Students no longer want to wait to see social change, they would rather create the change themselves, and more and more of them are realizing that they have the capacity to do so through social innovation.
Academic institutions have also increasingly begun to offer courses in innovative and social entrepreneurial thinking, where growing numbers of students have been able to catalyze social innovations to form their own enterprises. Embrace, a low-cost infant warmer designed to save the lives of vulnerable infants, emerged from a 2007 combined business and engineering class project at Stanford University.
In environments made up of students with diverse professional backgrounds, classes are taking various approaches to set out on social innovation to solve complex social problems.
Due to the nature and complexity of social problems, which can often require solutions from multiple disciplines, interdisciplinary approaches bringing together students from multiple faculties and educational backgrounds are increasingly being used in classes.
How interdisciplinary can classes truly be? And how can disciplines maintain a balance of input to ensure that the solution reflects the various backgrounds of the design team and is truly equipped to address the multifaceted social problem?
Alanna Fennell, a graduate student studying Public Health at the University of Toronto, just recently completed a full-year course addressing the complex problem of sanitation among rural and urban Bangladesh. (Full disclosure: The writer was a participant of the course and Alanna Fennell‘s teammate.) The course brought together graduate students from the school of public health, the MBA school, the school of international affairs, and the school of engineering sciences.
Working with partners on the ground in Bangladesh, the class formed multidisciplinary teams who met weekly to brainstorm a potential solution and prototype to address sanitation challenges in selected regions of Bangladesh, while attending weekly class lectures on social innovation and sanitation.
The complexity of sanitation, requiring policy, public health interventions, as well as business and engineering solutions, became a reality during a class trip when teams visited and conducted needs assessments in Bangladeshi communities. Upon returning, the true challenge would lie in how collaboration within these teams would take place, and how much of each discipline would be reflected in the solution.
“Interdisciplinary teams and true collaboration is meant to be more than just people working together; it is an interaction of minds and a new kind of creative process,” says Fennell.
Recalling her experiences, Fennell mentions the multidisciplinarity of the class provided a reason to have the necessary conversations about working together, because the differences between disciplines made the challenges more explicit. But at face value, she recalls that these conversations were about how the pieces fit together, for example, how do we get along and how do we understand each other and each of our educational backgrounds?
For Fennell, the real meat of collaboration, or being interdisciplinary, comes when one asks how are the pieces working and moving together, which is the fundamental process of creation.
“It was important to allow flexibility of freedom in the methodology for the classroom, but it was also important to have a conversation with the participants from the get go, about what ‘interdisciplinarity’ really meant,” says Fennell.
As classes continue to innovate and bring together students of multiple disciplines, the challenge in finding the right type of methodology for innovating remains.
“Having the conversation about what ‘interdisciplinary’ means at the start so people can be on the same page as well as begin to cultivate their own critical understanding of the process,” Fennell suggested.
“For future classes, I would also suggest spending time with the participants to ask them what they think the class should look like and why, allowing them to design their own experience, because ultimately the success of every class will depend on the people who participate.”
Zahra recently co-founded a social business model using an interdisciplinary approach to leverage mobile phone usage in order to tackle sanitation challenges in rural Bangladesh.
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