Social innovation and academia: Why?

How social innovation exists and coexists with academia: the people and the practice

“In the future, I will always bring a journalist and designer into the beginning and throughout  my research projects”. … the female Associate Professor looks confidently around the crowd, and all are nodding their heads.

In dialogues we get to experience the small signs which indicate a change of mindset, a new form of openness or a strengthened awareness of what we see and what we do.

We wanted to tap into this opportunity with the curiosity of how social innovation exists and co-exists in academia, and how to bridge academia and practice. And so the Social Innovation Community hosted two dialogue based and actor focused workshops at key social innovation in academia events taking place in Europe recently. Both workshops brought together people involved with social innovation inside academia, and actors and organisations working with academia from an outside perspective.

The thoughts shared echoed experiences which we hear again and again from actors globally. The researchers were saying “I am wondering, how do you actually find my work? Do you have access?” and “I feel excluded from the world of social innovation’, but I am trying to make change’.

In response, non-academics said: “when academia is organised and designed as institutions divided in departments and schools, and there is no such thing as a social innovation department, it is difficult to find the people to connect with.”

These points may sound fairly routine, but they should not be. They should be addressed, and though we see development and progress, the obstacles for bridging academia and practice are still huge. Unlike many other sectors, academia is under less pressure to ‘rethink’ their own practice.

As Geoff Mulgan writes: “Universities are centres for research on many topics. Yet although universities are good at applying the principles of research and development to other fields, there appears to be little, if any, systematic research and development done on the activities of universities themselves. Universities are great centres of intelligence, but less impressive as centres of intelligence about intelligence. They are good at organising learning, but not so good at learning about themselves.”  (Mulgan, Big Mind, 2018, 175)

The criteria and methods for which universities are ‘measured’ in most places are limited to research publications, peer review and academic journals – all elements which, as Mulgan points, interestingly are self-referential as they validate themselves rather than requiring external validation. Opposite many other sectors, academia has less ‘pressure’ to change.

This might be the status quo of innovation in academia, but there are voices appearing which indicate a change of awareness and mindset. SIX previously captured this by describing 5 ways universities are organising themselves to have greater impact.

Often we see these changes observed, studied and described from a more institutional, research and/or “service” (e.g. teaching) based perspective. But there is more and more evidence pointing to the need of focusing on the individual level, and the personalities that drive change from the inside.

Author(s): Julie Munk, SIX, UK

Originally published: 15 Nov 2018, on


The SIC project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693883