The Socially Innovative Researcher

Social Innovation word cloudRecently I directed a course entitled “The Socially Innovative Researcher” in the Chancellors Conference Centre in Manchester. I was joined by a team of experienced colleagues from the University of Manchester (Dr Jim Boran, Dr Lynn Clark, Dr Emily McIntosh & Elizabeth Wilkinson) and the wider Vitae network (Dr Chris Russell, Dr Nathan Ryder & Janet Wilkinson) as well as some inspirational visiting speakers (thank you Andrew Thorp and Phil Tulba) to help me deliver aspects of the course and guide the participants through the programme.

This course was designed to help researchers understand more about social innovation and social entrepreneurship. These are relatively new terms to describe the discovery or generation of new ideas that work to solve social and/or environmental challenges. It is important to raise awareness of social innovation because I believe that social innovation is probably the most important factor in meeting the economic and social challenges of the future.

So why run a course about social innovation with academic researchers? I’ve got form in this area having co-produced development materials aimed at researchers on the topic of social enterprise, a short course designed to raise awareness of social enterprise, a different way of doing business. I know that some folks have heard of social enterprise but don’t really understand how it works, this article from the Guardian this week highlights the issue. In the UK and Europe, there are lots of organisations promoting social enterprise as an alternative way of creating sustainable ventures that deliver social change and there is a particular push for universities through schemes such as the social entrepreneurship awards offered by HEFCE and UnLtd.

However, for this particular course I decided to broaden the theme to social innovation because I believe that research is a pivotal strand of social innovation – researchers are fantastic at generating new ideas to tackle problems that society faces and are generally motivated by a desire to make a difference in society.  I used the prezi below to set out my vision for the course.

One of the most inspiring people I have read about is Muhammad Yunus, a former academic who proposed and implemented a socially innovative solution to help poor women in Bangladesh start their own businesses. The following video takes up the story and gives an overview of social entrepreneurship…

The theme of the course is encapsulated by a quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I like this, it resonates strongly with my experience within academia, most researchers are passionate about what they do- they want to see their ideas make an impact in the world.

I decided to divide the course into themes covering motivations and values on day 1, creative problem solving and social impact on day 2 with the final day being about putting ideas into action. Here’s the programme that covers all that!

Day 1 – Motivations & Values

The thinking behind this theme for the day was to test the assertion that researchers are not motivated by fame and fortune; that there is a more altruistic driver behind this career choice. The following quotes sum up the day.

“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people” – W B Yeats

The first session focussed on communicating research in an authentic way. I like to use a model proposed by Simon Sinek, Start with why, because I think it works really well for the academic environment. I’ve written a fuller explanation here. The slides used in this session are below:

The afternoon session designed to explore the motivations and values of researchers, to think about what drives us to do what we do. Dr Lynn Clark facilitated this fascinating session and introduced a model that helps to focus on the positives; appreciative enquiry. The theme that resonated for me was her assertion that “diversity managed well leads to innovation”; here are her slides.

The first guest speaker for the programme was Andrew Thorp from MoJoyourbusiness who talked about the power of using stories to convey authenticity and purpose. What I liked about Andrew’s presentation is that he recapped many of the concepts explored earlier in the day with a slightly different perspective. His presentation is below…

I did film Andrew’s presentation but managed to overwrite the file (I had a rare technological disaster!). However, here is Andrew talking about similar themes in another interview.

Day 2 – Creative problem solving

This theme was reflect the changing nature of research, more research is inter disciplinary, more of our grand challenges require different perspectives and points of view to generate the kinds of sustainable solutions that are required. It is sometimes difficult to see this wider picture when immersed in the gritty details of our research. The following quotes sum up the day…

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” – Albert Einstein

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” – Linus Pauling

Day 2 started with a recap of the course so far and I showed two videos to join days 1 & 2 together. The first is by Steven Addis and was selected because of the nature of the story behind the pictures – how powerful it was that these were not just moments in time but a record of changing perspectives.

The second short video used was by Derek Sivers, for me it represented how easy it is for us to take our own perspectives of things for granted as being the way things are.

The first session of the day was introduced by Dr Chris Russell, from ThinkInspireCreate, to take the participants through a model of the creative process purportedly used by Walt Disney – Dreamer, Realist, Critic using some of the current affairs on the news that day. This was a good warm up exercise for researchers, many of whom are much more comfortable taking the role of critically appraising others ideas, by using topics that were not necessarily anything to do with research.

This led to the main exercise of the morning, led by Dr Jim Boran, to generate some research proposals/questions around a grand challenge of an ageing population using a process called the Research Sandpit. This is an intensive process often used by the UK Research Councils to generate interdisciplinary research ideas that are funded in response to broad areas of interest.

Here’s a prezi that summarises the activity.

After lunch was to take the outputs generated from the morning activity to explore the potential impact and the resources needed to achieve that. This is absolutely vital in preparing research proposals for funders who will want applicants to map out The pathways to impact of the work that they hope to undertake, they will want you to demonstrate that you have accounted for the necessary resources to deliver on the project. The impact of potential solutions are also critical to social innovation, no good having an idea if it doesn’t achieve any kind of change. The session was facilitated by Janet Wilkinson from ThreeTimesThree using a a moveable mind mapping tool called Ketso (itself a socially innovative idea from academia) to help participants to interrogate their plans, to pose the right sorts of questions to identify areas for further scrutiny.

The second invited speaker was Phil Tulba, a social entrepreneur, to talk through a number of key concepts that are important in achieving social change using Adrenaline Alley as an example. The prezi that Phil used is below.

And here is the video of Phil explaining all…

Day 3 – Putting ideas into action

The idea behind day 3 was to draw all of the concepts explored thus far and bring them together in an activity that was designed to raise awareness of a different way of doing business, social enterprise. It is often said of researchers that they are not aware of how business operates and/or they lack the commercial awareness to see their ideas implemented in wider society. I think this is disingenuous, I believe that most researchers are all too aware of how business operates, they are just not inspired by it so pay it little attention. The purpose of this exercise was to show researchers that not all business is counter productive to good research. The following quotes inspired the approach for the day.

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

“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.” – Peter Drucker

To recap and to point to the activities of the day I showed a short video about doing, “The Path of a Doer” from the Do Lectures.

The morning session was focussed on generating socially innovative ideas in different setting to that of research, to consider ideas that could feasibly be launched as sustainable ventures. The skills, competencies, attributes and behavious that we explored on the previous two days all come into play in this exercise by bringing like minded individuals together to develop an idea. It was facilitated by Dr Nathan Ryder, a freelance consultant in the field of researcher development.

As part of this exercise, a video was shown of some social entrepreneurs who explain more about social enterprise and how it can help to change things.

The slides for the presentation used in this session can be found below.

The last session of the day was designed to provide participants with an overview of the practical steps of taking an idea from a concept through to a full proposal, in other words how to make things happen. Dr Rick Watson from NovoModo and David Smith from InnovationWorks in partnership with the University of Manchester Innovation Group (UMI3) gave a quick tour of a toolkit they call the Social Enterprise Brief Case to assist academic researchers to take their ideas forward. Details of the scheme they are promoting were circulated via e-mail to the participants.

Further resources

A number of participants wanted some further links to the background information and books referred to that underpinned this course, here’s a list:-

One or two folks commented on the eclectic range of music that emanated from my laptop during the three days:- for those interested here’s an approximate playlist on spotify 


3 thoughts on “The Socially Innovative Researcher

  1. Pingback: Social innovation and researchers at Southampton Solent #SSURE13 | The Digitally Connected Researcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s