exchange – A global network for those interest in social innovation http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/

Researcher Skills

Paul Spencer View All →

I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.

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