The better than former practices. They should be worth

concept of SI has become popular recently as an attempt to capture and describe
bottom-up phenomena where new ideas, approaches, techniques and organisational
forms grew from humble roots into substantive new social capacities (Benneworth
and Cunha, 2015). Examples of influential social innovations are Fairtrade,
Oxfam, Linux software and the Open University, each of which, in various ways,
promotes societal goals and collective action (The Young Foundation, 2006). Three theoretical perspectives
have guided the research on the subject of SI. In the first one, there is an
‘agentic centred perspective’, an individualistic and behaviourist approach, in
which SI is created through the actions undertaken by specific individuals. The
second approach is the ‘structuralist perspective’, in which SI is perceived as
determined by the external structural context. The third approach is ‘the
structuration perspective’, where SI is conceived as interactively influenced
by both agents and social structures (Cajaiba-Santana, 2014).

Within the researched academic literature,
three different understandings of SI can also be distinguished (Schmitt, 2014).
The first strand focuses on non-technical innovations in an organisational
context, where SI refers to improvements in social capital to enhance
organisational effectiveness (Moulaert et al., 2007). The second strand regards
SI as connected to technological innovation, reflecting the strong technology
orientation of current innovation research (Howaldt & Kopp, 2012). The
third strand takes up the notion of SI as new social practices. The work of
Zapf (1989: 177) can be considered the point of origin of this theoretical
school defining social innovation as:

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new ways to reach aims, in particular new organizational forms, new
regulations, new life-styles, which alter the direction of social change and
which solve problems better than former practices. They should be worth being
imitated and institutionalised.


Most niche analysis to date has
focused on market contexts and business-led technological innovations. In
contrast, a growing body of work studying grassroots innovations frames radical
community-based action for sustainability as an overlooked site of innovation
for sustainability (Seyfang et al., 2014). This work seeks to explore education
related SI niches, considering these initiatives as new social practices that better solve
existing challenges (Zapf, 1989). We propose that SI initiatives have the
following characteristics: a) the primary purpose of SI is social change rather
than profit maximisation; b) SI results in improved welfare, quality of life or
social relations; and c) SI is system-changing, altering perceptions,
behaviours and structures and resulting in profound societal change (McKelvey
and Zaring, 2017).


Previous research has
examined SNM and SI in the context of complementary currencies (Seyfang and
Longhurst, 2013b), energy (Hielscher et al., 2013), food (Hargreaves et al.,
2013), and eco-housing (Avelino and Kunze, 2009).  These studies have found that for
participants, it is often the symbolic and shared practice of deep values which
brings the principal benefits, rather than any tangible economic or material
impacts. For example, local currency activists feel empowered by creating and
using money which values people’s labour equally; food activists highly value
their ability to bypass supermarkets, even for relatively small proportions of
their provisioning (Seyfang, 2009). These initiatives form ‘pockets’ of shared
values different to mainstream norms, and communities of interest coalesce
around them, in mutually supporting (hence, protective) spaces (Seyfang et al.,
2014). Some of the challenges they face are: they are situated in local
contexts, while facing pressure to scale up and become mobile/transferable;
they need to fit into situations they wish to transform; and they attempt to
address structural problems with project-based solutions (Smith et al., 2013).
Often, initiatives fail to thrive because of an absence of long-term resourcing
and institutional support. In addition, the radical values which often catalyse
and inspire niche formation can clash with commercial and policy priorities,
making the translation of innovative practices challenging, even with dedicated
intermediaries. The importance of a robust analysis of these initiatives is
clear, then, both to assist practitioners in growing their projects, and to
enable policymakers to harness the innovative energies of community groups
working for sustainability. In turning to SNM to understand social innovation
in HE, we reframe university led SI initiatives as innovative niches, and seek
insight into how these might be supported to overcome the challenges they face,
and diffuse more widely. To test the utility of SNM in this new setting,
therefore, an empirical exploration of an emerging sector is required.

A major debate about the HE
role concerns how universities contribute to society providing three
knowledge-intensive services: research, education and social interaction
(McKelvey and Zaring, 2017). Whilst universities clearly have a role to play in
creating new collective social systems, in the last 30 years, they have been
modernised through individual processes including marketisation and privatisation,
leaving them increasingly competitive rather than collaborative institutions (Benneworth
and Cunha, 2013). Additionally, the marketisation
in HEIs is demonstrated, as the modern reforms influencing the operation of
universities and their programmes of study are presented as an element of their
modernisation, according to the demands of the market (Middleton, 2000). Researchers have also dealt with the
internationalisation of universities and the changes to the institutions in corresponding
to the demands of a particular type of educational service for students,
confronting them as customers-consumers (Stier & Börjesson, 2010).

