February 5, 2014

so·cial in·no·va·tion, n.

by Christina Paxson

In a three-part blog series, we ask members of the Brown community to answer the question: “What does social innovation mean to you?” President Christina Paxson kicks off the series with her recipe for social innovation.

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People often use the term social entrepreneur or social innovator to describe an individual with a breakthrough idea for social change. But what does it mean for the university itself to be a social innovator?

Here at Brown I believe we have the three key ingredients of a social innovator: imagination, a passion for making a difference in the world, and a culture of collaboration.

There is a spirit of imagination that runs deep in our community. Our open curriculum flips the traditional structure inside out and encourages students to think critically about not only their course selection, but the bigger story. What is my vision for my education? How will it change, challenge, or open up new ways of knowing? We celebrate these questions and attract individuals with the curiosity, creativity, and courage to explore them. What this creates is an institution protected against complacency, with the ideas and imperative to dream.

We believe in research and education that engage and strengthen the community. Each must inform and improve the other. The Engaged Scholars, a group of faculty convened by the Swearer Center for Public Service, strengthen opportunities for scholarship - teaching and research - that benefits local and global communities. This month we also welcome the fifth class of Social Innovation Fellows - a group of 15-20 students who build social ventures in the community alongside intensive skills training and coursework. We understand that classrooms don’t always have four walls, and students flourish by engaging with the world beyond Brown, whether at D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville or a health clinic in Zanzibar. Because when academic and real-world experiences mix, we all discover new ways to listen, learn, and grow.

Finally, we value the voices of students, faculty, and community members equally. Collaboration doesn’t mean informing others; it’s including them in every step of the process. The TRI-Lab at Brown provides such a space for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and community practitioners to dive deeply into a social topic through a year-long seminar, programs, and work groups focused on developing concrete next steps from their collective learning. Together they have asked questions, identified challenges, and explored solutions to the issue of healthy early childhood development in Rhode Island. A truly collaborative and interdisciplinary approach helps us both understand one another and make our work stronger.

The bottom line: social innovation is made possible when we advance our mission through the ideals of imagination, impact, and collaboration that define Brown. With this strong foundation, we can take important steps forward in working together in fulfillment of our mission to serve our community, the nation, and the world.

Later this month, Brown will host the Ashoka U Exchange, which will convene 650 students, university leaders, faculty, and entrepreneurs from over 150 institutions and 20 countries together to explore social innovation in higher education. The theme of this year’s conference is “The New Scholar” - a way to explore both the possibilities for new knowledge creation as well as the collective identity of students, faculty, and practitioners who will apply this knowledge to address global challenges. Learn more.

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