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A New Way to Look at Innovation: Rensselaer Professor Outlines Blueprint for Social Change

August 27, 2009

A New Way to Look at Innovation: Rensselaer Professor Outlines Blueprint for Social Change

Some look at issues such as healthcare, energy and education and see almost insurmountable obstacles. Satish Nambisan at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sees something else: an opportunity to foster collaboration, innovation and the resulting social change.

An associate professor in the Lally School of Management and Technology, Nambisan has long been known for his research and insights in innovation management, especially in the corporate arena. Recently, he extended his research to the social sector and the challenges that “no organization can tackle alone.” His findings — including a blueprint for promoting social innovation — are outlined in the paper “Platforms for Collaboration,” published in the summer 2009 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Nambisan discovered that social innovation increasingly occurs not within a single organization but via platforms for collaboration where nonprofits, government agencies, corporations and private citizens can come together. His findings have significant implications at a time when social innovation is expected to spur solutions to many of today’s most pressing concerns. In fact, the White House has established an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and has asked Congress to provide $50 million in seed capital in 2010 for the Social Innovation Fund.

“The time is right,” Nambisan said. “In the past, most of the problems that we tried to solve were within the boundaries of one or more organizations. Now the nature of the problems has changed. They are broader and outside the scope of individual organizations. The need and potential for collaboration have increased significantly.”

Yet the very organizations that must drive social change often are the least experienced in partnership and collaboration. To assist them, Nambisan outlined three types of collaboration platforms and highlighted examples of organizations that have used these platforms successfully:

  • Exploration platforms unite diverse partners to define core problems and connect stakeholders with problem solvers.
  • Experimentation platforms develop solution prototypes and test them in near-real-world contexts.
  • Execution platforms build and disseminate solution templates and help adopters adapt to system-wide changes. 

Nambisan cited Minnesota’s nonprofit Citizens League and its successful use of exploration platforms for its Students Speak Out project, which was launched in 2007 to identify and tackle student issues. The Citizens League invited students to participate in a Web-based forum where bullying emerged as a key concern. The discussion quickly expanded beyond the Web and the students. Parents, journalists, education researchers, school board members, legislators, and city government officials all came together, both online and in offline venues including teacher training programs, student workshops, student video contests, and an annual convention.

The Citizens League developed an issue brief and white paper, and the Minneapolis city government incorporated the students’ feedback in policies to reduce youth violence. In perhaps the greatest indication of SSO’s success, Milwaukee launched a similar initiative in 2008.

Part of the appeal of collaborative platforms is their cost-effectiveness. “It’s cheaper to work together to solve a problem, especially since none of these platforms requires large-scale investments,” Nambisan said. “In most cases, the primary resource is people, not infrastructure. Partners come together in workshops and over the Internet. Solutions don’t come overnight, but they do come―and the potential payoff is considerable.”

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.