so·cial in·no·va·tion, n. (part 2)

by Alan Harlam, Lizzie Pollock
February 12, 2014

In a three-part blog series, we ask members of the Brown community to answer the question: “What does social innovation mean to you?” The Director and Assistant Director of the Social Innovation Initiative, Alan Harlam and Lizzie Pollock, provide our second definition below.

On a regular basis, each of us will find ourselves stopping in the middle of a busy day and thinking, “Wow. I have the best job in the world.” This little ego boost is in part due to our amazing colleagues at the Swearer Center and impressive credentials as employees of one of the finest higher education institutions in the world; but most of it is because of the inspiration we derive from our interactions with Brown’s students, faculty, and alumni.

Students who come through our office doors are passionate about social change. They see problems in the world – problems they have witnessed in their communities back home, while volunteering through Swearer Center programs in Providence, or during their travels and internships during summers or semesters abroad. And instead of being satisfied just learning about these problems - their roots and their implications - these students are seeking tools and resources to make meaningful, lasting change.

That’s where our definition of social innovation comes in: we believe in exploring and building transformative solutions to our world's most complex problems. This might mean applying an existing solution to a new problem. Or it might be coming up with a totally new idea to address an issue. At the core of what we believe, however, is that regardless of what type of solution the student develops, they must have a deep and robust understanding of the problem from the perspective of the people who experience it.

So how do we teach this stuff? The truth is, we can’t. Not all of it anyway, and not alone. We are lucky to exist at a university filled with bright minds and engaged learners who take every opportunity that comes their way, and who make the most of those opportunities. We advise students to start with an issue – what do they care about most deeply? – and then immerse themselves in that issue, both in the classroom and in the world. If a student has an idea for a solution, we help them find resources to explore its viability and potential for impact. If a student wants to build knowledge of how others have solved similar problems, and is interested in building a toolkit of approaches to sustainable social change, we guide them towards courses and concentrations that will can teach them. If a student wants to volunteer with a group, we point them to great student-run ventures like Brown Marketshares, MED International, the Student Language Exchange, and Common Sense Action, or groups that investigate social innovation more broadly like A Better World by Design, Design for America, or SEEED@Brown.

Every year – every month! – more and more students walk through our doors asking for guidance, advice, and connections. And keep reminding us why we have the best jobs in the world.