The term ‘social innovation’ (SI) has gained
momentum over the last decade, and it is very popular among policy makers,
academics and practitioners (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 contribute to business innovation and
economic development. A study by Salter and Martin (2001) identified six major
mechanisms by which HEIs can help: 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; Deiaco
et al., 2012). Yet, little literature has looked at the role of universities in
delivering SI to provide services of relevance to society and specific
stakeholders, and particularly in emerging economies (Perkmann et al., 2013;
Benneworth and Cunha, 2015; British Council, 2016; McKelvey and Zaring, 2017).

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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 HEIs can contribute to the development of SI through
education, we draw upon the Strategic Niche Management (SNM) theory (Schot and
Geels, 2014), suggesting that the
creation of a niche management from the university can help niches to share
values and networks (Kemp et al., 1998). 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 HEIs
using the PCIS at Uniminuto University in Colombia. In so doing, this
paper raises a series of questions: Can we explain how do universities contribute
to SI niches using SNM? To what
extent do the experiences of PCIS at Uniminuto University and their
interactions with networks and intermediaries suggest that a ‘niche management’
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 innovation mainstream regime. The paper proposes a conceptual
framework to help us understand the potential roles of HEIs contributing to 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.