Increasingly, and for a variety of reasons, it has become the trend for universities to seek to position themselves as hubs for social innovation.  In line with this trend, Ravensbourne is also investigating what it would take to build their own culture of social innovation. There are a number of significant challenges to building a culture of social innovation at Ravensbourne, not least that it remains to be seen if there is a real commitment from the leadership, staff and students to shifting their focus away from Ravensbourne’s history of providing purely technical, vocational training to a broader education and curriculum that creates the space for social innovation to grow and thrive.  In this paper I will outline why there are a number of wide ranging benefits to Ravensbourne making the social impact of their students a priority. I will also outline the difficulties associated with shifting the current culture at Ravensbourne to allow for this to occur, before concluding with my recommendations for the key next steps.

What is social innovation?

A growing field, of interest to policymakers, foundations, researchers and academic institutions, there is not yet one, common agreed definition of social innovation (The Young Foundation, 2012). Instead, there are a large number of different definitions with ‘social innovation’ being used to describe everything from ‘societal transformation, to a model of organisational management, social entrepreneurship, the development of new products, services and programmes, or even a model of governance, empowerment and capacity building’ (The Young Foundation, 2012).

The starting point for any innovation is ‘an idea of a need that isn’t being met, coupled with an idea of how it could be met’ (Mulgan,Tucker, Ali & Sanders, 2012). Sometimes needs are glaringly obvious, such as like water sanitation, access to electricity or homelessness. But sometimes needs are less than obvious or unrecognised, so that is takes those who are working in or with those in need to name and describe the need.  

Broadly defined,  social innovation ‘focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value — as well as the processes through which they are generated, not just on individuals and organisations’ (Mulgan,Tucker, Ali & Sanders, 2012).Definitions from universities such as Brown, Stanford and LSE who have established social innovation programs include:

‘Social innovation is the pursuit of innovative, transformative, and sustainable solutions to social problems’ (Brown University, 2016)

‘A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals’ (Stanford University, 2016)

At Ravensbourne, our research found that students understand and can articulate a definition of social innovation (Ravensbourne Students Various, 2016).  Definitions include:

‘Social innovation is about a company giving back to the community’

‘Social Innovation: it kind of means something but I struggle to identify what it is making sure the right audience is engaged and involved’

‘Social Innovation is something that adds values to the community’

‘Social innovation is getting people to work together from different backgrounds’

Although social entrepreneurship and social innovation have become popular, almost trendy, rallying points for those trying to solve complex problems and change the world, social change can, and often does, come from other sources. These two notions are positive ones, but neither is adequate by itself when it comes to understanding what creates and drives social change.

What drives social innovation?

In 2016, the wicked problems facing our society, poverty, migration, climate change are more complex than ever and require interdisciplinary interventions, innovative thinking and cross-sector collaboration to solve. Ultimately, the most difficult and important problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without nonprofit, public, and private sectors working together, (Mulgan,Tucker, Ali & Sanders, 2012). In fact, Stanford University (2016) suggests that it is ‘cross-sector collaboration and ‘fertilisation’ that underpins the three key elements that are driving contemporary social innovation: ‘the exchange of ideas and values; shifts in roles and relationships; and the integration of private capital with public and philanthropic support’.  

Social innovations are no longer limited to emerging from the so called ‘third sector’, indeed they are just as likely to come from markets stimulated by the private sector, movements, or even academia. In this new environment, Universities and broader academia in general have a key role to play as societal ‘connectors’.

As described by a leader in the field, the Scholl Centre for Social Entrepreneurship (2007) connectors are those actors within the innovation system, the ‘brokers, entrepreneurs and institutions that link together people, ideas, money and power – who contribute as much to lasting change as thinkers, creators, designers, activists and community groups’.  

Why are universities interested in social innovation?

Up until 10 years ago, most universities offered policy, political science or social issues focussed courses, but nothing in the way of real experiential learning in leadership, mentoring for those who wanted to make a real social impact. In the last 5 years this has changed with a growing number of universities offering more tangible support for budding social innovators and entrepreneurs. There are a number of reasons for this change.  Universities have started to recognise the role they have to play in the social innovation system as connectors, but also, they have realised the experiential learning benefits of getting students involved in social innovation initiatives and of course the benefits of the initiatives to the wider community. One of the main influencers of this trend is the Ashoka Changemaker program.

