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What is Social Innovation? Three Leading Professors Weigh In

Craig Zelizer

October 21, 2019

This article originally ran on the website of the Kroc School at the University of San Diego.

Have a conversation about what social innovation is and what it means, and the result is likely to be this — everyone's got an opinion, everyone has a definition that suits them. There's often agreement on what it is, but there's usually a slight variance on what’s said. And yet, no one is really wrong.

Case in point, two Professors of Practice in the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (Kroc School) at the University of San Diego, Juan Roche and Karen Henken, are both teaching courses in the Kroc School's Master of Arts in Social Innovation (MASI) degree program. Both provided their own definition of social innovation.

"Social Innovation is any process that develops and deploys effective solutions to systematic social problems, either to solve it or manage it to advance social progress," says Roche, who in addition to teaching a MASI course is also faculty adviser for USD's Center for Peace and Commerce, the unit that hosts the annual Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge and encourages MASI students to apply.

"Social Innovation is about creating system change. It's about disrupting unjust equilibriums that many in society believe are the norm, and can't or won't change," says Henken, who in addition to her MASI commitment also teaches social innovation, innovation and entrepreneurship workshops around the world.

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Two opinions, both professors are correct and yet both define it in a way that makes it their own. This is important because Roche and Henken are among a solid group of Kroc School professionals who bring their skillset and an approach that can fit and can adjust to a MASI cohort that can be diverse and uniquely different, but has a similar, singular approach.

One of MASI’s other top professors to offer a fresh perspective is Kroc School Associate Professor Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick. When he talks, it’s easy to see why students enjoy learning from him and get inspired. Take what he’s done from a research standpoint. He is always looking for a different angle, a new idea to solve a problem and is ready to tackle it. One of his most recent books centered on the world of slavery — from both sides of the issue — 2017’s What Slaveholders Think: How Contemporary Perpetrators Rationalize What They Do. He’s also got two books — one co-authored with USD’s Integrated Engineering Professor Gordon Hoople this year and set to be released in 2020, examines how drone technology can be used for social good.

Students listen during a Master of Arts in Social Innovation class with Kroc School professors Karen Henken, Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and Necla Tschirgi.

By bringing his own research background and approach into the classroom to share and help students with their projects, Choi-Fitzpatrick is thrilled to be teaching in the MASI program.

"I'm really excited to be part of a program that actually addresses, looks squarely in the eyes of intractable social problems and asks, 'What are we going to do about it?' MASI was designed from the ground up with that DNA. It's been incredibly refreshing to see successive ways that students come in with fresh ideas about how we can make changes that are really cognizant and aware of these intractable social problems. How do we pivot the action? Having a huge bias for action is really the only way we're going to move the needle in these spaces," he says.

Students in the MASI program seem eager to tackle the problem they want to solve, but having a Roche, a Henken, a Choi-Fitzpatrick and other faculty members to guide them, to teach them some fundamentals and open their mind to better ways to approach it is what makes MASI such a special program.

"Students really learn to be creative problem-solvers in our program," says Henken. "They learn to have a multi-dimensional perspective and approach a problem employing empathy. Much of this is based in the design-thinking tools and methods that are core to the MASI curriculum. In all of our teaching, we stress the importance of taking the point of view of the user/beneficiary/customer and what they really want and need. It's about designing solutions with the end-user in mind."

Henken cites several MASI cohort individual success stories.

"From our first cohort, Nico Darras created a training program to prevent sexual violence and sexual harassment for athletes where he's now won awards from the NCAA for his work. Bianca Alvarado launched a successful social enterprise called Baja Urban. In our second cohort, Casey Meyers and Momo Bertrand created a digital literacy program that won many awards and grants and Casey implemented it in refugee camps in Samos, Greece."

Professors are, of course, happy to see their MASI students succeed post-graduation, but there's still the joy they get from seeing students develop and connect with each other while they’re still in the program.

"MASI students come in with a range of backgrounds and they wind up learning from each other," Choi-Fitzpatrick says. "If you have someone come in that's an artist, another who does corporate consulting and somebody who just finished a stint in the Peace Corps, it's fun sometimes to just lean back and let them talk to each other. A lot of conversations look like the ones they'll have when they're in the marketplace with stakeholders who don't come from their space. We work across big differences all the time in social change spaces. I personally love that we bring a lot of heterogeneity into the classroom and end up doing a lot of learning around the table or out in the field from each other. It’s awesome."

Imagine the conversations that Kroc School MASI professors can have as well. Asked to name what their favorite social innovation is, Roche, Henken and Choi-Fitzpatrick each gave a different answer. Henken believes microfinance is one of the most powerful social innovation solutions developed. Choi-Fitzpatrick, a big fan of books, gives his vote to the printing press. And Roche is a big fan of fair trade. "I think that anything that improves the food supply chain with a social orientation has an exponential impact on people," he says.

Again, each answer is correct, even though they are different. If choosing to apply to the MASI program, perhaps the best reason to do so is that if there's a problem you want to act on, bring it with you and see how you, with the help of quality instructors, can find a solution.

At the Kroc School, we are educating for peace and social innovation. Ready to join us? Learn more about the Kroc School and its graduate programs

This is a sponsored post on PCDN. This article originally ran on the website of the Kroc School at the University of San Diego.


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