What is the civic intelligence of your university or college?

A couple of years ago, Forbes Magazine and other news outlets reported on the “Smartest Colleges” in the United States. The brain training company Lumosity announced that MIT was smartest, followed by Harvard and Stanford, based on how well students had performed on a battery of online puzzles.

Many of my students (and I) suspected that this focus on “smartness” received more attention than it deserves. Although puzzle solving may be a reasonable indicator of success for certain occupations, such as computer programming, it’s not necessarily a good measure of whether a person will make a good citizen.

For one thing, good citizens are likely to feel responsibility towards their fellow citizens and have the “democratic faith” that John Dewey wrote about. For another thing, puzzle solving is a far cry from the types of “wicked problems” such as inequality, oppression, climate change and environmental degradation that citizens must actually address (and not just through voting). Moreover, the mistaken and dangerous idea that exact answers can be found for complex social problems by treating the world like a puzzle or a computer algorithm, may be more likely to prevail if puzzle solving is seen as the ultimate achievement.

I teach at the Evergreen State College (WA, USA), a non-traditional progressive liberal arts college. Evergreen is a public college that offers a variety of interdisciplinary programs that are often team-taught. Students are evaluated with written narratives, not letter or numeric grades. And I’m happy to say that Evergreen is one of the 40 colleges featured in the book Colleges That Change Lives.

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

At Evergreen I offer classes and a research lab that examine — and practice — civic intelligence, the capacity for people to work together effectively and equitably to address shared challenges. Civic intelligence puts the focus on our actual and potential ability to govern ourselves wisely. More importantly, it looks at how we might diagnose and improve this ability. My students and I have been exploring the idea of civic intelligence for at least 15 years.  We explore how people might make their communities, and the world, better for all.

In response to our concerns about “smartness” as the über ranking of colleges, our “Social Imagination and Civic Intelligence” program decided to explore alternative ranking approaches based on civic intelligence. The exercise proved to be educational for all of us; the challenges of identifying, interpreting, and presenting social data can’t really be appreciated if one only sees somebody else’s final results. And I admit that the utopian notion that colleges might actually compete for high civic intelligence scores was an exciting prospect.

Working collaboratively, we identified five broad dimensions that highlight how the civic intelligence of a college could be assessed. Obtaining viable values for these and somehow rolling them together in a meaningful way are the logical next steps. Then, in a civically intelligent spirit, we hope to evaluate this approach with results and feedback from several colleges and revise our approach as necessary.

(1) How does the college conduct its own affairs in civically intelligent ways? 

Are meetings open and are finances and grievance procedures transparent? Are there processes in place for communication across sectoral boundaries and is there openness and participation in curricular development? Do faculty and students participate in its evaluation?

(2) What does the college do to promote civic intelligence among students?

This includes the classroom and other forms of evaluated teacher / student activities as well as other activities outside the classroom including student groups and activities, informal as well as formal. We also identified interdisciplinary classes, especially those focused on societal problem-solving, as very important, as well as the quantity and quality of student engagement and leadership in educational endeavors.

(3) How does the college cultivate civic intelligence in the community?

This was intended to identify how the college cultivated civic intelligence beyond its perimeter and to what extent the work of the college influences the wider world. What percentage of students at the college are engaged in internships with educational, service, or non-profit organizations? Is there a legacy of non-profit groups in the community that were launched by students or faculty at the college or though educational efforts that started there? (See, for example, the Sustainability in Prisons Project). Are events related to civic intelligence open to the public? Does the college maintain a community partnership focus through centres and ongoing collaborative projects? And does the college enter into alliances with other colleges to build networks of civic intelligence that increase dialogue and innovation and provide more opportunities for students and faculty members?

(4) How does the college address significant societal issues and needs?

This refers primarily to how well and to what extent the college performs its social role of preparing students for the future. A college that accepted a large number of students who typically aren’t accepted, or are statistically more likely to drop out, runs the risk of receiving low marks in many ranking systems. But if the college educates these students and graduates them in higher numbers, those schools would be demonstrating higher civic intelligence than ones that only accepted those who seemed most likely to succeed. For this question, we also identified questions related to financial barriers, rates of student graduation, support for minority, first-generation students and other traditionally marginalized groups, and general success with employment after college with special attention to jobs in education, non-profits, and social service.