Ashoka (2016) is ‘a network of social entrepreneurs from across the globe, who builds networks of pattern changing social innovators, and seeks out the right high-impact social entrepreneurs to solve some of the world’s biggest social problems’.  They are best known for their fellowship programs and for Ashoka U, which is responsible for the Changemaker Campus Consortium which ‘recognises and supports those universities who have embraced a culture of social innovation on their campuses’ and ‘share a vision for higher education to become the next global driver of social change by transforming the educational experience into a world-changing experience’. The first and only Changemaker campus in the UK is the University of Northampton (Ashoka, 2016 2).

Accounts from those involved in the Ashoka Changemaker Program at Universities, such as those at Brown University, stated that their participation in social innovation initiatives, helped them to become ‘a more deep, thoughtful, and understanding person in all areas of my life’ and that their involvement contributed ‘to both personal and professional growth for me. Although at the time I assumed the point of the Fellowship was to launch successful projects, I see now that the growth and development of the fellows has a much more lasting impact’ (C.V Starr, 2013).

Advanced Changemaker campuses such as Brown University have now advanced to offering fellowships such as the Social Innovation Fellowship, which is ‘an award-winning program that provides 15-20 students with $4,000 to build a social venture over the summer, supported by a year of intensive skills training, complementary coursework, and a community of social entrepreneurs offering mentorship and critique’.  

A culture of social innovation, such as those at Brown or other Ashoka Changemaker universities wasn’t built overnight.  It took Brown more than 10 years to get where it is today.  Ravensbourne will need to make a similar kind of investment of time and resources if it is truly committed to building a culture of social innovation.  

On the following pages I will define culture and how you can change it, before describing the current culture at Ravensbourne and how the university could start to go about building a culture of social innovation.

What is Culture?

Culture in any form is an abstraction, but one that is hugely powerful.  It exists and influences the behaviours of individuals, whether the organisation intends it to or not .  Organisational culture, as opposed to national culture, can be defined as ‘the shared assumptions that are common in an organisation that allow us to predict how its people will behave and what it will achieve’ (PwC, 2016).  It manifests in the decisions and behaviours of individuals within an organisation. In a 2013 survey of organisational leaders (Strategy&), 84% saw culture as critical to the success of their organisation, while 60% saw culture as more important than strategy or operating model when it came to changing their organisation.

How do you change culture?

According to John Katzenbach (2016) there are three key elements that influence and shape the culture of an organisation:

  1. Symbolic reminders or visible artifacts
  2. Keystone behaviours or recurring acts, that are both visible and invisible that trigger other behaviours
  3. Mindsets or attitudes and beliefs that can’t be seen but are widely shared

Of these three key elements, behaviours are the most powerful.  This is because what people do, matters much more than what they say or think that they believe. They are also visible, so they can be tracked and measured.  

When it comes to organisational culture, trying to influence individuals strongly held beliefs to change the culture is near on impossible, unless every individual within your organisation is willing to undertake something akin to cognitive behavioural therapy.  Likewise, a focus only on the symbols or artifacts – the stories, mousemats and mugs – will build awareness, but on it’s own will never translate into real culture change.  

So it stands to reason that any attempt to change a culture must start with the behaviours and that this is the chosen method for most experienced culture change practitioners. By starting small with two of three new behaviours, you can shrink the change and avoid the change fatigue that often plagues large scale change programs.  Once these two or three behaviours have been identified, the key organisational systems influencing these behaviours must be changed to help create to turn these behaviours into habits.  If these behaviours become habits, then mindsets will follow. Overtime, a focus on changing the patterns of behaviour in an organisation, rather than changing mindsets will produce better results.

See below for the 10 key steps to changing an organisations culture:-


Design thinking principles can, and have, been used to change organisational cultures and to drive social innovation.  Within the social sector, design thinking has been described as they key tool for driving innovation within the sector.  When asked by Wired Magazine (2012) what social innovation is changing the most lives in the developing world, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation she replied:

“Human-centered design. Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process”.

Leading design agencies such as IDEO have long applied their human centered design tools to inspire innovation in the way we seek to address social issues such as poverty, nutrition, health and water sanitation.  IDEO’s not-for-profit sister company (2016) is one of leading platforms for online, crowdsourced, social innovation, working with +Acumen globally to educate a global community of social entpreprenuers via their Design Kit and Protoyping courses . 1000s of social entrepreneurs have taken the Design Kit course to learn how to use to start a social enterprise or to drive social innovation (+Acumen, 2016).

