Social innovation (SI) has gained momentum over
the last decade, spurred notably by the growing interest in social issues
related to management, entrepreneurship and public management (Cajaiba-Santana, 2014). SI can be defined as a novel activity or
organisational mode that is not, or at least not primarily, motivated by
earning profits for individuals but is primarily intended to address complex
societal challenges (Pol and Ville, 2009; McKelvey and Zaring, 2017).

 

One major debate about the role of higher education institutions
(HEIs) is the extent to which they can be directly involved in business
innovation and economic development. A study by Salter and Martin (2001)
identified six major mechanisms by which academic research can diffuse to
industry: increasing the stock of useful knowledge, educating skilled
graduates, developing new scientific instrumentation/methodologies, shaping
networks and stimulating social interaction, enhancing the capacity for
scientific and technological problem-solving and creating new firms. Another
stream of literature examines the engagement of universities with civil
society, engaging students in the local community through charity and social
work (Benson et al., 2007; Checkoway, 2001). However, universities are latterly facing new
situations and demands to provide services of relevance to society and specific
stakeholders (Deiaco et al., 2012). Little literature has looked at the role of
universities in delivering SI to
solve socio-economic and environmental problems in emerging economies (Perkmann et al., 2013;
Benneworth and Cunha, 2015; British Council, 2016; McKelvey and Zaring, 2017).

 

This paper addresses this gap by examining how universities
enhance SI in the Latin American context. The field of SI in the context of HEIs
has been analysed by selecting the Social Innovation Scientific Park (in Spanish,
Parque Científico de Innovación Social or PCIS), founded by Uniminuto University
in 2012 in Colombia to promote and support social innovation, as a case study. Since
its establishment, Uniminuto University has developed a range of SI related
programmes, aimed at addressing inequalities and social exclusion by supporting
staff and students from vulnerable and low-income backgrounds to make a
positive contribution to the communities in which they live, work and study
(Arias, 2013b).

 

In seeking to develop a good
understanding of how universities can be directly involved in the development
of SI through education, we draw upon the Strategic Niche Management (SNM)
theory (Schot and Geels, 2014), suggesting that SI can be facilitated by creating ‘educational niches’ that have
the potential, if managed strategically, to see sustainable system regime
transformations (Kemp et al., 1998). Strategic niches provide protected spaces,
in which alternative sociotechnical practices can be experimented with and
developed in such a way that they subsequently inform and influence mainstream
transformation (Smith, 2006). While most research within SNM to date has
focused on managed technological innovation in market contexts, a body of work
on ‘social innovations’ that examines bottom-up civil society-led initiatives
for sustainability is growing (Seyfang and Smith, 2007; Seyfang et al., 2014). This
paper aims to test the applicability of SNM to SI in HE, and in particular with
the PCIS at Uniminuto University in Colombia. In so doing, this paper raises a series of questions: Can we explain how do universities deliver
SI using SNM? To what extent do
the experiences of PCIS at Uniminuto University and their interactions with
networks and intermediaries suggest that an ‘SI HE’ niche is emerging, and at
what stage of development is it? How does Uniminuto University, and in particular
the PCIS, deliver social innovation? What
are the challenges and opportunities for promoting and supporting SI within the
PCIS at Uniminuto University?

 

This paper contributes to our knowledge of the phenomenon of SNM, as well
as to advancing the debate on the role of HEIs in delivering SI and influencing
the current system regime. The paper proposes a conceptual framework to help us
understand the potential roles of universities in delivering SI. This framework
is based on the literature overview in Section 2. Section 3 presents the case
study and discusses the research methodology designed to illustrate the
conceptual framework. Section 4 presents the research findings and discussions.
The final section presents the conclusions of this paper and makes suggestions
for further research.