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Five ways universities are organising themselves to increase societal impact

Author: Julie Munk, So Jung Rim & Louise Pulford
Published Date: 12 September 2017

Introduction - What are universities for?


For many, universities and higher educational institutions continue to be viewed as elitist and isolated institutions, with little connection to the society, communities and organisations around them. Indeed, universities are large, bureaucratic organisations, and many still operate in this stereotyped ‘traditional’ way. However, at a time when the challenges facing society are increasing in scale and complexity, traditional institutions, from banks to the public service to NGOs, have begun reviewing their roles, in an effort to be more collaborative. Universities are no different.

Aside from the major responsibility of education and knowledge, what purpose do universities serve? Many academic institutions around world are beginning to recognise their role in creating political, economic and social value, as well as their ability to become an ‘embedded brain’ within society. The vast resources, research capabilities and connections which universities hold can foster, promote, and lead social innovation globally.

There are multiple ways for this to be achieved. There are several approaches to leverage their social innovation power, from the way they organise themselves internally, to the way they collaborate with each other and other actors. Whether it be business schools or labs, we are seeing universities experimenting with and changing the usual ways of working. At SIX we argue that a new era of universities for social innovation is emerging globally.

Below we have identified 5 ways that universities are embracing social innovation. We call them new ways of organising. Under each, we have provided cases in which new approaches are being operationalised and tested. This article is not designed to be an in-depth, comprehensive study. Rather, it is a high-level scan of global examples.



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