(5) What were the enduring lessons in respect to civic intelligence that the college imparted on its graduates?

Learning this probably means obtaining some measures related to attitudes, awareness, skills, or, even, social imagination when students enter and when they leave, including perceptions, as well as actions. We’re interested in developing active civically intelligent citizens for the long-haul. Hence, ideally, we’d gather feedback on graduates at regular intervals; do they work for non-profits or did they start one, are they in public service or benefit corporations? Do they work with economically disadvantaged people or migrants or refugees?

While a college may reap a more prestigious ranking by concentrating on puzzle-determined “smartness” in both admissions and pedagogy, America’s democracy depends on the civic intelligence — which includes creativity, skills, compassion and many other characteristics— of all of its citizens. This broad focus, while more difficult to implement, must not be ignored in the rush to enshrine STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — as the preeminent educational pursuit.

Are there representatives from three or so schools in North America who are willing to tackle this initial challenge?

We haven’t gone to the next step – that of developing an approach where colleges could conduct a self-evaluation that would yield valid data.

We will continue our examination of civic intelligence at Evergreen and we encourage other schools to examine theirs. The rankings, of course, aren’t intended to be permanent. They are aspirational and, with work and encouragement, the hope is that colleges and universities will become a critical backbone of social purpose, cooperation and civic intelligence that builds on their deep experience advancing the world’s knowledge and humanity.

Recoding Our Innovation Systems

Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 as part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. It has been cross-posted with permission from Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).

The world is awash with innovation reports and indices comparing the innovation prowess of different countries, cities, and corporations. The two cornerstone assumptions underpinning these reports are that innovation is:

  • Anchored in technology, and
  • A driver of economic growth essential for societal success.

“Technological innovation,” says the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, “is the key to a competitive and growing economy, unlocking major productivity gains and allowing companies to move towards higher value-added activities.”

By contrast, social innovation remains a modestly growing separate domain, unconnected to most national mainstream innovation systems. By “mainstream,” I mean the combined technological and business innovation domain, often referred to as STEM or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, which is the beneficiary of generous government support across the OECD.

This gap between mainstream and social innovation is a problem if we are to collectively apply our ingenuity to tackling this century’s pressing global challenges. Those include climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and deepening social inequality, all of which are torqued by population growth now upwardly revised by the UN to reach 10.9 billion people by the year 2100.

In addition, social innovators’ own success requires that they reach beyond their important existing networks with other social innovators. UK academic Dominic Chalmers has identified a key insight for social innovators to succeed:

“If social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities. This myopic ‘local’ sourcing of knowledge within narrow domains is well documented in other industries and risks limiting the creative potential of social innovation.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

To be sure, there are important glimmers of change seen with governments. As well, some corporates are beginning to align their efforts with big challenges facing the world. The large US corporation DuPont has shifted its research agenda so that its “inclusive innovation” focuses on “applying science to great challenges.” Intel China is embracing the “power of corporate social innovation” noting that if  “the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives, we have to break down the boundaries between technology and social innovation.”

In Silicon Valley, the debate on its social role is beginning. As Michael S. Malone’s January 2015 article in MIT Technology Review, “The Purpose of Silicon Valley,” put the question: “Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?”

Here are three things the social innovation movement needs to do if it is to expand its societal role and shift how the mainstream operates:

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to participate in and shift their national innovation system to extend their impact. Achieving this involves strengthening the articulation of social innovation’s value, expanding its partnerships with other sectors, being more policy active, and ensuring that social innovation doesn’t exist only in its own silo (notwithstanding the on-going importance of social innovator peer networks).

Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a $240 million platform that is part of the global Grand Challenges network, has attempted to explain what it would mean to combine STEM, business and social innovation. They articulate an “integrated innovation” vision. “Integrated Innovation,” says GCC, “is the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach does not discount the singular benefits of each of these types of innovation, but rather highlights the powerful synergies that can be realized by aligning all three. Integrated Innovation recognizes that scientific/technological innovations have a greater chance of going to scale to achieve global impact and sustainability if they are developed from the outset in conjunction with appropriate social and business innovations.”