Yet, in the last years, we
have also observed a number of universities with a growing interest in
supporting bottom-up initiatives and SI related projects in a variety of ways,
for example, by providing placements and work opportunities for students in
existing SI projects, university staff and researchers procuring or providing
SI related services, or even students setting up their own initiatives (see
Figure 2 for further details) (Calvo, 2015). While some universities have taken
a ‘top-down’ approach by incorporating SI explicitly into their core strategic
goals and embedding it across everything they do (for example, Northampton
University in the United Kingdom), others have provided tailored modules and
support for students and graduates as part of a wider objective to support
enterprise and enhance employability (Calvo, 2015). These initiatives have been
managed and/or supported by numerous student enterprise societies such as
Student Hubs and incubators (for example, the Pontifical Catholic University of

(Insert Figure
2 here)


Several studies have
suggested that promoting and supporting SI in HEIs stimulate and sustain such
practices, enhancing diversity, social inclusion, citizenship, and local
learning communities and partnerships, which is central to economic growth and
regeneration, and that it is therefore important to re-connect the social
dimension of education with the economic (Matheson, 2008; British Council, 2016).
For example, a recent book publication authored by Brundenius et al. (2017) shows
the importance of inclusive development and innovation on economic growth and
demonstrates the ways in which universities around the world are pioneers in
this area through initiatives in social responsibility and social innovation. The
research included in this book brings case studies from Latin America, Northern
and Eastern Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa, providing an insight into actions
that are taken by universities on inclusive development and social innovation,
and overall regional economic and social development.

This paper explores this phenomenon in Colombia as it represents an
interesting country in which to investigate the role of HEIs in delivering
social innovation. Despite the fact that the HE regime in Colombia has focused
on the demands of the market, leading universities to become competitive
institutions and collaborate primarily with big private corporations and the
public sector rather than grassroots organisations and vulnerable populations,
in the last years, several Colombian universities have started to
incorporate SI within their curriculum and programmes. An example of this is
the University of Andes which has included SI as a key topic within its curriculum
in some of the degrees and Master’s programmes, or ICESI University in Cali which
has developed a Master’s on SI. Moreover,
and since 2010, the Colombian government has promoted SI by implementing
strategic programmes for public sector participation and creating new scenarios
through partnerships between the state, for-profit and non-profit organisations
(Castillo, 2011; Villa and
Melo, 2015; Frias et al., 2013). An example of this is the Social Innovation
Centre (in Spanish, Centro de Innovación Social or CIS) within the ‘National
Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty’ (in Spanish, Agencia Nacional para la
Pobreza Extrema, ANSPE), founded in 2011 to support SI initiatives for extreme
poverty eradication, aiming to help 1,500,000 families out of extreme poverty
by 2020 (Pulford, Hackett & Daste, 2014). In
2013, the Social Innovation National Node (in Spanish, Nodo Nacional de
Innovación Social or NNIS1) was also created as a
platform for collective action, to enable the construction and implementation
of SI policies, programmes and projects by citizens and communities, such as ‘the Hilando Project’, where they have mapped
social innovation practices in 14 departments across the country in
collaboration with several Colombian universities, including Uniminuto
University2 (ANSPE, 2013; CEPAL,

To test the applicability of SNM in examining how universities engage in SI,
we examine university led SI characteristics in terms of key
niche-building processes of networking, learning, values and expectations as
well as the stage of formation and the opportunities and challenges they have. As Figure 3 indicates, we look for evidence
of an SI niche being formed and explore to what extent it can influence the
current HE system regime by using a case study of the PCIS at Uniminuto
University in Colombia.

(Insert Figure 3 here)


1 NNIS was implemented by
the Colombian Government with the Ministry of Information Technology and
communications (in Spanish, Ministerio de Tecnologi?as de la Informacio?n y las
Comunicaciones (MinTIC), the National Learning Service (in Spanish, Servicio
Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) and the Department for Social Prosperity (DPS).

2 See link here: