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Social innovation and academia: Who?
people and personalities

This is the third in a series of blogs which explore the relationship between social innovation and academia, and the ability to bridge these gaps in order to challenge institutional purposes and logics, rethinking and reacting academia’s societal impact and to understand how the transformations in academia are social innovations themselves.

Exploring the why, the how and the who the blog series will put forward insights drawing on the work and engagements of the Social Innovation Community’s Academic-led Innovation Network. The network has been operating across the EU and both inside and in collaboration with academia for the last three years.

Who are the social innovators in Academia?

-why they all matter and how you spot them from an outside perspective

A friend asked me:

“Well, aren’t those ‘gatherings’ not just all about the people who join? About them having a great time and less about the services they are trying to change, and the real reason why they are there?”

I thought about it and agreed to a certain extent. It is about the people. But we should be curious about this statement. The fact that we can attract people, when it speaks to their personal beliefs and interests. When they are motivated as individuals. Change often starts with the people who want it, who get excited about it, and engaged with it. If we do not focus on the individual drivers and their personal attachment and engagement, then how can we expect real change?  

If we truly are working toward system change, then we must pay attention to all the parts enabling system change: elements, interactions and commonly identified needs.

People’s power and actions are evident and essential in all of these three parts. These parts are what systems scholar Donella Meadows argues guides people’s motivation and lead to the realisation of systems change.

With this interest in mind, I started to go reflect on the more or less decade that I’ve spent working with academia’s transformative change (from within and outside academia). Here, I will provide a suggestion for how one might understand the personalities, which are occurring and are driving a new era of more socially innovative universities and academia.

My argument is that there are certain people, which come to mind as ‘agents of embodied social innovation’. I have tried to capture some of their personality attributes, and what drives them. Often a person can hold several of the personality attributes, or can move through the different personality stages to have different focuses. Bear in mind that the following are first thoughts, which need more careful consideration to become a useful framework to understand this transformative person-driven change in academia.  


Personalities of Social Innovation in Academia

The open-minded networker -  the person who says “I want to learn”

The creative - the person who says “I want to try out”

The change maker – the person who says “I can lead the change”

The committed – the person who says “ I will make it happen”

The protector - the person who says “I will identify it”

The storyteller – the person who says “I will share it, I will tell the story”


The open-minded networker
The open-minded networker is characterised by having an explorative attitude and being curious about what they don’t know. The person is interested in learning, and seeing things from new and different perspectives. The person is not necessarily satisfied with the existing practice, but can be persuaded that there are other ways or additional ways to approach things, and is willing to try this out. The open-minded networker is often found at different conferences that are a bit unexpected for their field. The person is independent and doesn’t mind being out of their comfort zone or prioritising time on these activities. The open-minded networker is where new learning and inspiration take place. This is the person who catches new connections, ideas, learnings and brings them back to their daily work to spark change.

The creative
The creative is eager to try new things out. When introduced to new models, methods and strategies, the creative would like to test it - particularly ideas that warrant a creative flair.The person finds motivation and guidance in alternative thinking and gets excited about exploring ideas that some might find unthinkable.Different from the open-minded networker, the creative is more focused on the approach itself and the technique behind it. The person often ‘falls in love’ with certain methods or ideas, and seeks to try them out. Where the open-minded networker can be persuaded, the creative explores their own experimentation and ideas.

The change maker
The change maker is often the main leading figure of the change process. Determined that change can happen, the person is energised by taking the first ideas of change further within an institution, and making the first waves with initiating and implementing new ideas. With this attitude and determination, this helps things happen in the first place. The change maker is not afraid to stand up and speak out loud about finding different ways of doing things. The person is a risk taker and is able to make others  trust him/her. In this way, there is an element of the ‘salesperson’ or ‘pitcher’ in the changemaker, who also is confident to lead.

The committed
The committed can seem similar to the change maker, but isn’t exactly. Whereas the change maker is the person who runs with the ball in the beginning and convinces the team, colleague, department, or management that this is the direction they should go in, the committed is the one that stays committed even when the initial fun and excitement might go away. The person continues their commitment and when it has been decided that something new and/or different should be tried and implemented, this person has the capacity to make it happen and will stick to the challenge to the end. The changemaker and the committed is often the same person, but not always. Sometimes the changemaker loses their focus and falls in love with another idea, so someone to see the change through is essential. This person often tends to be in an administrative or management role.

The protector
The protector is a special character in terms of understanding how social innovation is being acted out as a practice in academia. The protector often holds a professionally proud personality. Potentially the person is experienced and has a longer track record and insights from the field, which feeds the ‘protectionism’. It could be a professor or a head of management of some kind. The protector is not resistant to change as such, but finds that it is important to connect the change to the current practice of academia. This means that the person does what they can to connect the new ideas to something that is already rooted in the practice of ‘academia’ itself, or at least linked to it. In this way, the protector helps makes the change possible, as they connect what might be different and external to something internal that already exists.

The storyteller
The storyteller is the one who shares and documents what is going on. The person is keen to connect with the outside world and uses mediums like Twitter, Medium and The conversation to share research. The person might also use the storytelling and sharing motivation for more internal actions. He or she will be passionate about letting colleagues and friends in academia know about the change process, new initiative or idea and how this has been tackled, how great it was and what is now to be seen. The person would maybe use external connections or communication to highlight successes and to strengthen legitimacy, which could be through sharing articles written on ‘new ways academia have impact’, for example. This person celebrates change by sharing it with others. On the other hand, the storyteller can also be the person who points to the problems and shares them with the world, in order to initiate external responses, and in this way they become an ambassador of change.


Why building the field of social innovation needs more of these roles

The personas above have only been explained simply and without real life stories attached, as space and time didn’t allow for it at this point.

The personalities are some we meet again and again in different settings. But they are not necessarily all in play at any given time within the same academic institution. Therefore, social innovators in academia tend to feel lonely. We need to better understand what mindsets and skills are present within academica, and from an outside perspective what we can do to support their change practice.

Do you have examples and insights to help build this understanding, with the view of eventually creating a framework for change? Do get in touch via