Blog 5: Fostering Creativity and Critical Thinking in Social Innovation Projects in International Development Studies
In 2018/2019, the Faculties of Social Sciences and Arts at the University of Ottawa received resources to promote social innovation initiatives on campus through the Ventures Program. Resources from this program included support for educational and pedagogical development in first and second year courses. My course (Introduction to International Development Part 2: Policy and Practice in International development) was one of the courses selected for this initiative.
The goal of the social innovation program is to foster opportunities for hands-on learning and entrepreneurial thinking to address social issues. Students are expected to develop transferable skills that will make them workforce-ready and to gain capacities they need to address complex societal challenges. In my course, we used project proposal applications and project pitches as the main outputs to demonstrate this learning.
I have often included project proposal writing as a learning tool in my courses. Proposal writing allows students to develop a range of skills that are useful for careers in international development and related fields. These skills include: researching a societal problem, documenting existing knowledge on the issue(s), and proposing a solution based on extensive research. Students are required to prepare budgets and design the strategy for conducting the research or project proposed. For this course, the new focus on social innovation was an easy transition and it was made easier with the knowledge and support of the Social Innovator in Practice who came to the class to share his experience and knowledge about social innovation (successes and failures).
In the course we covered a range of social innovation proposals and examined them through a critical lens. Societal problems are called “complex” for good reason. There are no easy solutions to poverty, social inequality, conflict or environmental disasters. The difficulty of addressing these challenges is exacerbated by lack of cultural understanding. The allure of quick fixes is, however, prevalent. Examples of problematic social innovations such as playpumps or soccket balls remind us that ‘development solutions’ need to make sense for the communities, be sustainable over the long-run, and be designed with community-based capacity-building in mind so the beneficiaries of these technologies have the skills and knowledge needed to maintain them. These examples also remind us that small-scale innovations are often band-aid solutions to much broader societal issues that require much more carefully planned development support. For example, if lack of electricity is a problem preventing children from having enough light to do their homework, then infrastructure for electricity supply should be the goal.
What I learned from this opportunity to facilitate social innovation thinking among students is that attempts to problem-solve are often the best way to reflect on the challenges and limitations of development solutions. The one thing (I hope) the students took away from this course is the need to consult widely with diverse groups, communities and development organizations and to work in collaboration with ongoing efforts to address societal problems. New ideas and fresh perspectives are always welcome. However, solving complex societal problems in international development requires strategizing with diverse stakeholders and experts.
This course has been one of the most exciting and interesting teaching opportunities I have had. Students were encouraged to think creatively and to reflect deeply on the challenges of problem-solving. They were given feedback from diverse perspectives (the course instructor and teaching assistants, the Social Innovator in Practice as well as community partners – especially through support provided by the World University Service of Canada). The students learned important skills. They prepared 3-minute presentations, designed visual presentations of their work, pitched their work to social entrepreneurs from the business community in Ottawa, and prepared substantial written proposals that were evaluated by a panel of judges.
Reflecting on the first year of teaching this social innovation course, one of the biggest concerns I have is with what appears to be an embracing of the “gig economy” and a general acceptance of the reality of precarious work. In so doing, we fail our students by limiting the discussions to how to adapt rather than why and how to react/resist. Not all societal changes should be welcomed or accepted without question. Students should be encouraged to think creatively and critically.
Several prizes were awarded to the students and I summarize some of their projects here:
Congratulations to these nine students who won prizes for their project proposals and also to the 100 other students in this course who challenged themselves to think creatively and critically about development solutions to societal problems at home and abroad.