Organisational cultures almost never completely change.  Even a small change to the culture takes time and is very difficult.  Typically it takes 2 – 3 years to change the culture of an organisation, unless there is a significant turnover of staff.   Within this time period, it’s is very common for organisations to ‘declare victory prematurely, or in frustration, abandon the attempt’ (Katzenbach, 2013). According to Strategy&’s 2013 Culture and Change survey of over 2000 organisations, the reasons why culture change initiatives fail include:

  1. Systemic barriers to change
    • Systems (organisational structure, leadership, communications), processes (performance management, talent, recruitment, induction, key operational processes)  and incentives (pay, training and development, promotions) don’t support the change
  2. Individual resistance to change
    • Trying to do too much at once leads to change fatigue
    • Employees don’t feel and often aren’t involved in the change process
    • Employees are skeptical or cynical about the change due to: failing to buy into the rationale for the change;  the number of failed change initiatives that have happened in the past; or a perception that leaders aren’t truly supportive of the change or are driving it in order to ‘tick a box’

From my research I would suggest that Ravensbourne will need to overcome a series of substantial, systemic and individual barriers to change, including course structures, leadership, staff perceptions, training and development if a culture of social innovation is to be embedded.

What is the culture at Ravensbourne?

The key to the culture at Ravensbourne lies in its history as a technical college.  Ravensbourne began it’s life in 1959 as Bromley Technical College, via the amalgamation of the Bromley School of Art and the Department of Furniture Design of the Beckenham School of Art.  Originally located in Chislehurst, it moved to Greenwich in September 2010. It has since advanced to become one of the leading design and communications colleges in London, but the focus on technical skills remains with most students attending the university to gain specific technical skills and on the surface appear to be interested in little else.  However, if you dig a bit deeper, it seems that this attitude is just as reflective of the culture at Ravensbourne, rather than purely the individual motivations and desires of the students.

As part of the research for this paper, myself and my fellow students spoke to a number of key stakeholders from across the Ravensbourne community via formal and informal interviews. I also used ethnography to observe the interactions between staff and students, students and the wider North Greenwich community.  

This data has been amalgamated to produce the 7 key cultural attributes below.

Ravensbourne’s key cultural attributes

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 18.10.57

A number of these key cultural attributes will need to be shifted, over a 2 – 3 year period, if Ravensbourne is to build and sustain a culture of social innovation. For a brief summary of the research that informed the development of these cultural attributes, see Appendix 1.

What are the benefits of building a culture of social innovation at Ravensbourne?

When it comes specifically to social innovation, Ravensbourne students and staff told us that ‘they understand what it is, but that it is simply not a priority’.  Getting a job, or ‘finding students a job’ is the priority, so the staff won’t get involved in anything that distracts from that main purpose  (Ravensbourne various, 2016).  Over the course of my research I spoke to a number of students, including some undergraduates, who told me that if an individual has ‘a job on’ such as video production, their tutors will encourage them to focus purely on that and not even come into university (Ravensbourne various, 2016).

It may be that this laser like focus on delivering a purely technical learning experience, will actually hurt these students in the long run, rather than helping them, as they miss the opportunity to have the broader university experience that so many studies have found is the real value of university. Further, at the speed that technology is advancing now, it’s very difficult for the university to keep pace, to the point that the technology that students are learning about, may well be out of date by the time they graduate. While, increasingly, employers are seeking out more ‘well-rounded candidates’ meaning students need broader skills if they want to be employed such as ‘communication and presentation, planning and problem solving, social development and interaction, the retrieval and handling of data and information, resilience and adaptability’ (Fallows & Steven, 2000).    This adds even more weight to the argument that teaching purely technical skills does graduates a disservice and could ultimately leave them without a job in the future.

As previously mentioned, those universities with social innovation initiatives have reported that students who participate have experiences that help them develop and prepare them for a real job, in the real world.  There is no doubt that getting involved in social innovation initiatives will help students at Ravensbourne build the real world skills they need to succeed professionally.  

Further, if Ravensbourne is to move toward awarding its own degrees, rather than relying upon UAL, it must move beyond this brand perception that it is simply a technical college (University of the Arts, 2013).  This could involve taking on a role of a social innovation connector, acting as a link between industry (film, photography, fashion, design) the staff and students at the University to drive social innovation. It could also mean broadening the scope of their current courses to include civic and social elements.  Ultimately, it requires that Ravensbourne demands more from both the students and the staff, to improve the breadth of the education provided to students and to increase Ravensbourne’s civic contributions .

