Universities and society – systems thinking for social innovation

Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) Conference on University Engagement 2013 
Blog series – Fourth post 

Frameworks and Structures to Enable Engagement
The third day of the GUNI Conference commenced with a stimulating panel discussion on political structures and frameworks that enable engagement. Paul Manners, Director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, chaired a panel of passionate but level-headed and renowned engagement experts, Maria Nieves Tapia from Argentina, Paul Benneworth from the Netherlands and Andrew Petter, from Canada.

Tapia who founded CLAYYS, an 80 organisation strong Service Learning network across Latin America, set the tone by emphasising that people, networks and imagination are more important than finance in enabling effective and cohesive engagement. She called for universities to show solidarity with those outside academe, and to recognise ‘the other’ as equal; CLAYYS work in Argentina has shown how HE can be tremendously effective in empowering vulnerable people.

Benneworth, who was a key contributor to a major UK research programme on the impact of HEIs on their regional economies, continued the theme by calling for an improved understanding in HE of the social innovation ecosystem. ‘World class’ universities can all too easily marginalise large parts of society.

He noted how funding and support in technological innovation has actually been useful in driving change in practices, but much more could be achieved if such resources and ideas were applied to social innovation. Echoing a theme that grew in importance over the conference, he advised an end to the polarisation between business engagement and community engagement; it would be more beneficial to join these activities closer together [as Jisc’s BCE programme does].

Benneworth advocated an approach that utilises collectives more effectively, a climate in which experimentation can flourish and failure is tolerated, and freedom from the tyranny of league tables;  ‘you don’t fatten a lamb by continuously weighing it’. To achieve sustainable change, we need more organic thinking and systems thinking.

As President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University, Andrew Petter has made it his business to put engagement at the core of the university’s identity. He noted that the time is ripe to do this: there is widespread public support for universities to have a bigger role in society. Observing that in the west universities have tended to serve rather than challenge the established hierarchies, Petter asserted that in fact we need to challenge the notion that the ivory tower is the only authority on disciplinary knowledge.

There is a danger of the ivory tower magnanimously bestowing its knowledge on those outside academe; ‘this is not engagement’, Petter remarked emphatically. He described how Simon Fraser University (SFU) had brought the campus to the community rather than the other way around, and in so doing is playing a key role in revitalising Vancouver. Delegates were shown an animation which describes the vision of the engaged university, which is accessible on this page:

Simon Fraser University Engagement screenshot

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