Greater value than money

Innovation oughtn't mean just profit-making technology - there is a subtler, social sort, explains Nick Petford

June 28, 2012

Someone told me recently that there is a correlation between economic recession and the frequency of the use of the word "innovation". The correlation is a positive one. I have no idea if it is true, or even how you could find out, but I suspect there could be something in it. Once you start looking, "innovation" crops up everywhere, sprinkled like confetti in print and broadcast media, blogs and, of course, on the professional workshop circuit, where people make a living telling others how to achieve it.

I don't mean to criticise - I refer to it several times in my introduction to the University of Northampton's latest annual review. But what exactly is "innovation"?

There is certainly no shortage of innovation-support organisations working for and within the higher education sector, the Technology Strategy Board among them. Their help and guidance notwithstanding, one thing these organisations and many others seem to share is a sense that innovation is synonymous with technology. This is short-sighted.

In essence, innovation is new thinking that creates value. It is true that technical innovations tend to be ones people will pay for (the iPhone being a prime example). Social innovation is more subtle, but it creates value through longer-term benefits to society that are not immediately commercial.

Technological innovation linking universities to commerce through research and development is a critical component of the UK's future growth. But social innovation is equally important, not least in the aftermath of recent "innovation" in the financial sector. (Need I say more?)

In addition, industry research and contract income from commercial companies and public corporations to UK higher education institutions fell from 1.4 per cent to 1.1 per cent of total income between 2006-07 and 2010-11. The recession can't have helped.

At Northampton, we are trying to buck the trend and shift the focus from technological innovation (widgets) to values-based innovation that aims to tackle social problems. Social innovation is certainly not new, but focusing on this area does offer a path of differentiation for universities that are not heavily science-based but are keen to innovate in ways that play to their strengths.

As recently reported in Times Higher Education ("Put services cash to good use, sector told", News, 7 June), Northampton has identified a major opportunity for universities collectively to promote social innovation in the UK through our £1 Billion University Challenge. Through this project, we hope that the academy will pledge £1 billion of the £7 billion it spends on procurement in support of buying goods and services from social enterprises, many of them small- and medium-sized businesses.

Buying from social enterprise suppliers makes sense on several levels. Effectively, it means that the sector gets two for the price of one: universities get the product or service they require and at the same time do something of social value. This is a win-win.

One of Northampton's social enterprise partners, Goodwill Solutions, supplies us with office furniture. Every time we buy a desk, we help Goodwill to continue to employ ex-offenders, contributing to a reduction in recidivism locally.

This is just one small example of what can be achieved - and others should pick up the gauntlet.

The challenge we have issued also encourages universities to hold up a mirror to themselves and consider where, in their day-to-day running, does meaningful innovation take place.

Do we see much wholesale structural and cultural innovation in universities, innovation that reaches from governance through to faculty and administrative functions, innovation that enriches the student experience? Hardly. True innovation on this scale is likely to be driven by entrants to the sector. The response of universities to this competitive challenge could be the biggest test of their capacity to innovate yet.

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