How can this change happen?

As previously stated, culture change is really, very difficult and shouldn’t be embarked upon lightly.  Traditionally, it also takes a long time to take effect.With this in mind, us as one year Masters students can only have a limited, if any impact at all on the culture, in our time at the university.  The focus must instead be upon the leaders, staff and foundation and undergraduate students. While there is often a 50/50 split in taking responsibility for culture change across an organisation starting with the leaders is key (Strategy&, 2013).  However, it was clear from our engagement with the leadership of Ravensbourne as part of the research phase, that they have not yet agreed that building a culture of social innovation is a strategic priority. From my experience I would suggest that if building a culture of social innovation cannot be agreed as a common priority, by each member of the leadership team a culture change program should not be embarked upon.  

Recommended next steps

If the leadership do agree that building a culture of social innovation at the following 10 steps can then be followed to start to build and embed the desired culture:-

Agree the vision

  1. Ravensbourne leadership must agree that this change is a strategic priority for the university and place their support behind it, including understanding what changes are required to their own behaviours
  2. Use the findings from the research phase and co-creation workshop to inform the design of: a communications strategy and plan, that includes a stakeholder engagement strategy; and a vision session/s with the leadership and other key stakeholders to define the vision for the change
  3. Leadership and key stakeholders work together to define the vision for the change – what does it practically look like for Ravensbourne to have a culture of social innovation?

Hear the community

  1. Design and run a series of critical behaviour co-creation workshops across the entire Ravensbourne community to understand how this vision can be practically brought to life within each of the teams
  2. Within each of the teams, agree the 2 – 3 critical behaviours to focus on for the next 6 months and how these will be tracked and measured
  3. Use design thinking methods to uncover the communities view on the systems, policies, processes and practices that need to change in the short, medium and long term to support individuals in displaying the 2-3 critical behaviours and turning those behaviours into habits
    1. It would be expected that these changes would include, but not be limited to: social innovation fellowships or bursaries on offer to students; new processes for involving students and industry in social innovation initiatives; new partnerships with existing social enterprises within the broader London community, that align more with the interests of the student body, for example Ashoka changemaker social enterprises; and/ or investigation of a mandatory social innovation unit or credit as part of the undergraduate programs

Support the change

  1. Create a cultural measurement framework and set a baseline to track progress against the vision on a quarterly basis
  2. Prioritise the changes to systems, policies, processes and practices according to urgency, cost and impact and develop a plan for the implementation of these changes
  3. Implement the changes, alongside a robust communications strategy

Track your progress

  1. After 6 months, review your progress and if there is evidence of progress toward the vision in the form of new behaviours and habits, choose a further 3 behaviours to focus on to take you closer to your vision

Appendix 1 What we found from primary research undertaken with Ravensbourne students

  1. Ravensbourne works for, but not with students  
    • Students don’t want to be told what to do by the administrators, if they are going to get involved in social innovation it needs to be organically
    • Students aren’t encouraged by Tutors to get involved in social or extra-curricular activities lest they distract from ‘working’
    • The way staff engage with students is from a ‘knowing’ rather than a ‘learning mindset which may be due to the technical nature of the courses that they are teaching (as opposed to behavioural) but it may be contributing to the infantilization of students ’
  2. Ravensbourne is different to other universities
    • There aren’t the societies or teams you see in other universities, because experiencing university or being part of a community is just not as high a priority as getting technical experience
    • The facilities at Ravensbourne, the difficulties with securing meeting rooms and it’s isolation on the North Greenwich peninsula are not conducive to the development of these kinds of sporting or other such societies or communities
  3. Community means industry, not geography
    • To the students their community is the film, or gaming or photographic community, not the local North Greenwich community, which may be why some local community initiatives may not have been as successful as hoped
  4. Students will engage in social innovation, if you combine it with getting more experience
    • Make Rave the hub for social innovation efforts that combine students with their definition of the ‘community’
    • Ravensbourne’s brand has not shifted markedly from when they were a technical college and some students are attracted to the idea that they can just get in and get out without having to get involved in broader academic life or considering their broader learning journey
  5. There are already lots of ideas for social innovation flying around
    • People know what social innovation means and there is no lack of ideas but the problem has been implementation, take-up and sustainability  
    • If there was a way to use social innovation to engage further with industry, then students would be interested in getting more involved


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