Problem solving by helping social innovation to flourish in Scotland

Professor Cam Donaldson of Glasgow Caledonian University'. Picture: Peter Devlin
Professor Cam Donaldson of Glasgow Caledonian University'. Picture: Peter Devlin
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Everyone is claiming to be a social innovator. In part, it is the trendy thing to be. But it is also because institutions, people and communities recognise the need to do things differently; working in a more-inclusive manner for the benefit of all.

Social innovation is hard to define. Many people and entities can claim to be innovating for the social good. So, some clarity is required, especially if we wish to attract regulatory attention and government resources to support social innovation.

As the University for the Common Good, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) fosters an environment in which students and staff support and involve themselves in actions to meet major societal challenges. This was exemplified in 2012 by the installation of Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus as GCU’s Chancellor.

To us, social innovation involves entities being driven by a social, rather than profit-based, purpose to meet the needs of society in addressing various aspects of social vulnerability, such as poverty, ill-health, social isolation and climate change. Therefore, in support of the university’s overall mission, GCU’s research strategy is based on the pursuit of people living healthy lives in inclusive societies and sustainable environments.

These research themes address issues of international significance but have also been devised with our local communities in mind.

For example, in 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that the difference in male life expectancy between the best and worst-off areas of Glasgow was 28 years. This is matched by enduring problems of poverty; with a quarter of Glasgow’s population defined as deprived.

Such inequalities have persevered alongside the development of what is, by any international standards, a world-class national health service. This implies that public health initiatives focusing on individual risk factors, such as diet or exercise, need to be complemented by interventions acting further back along the chain of causality.

If low income, societal exclusion and hopelessness kill people prematurely, then we need to go ‘upstream’ to devise and evaluate more-holistic interventions that come from communities themselves. Such initiatives do not even have to be health-focused. Through addressing the ‘causes of the causes’, most socially-purposed organisations act on determinants of health.

Based on this notion, and named in Professor Yunus’ honour, our Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health was established in 2010 and has become an exemplar of our social innovation research agenda.

In six years, this centre has recruited 35 staff and PhD students based on £4.5m of research funding from various sources such as the Medial Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government.

GCU’s Yunus Centre evaluates the impact of social innovations such as microcredit and social enterprise. For example, Grameen in the UK, the micro-lending initiative facilitated by the university, offers small loans to new start-ups and existing small businesses currently not served by any financial services, encour aging individuals’ economic and personal development and that of their family and community.

Through a unique diary-based system of data collection, researchers in the centre are following the financial lives of some of the first borrowers and other low-income people in Glasgow, and through that, assessing the impact of microcredit initiatives.

However, we are looking further than finances, by examination of whether involvement in such schemes enhances things like self-esteem and, through that, health and wellbeing.

CommonHealth, another significant collaborative research project, aims to develop methods to evaluate new pathways to health improvement in vulnerable communities via social enterprise. Social enterprises do more than trade for a social purpose; unlike conventional business, ‘profit’ from trading is reinvested in line with their mission.

According the last census of social enterprise in 2015, Scotland is home to over 5000 of these organisations, creating a combined annual income of £3.63billion and supporting 112,409 jobs.

In this five-year programme of research, CommonHealth is working with several social enterprises from Shetland to the border and from east to west coasts. Again, we are exploring the thesis of how and to what extent their addressing various aspects of social vulnerability means that such socially-purposed organisations can be portrayed as acting on determinants of health.

The university is part of a community of institutions which models campus-wide excellence in social innovation. We are Scotland’s first Ashoka U Changemaker Campus in recognition of our achievement in driving forward social innovation. GCU recently hosted the 8th International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC) - the world’s largest academic conference on the subject - bringing more than 230 experts in social innovation from 33 different countries together to focus on social innovation in the 21st Century.

At GCU, we believe social innovation flourishes when people from different backgrounds and experiences come together to produce new ideas and initiatives, and so we will continue to build on our global reputation in promoting social innovation through our teaching, research and community engagement.

Professor Cam Donaldson, Yunus is chair in Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University