- Banksy

– Banksy

2. Advocate for social outcomes as a cornerstone metric for evaluating national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to be able to access more talent, technology and intellectual capital than currently possible on their own. With OECD countries’ social spending envelopes (health, education, employment insurance, pensions, etc) growing exponentially and unsustainably, this should not be difficult.

3. Develop and adopt an ethical framework to guide (social) innovation.
c/o Randy Robertson

c/o Randy Robertson

This is important because we always need to be actively thinking about our “north star,” ensuring that we re-engage the most vulnerable people and ecologies in society. Any useful technological or social innovation can be applied for malevolent purposes. And all innovations – social as well as technological – have unintended consequences or even a shadow side. A Declaration of Action from a July 2015 Canadian cross-sector retreat examining Social R&D called for an innovation system that “leads from a new ethical framework for R&D for public good.”

For example, will the sharing economy improve social good or fast-track growth of the new precariat? A growing number of people struggle to cope with the “slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work,” as many have observed, such as Derek Thompson in his troubling assessment “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic (July/August 2015).

The social innovation movement is well positioned to be the trim-tab, high leverage catalyst for bringing needed resources to bear on the innovation challenges our global community faces.

SiG Note: Email info@sigeneration.ca to sign-up for news and updates on the emergent Social R&D movement in Canada. 

Systems Mapping

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015 on the RECODE Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from RECODE

header_systemsmapping730-295
Over the past year, we have had the pleasure of working with Intel on systems mapping, which involves crowdsourcing information gathered through their meticulously designed surveys and then sharing the data visually in partnership with Vibrant Data. Through this initiative, we have been fortunate to work with Intel’s Tony Salvador—engineer, social scientist, and most of all, a wonderful humanist. Below, Tony takes us into his world of mapping systems with RECODE.

It’s so totally cool that Canadians would consider it right and reasonable to come together to consider a question of national interest such as how to catalyze a new culture of innovation throughout the country.

At issue for us, as researchers at Intel working on systems mapping tools, is how to have the conversation in the best possible way, so that all voices are heard and that perspectives are aired to discover the wheat amidst the chaff. We find it very useful to think about Canada not just as a country or a thing like a donut, but rather as a system of interacting people, thoughts, actions, policies, and sentiments. In fact, we find it very useful to think about Canada as a complex, socio-technical system from which emerges order based on individual actions (and inactions). But as a complex system, individual actions are often not predictive of the emergent properties of the system.

We think a conversation considering the (re-)creation of a culture of innovation in Canada is not a reductive conversation; it’s not a conversation about the parts and it’s not a challenge resolved by an engineering approach. Rather, it’s a synthesized conversation about the whole. It’s a conversation that builds on itself, that combines and recombines ideas and thoughts to create new possibilities. Of course, the combinations of ideas and thoughts Canadians can – and do – have about innovation would be astronomical if there wasn’t a way to isolate the key points.

Our work with RECODE uses system mapping tools to help systematically and synthetically build a conversation and identify a set of waypoints to contribute to an innovation culture in Canada. And most importantly, as social scientists, we believe our tools help to establish a culture of innovation that is uniquely Canadian and that accounts for and builds on what it means to be Canadian.

We’ve already introduced the survey, which was very long and comprehensive for participants. The survey results are a cumulative list of important nodes or factors that together are the identified factors necessary to nourish an innovation culture. However, a list of ingredients does not tell you how to bake the cake. For this, we need to know the relative amounts of each, what things influence what other things, how much of some things are necessary, and how little of other things. To do this, we’ve worked with Eric Berlow from mappr to construct a mapping tool that allows participants to identify the relationships of any one node/factor to all other nodes/factors and to determine the strength (strong/weak) and the direction of the relationship (positive/negative).

The result, we hope, will be a systematically (Canadian) crowd-sourced complex network structure that synthesizes the list of all factors to provide a recipe, if you will, of waypoints to catalyze a socio-cultural system of innovation throughout Canada – one that takes into account aspects from the social to the economic. The map, like a treasure map, is a start. There will be many discussions on implementation. But we hope the map will provide a way to focus conversations on the most catalytic issues. For us, as researchers, it’s a privilege to work with RECODE and all partners on this quest(ion).

The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking Part II: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change

This is the second part of a blog series on systems thinking. In part I, Realizing the ultimate impact of community-based innovations,” I introduced the theory and core elements of systems thinking.

In Part II let’s begin with two questions: what can individuals and organizations do to be part of systemic change? And how can powerful institutions like governments be more part of the solution than the problem?

In Systems Innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggests two sets of answers.  The first: it is essential to ground individual change actions within the context of the “broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.” For Mulgan “the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. Realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of leverage. If you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.”

The second: recognize and leverage the essential role of what I call the missing middle or what Mulgan calls intermediaries. In order to succeed, “the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. In retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies.”

The roles played by intermediaries can include: orchestrating advocacy campaigns; engaging critical stakeholders; demonstrating alternatives; and facilitating the required networks into power structures and changemaking communities. Some of these roles resemble those of “backbone” organizations in collective impact initiatives. Mulgan lays out a valuable chart for seeing the range of roles and their goals:

goal-actions_geoff

Joined-Up Innovation, Geoff Mulgan p. 21

Building the Enabling Systems-oriented Ecosystem

What would be elements of an ecosystem building approach for systems innovation that a government should focus on? Social Innovation Europe suggests seven:

1.    Developing a common vision around the need and potential for systems change
2.    Supporting greater experimentation
3.    Expanding rapid learning through open innovation platforms, greater transparency, and much more cross-sector collaboration
4.    Expanding incubation support systems and platforms to enable systems innovations
5.    Targeting capacity building focused on critical competencies
6.    Developing enabling conditions through funding instruments, regulation and legislation
7.    Growing networks connecting key stakeholders in order to spread and disseminate innovative practice and generally enable knowledge mobilization.

How imminent is a heightened focus on systems change? What conditions will prevail to shift us in that direction? Charles Leadbeater, in his essay in Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series, says there are four main ingredients to the systems shifting process (that he calls “regime change”):

1.    Failure Stacks Up – The multiplying failures and frustrations with the current system
2.    Landscape Shifts – The landscape of the current regime shifts so much that it is left at odds with the world
3.    Alternatives Accumulate – Real alternatives start to grow, multiply in overlapping fashion
4.    New Technology Offers Accelerated Impact – “These new approaches are energized by the application of new technologies, which open up new possibilities for organizations, businesses and consumers. These rising new technologies add to the momentum and excitement for change.”

Alice Casey, from her vantage point in Nesta’s Public Service Innovation Lab, highlights two additional ingredients for people working on systems change at the community level. Her essay in the Discussion Series advocates for:

1.    Structures that value collaboration and that assist people escaping their narrow service silos to think and work together, and
2.   Relationships that enable power sharing by using an asset based approach and drawing on the tools of co-production that “help create collaborative and trusting relationships that give people the risk–friendly space they need to engage and behave in different ways.”

Systems Thinking Into the Water Supply

How do you see the issues you care about through a systems thinking lens? Does systems thinking have implications for how you imagine deepening your impact over the next decade? One of Canada’s social strategists extraordinaire, Al Etmanski, is fond of saying that we need to get “social innovation into the water supply”. For many years now he has applied his talents at the systems tilting end of the social innovation spectrum. How do we take Al’s lead to expand that essential “systems think and do”?

Related Links:

  • The indispensable desktop resource on systems thinking is the short book by Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Donnella was a co-author of the 1972 watershed book Limits to Growth that was a catalyst for recognizing earth as a system with finite limits.
  • The SiG Knowledge Hub is replete with useful content including the sections on Systems Thinking (Dip into Systems Thinking, Dive in Systems Thinking)
  • The Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary Oct 2 – 4, features an extensive line-up of systems thinkers and social innovators.
  • Nesta’s robust website contains two excellent 2013 PDFs on systems thinking: Systems Innovation and Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series. The latter carries a contribution by Canadian Daniel Miller a St. John’s, NL-based independent researcher who has a web site Systemnovation dedicated to systems thinking.
  • The field of social innovation, design or change labs is developing across Canada. It offers a growing set of basic tools to assist organizations, businesses and governments in initiating practical multi-stakeholder processes to develop, prototype and scale systems-shifting innovations. SiG has just published a new map to those resources.

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.