Chung-Shin Yunsun, Renaux Joanne, Chikermane Vijaya, Rajani Jaya Jivika
As design educators at Zayed University, Dubai, in the UAE we believe in the educational capacities of social innovation and in the exploration of new models and processes of systemic design. Particularly in the field of education, continuous innovation is both necessary and possible if we are to imagine new ways for young people to realize their full potential.
The current higher education system in the Middle East and South Asian regions often represents a socially narrow and dated curriculum that is especially limited in its ability to cultivate empathetic, driven and holistic young leaders and changemakers. Our education system in the UAE has not evolved yet to be imaginative, integrated, or reflective of the complex realities youth experience. Social innovation in education allows for re-imagining how we may create spaces for creative youth engagement and develop models that enable young people to realize their potential as changemakers. The question we explored was ‘How might we co-design an immersive, transformative, and sustainable changemaker pathway for social innovation?’ To do this, we leveraged community initiative and institutional support from Zayed University to build a platform to social innovation named INNOCO (Innovation and Co-design). Simply put, INNOCO actively supports young people interested in building their capacities as changemakers. Hence, it strives to disrupt a linear educational approaches and builds on the need for a paradigm shift in education in the region.
In three (3) years INNOCO has developed a research framework that has been successfully implemented and has already been modeled for a partner project at Zayed University; has facilitated a youth engagement program with participants in UAE and Nepal; and, has chronicled the changemaker journeys of program participants through quantitative and qualitative narratives. Through these cumulative processes, youth explored ways in which they could connect, collaborate and contribute to their larger communities. The proposed paper will detail the following critical aspects of our work with the hope that an engaged audience of educators and systems thinkers may learn from our shared experiences and enrich our collective knowledge.
Values of Co-design and Commitment to Social Innovation
Co-design was and continues to be a guiding principle in our work. We understand it to be an approach that fosters inclusivity, participation and celebration of collective ownership and achievement. Our efforts to implement principles of co-design into all aspects of vertical learning took shape in brainstorming and feedback sessions, open communication with participants through accessible platforms, and in regular meeting sessions to reflect on program activities and identify strength and improvement opportunities. Although the processes for co-design can be slow, complex and highly iterative, we believe it to be a promising pathway to social change allowing community participation. From 2015-2018 our co-design process involved approximately 116 experts, facilitators and organizations from diverse backgrounds and sectors. When done right, co-design can yield lasting, meaningful impacts that permeate through individual, community and systemic levels.
The value we assigned to co-design was also instrumental in deepening our understanding of social innovation. The term ‘social innovation’ has become increasingly popular and can mean different things to different people. We brought diverse voices and perspectives together following the principles of co-design and appreciative inquiry to clarify collective vision and to support individuals for their capacity development. We are committed to social innovation as initiatives that ‘are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act.’ (Hubert et.al., 2010).
Our research model is a human-centered and evidence-informed one titled ‘ME=WE’ that resonates with the Panarchy Theory to understand the systemic and symbiotic relationships between self (ME) and society (WE). The framework focuses on ‘action and reflection’ contributing to social change that one can affect at an individual, community and systemic level (Lampel 2003).
Wise and diverse communities across our world adopt this simple philosophy. In Indonesia the
Balinese principle of ‘tattwa masi’ translates to ‘you are we and we are you’. Similarly, the South African philosophy of “Ubuntu” teaches that our humanity is reflected in the achievements and humanity of others, intrinsically connecting the ‘self’ with the collective. This framework also manifests in the Mobius strip, a mathematical phenomena that demonstrates infinite and continuous movement and sprouting growth.
The ME=WE framework acts as a pathway that begins with the individual as a changemaker who engages with their community and systemic change through a continuous cycle of growth, action and reflection. The individual journey mirrors the expansive and moving structure of this framework as they engage in activities grounded in empathy, trust, creative confidence and communication. Through this work, the individual experiences growth points between action and reflection allowing for enriching their knowledge and capacities and deepening appreciative inquiry mode as continuously leaping from ME to WE and WE to ME.
A flexible and imaginative program as a series of independent workshops or an intensive 9-day bootcamp was developed to facilitate socially minded youth engagement. The program objective is to build collective capacity in planning and developing entrepreneurial and/or community-driven service projects. Workshop sessions introduced youth to hands-on and experiential learning through empathy driven tools, storytelling techniques, value proposition canvas, design thinking practices and more.
The INNOCO program was piloted with youth in UAE and in Nepal in varying forms. In UAE (2016-2017) a six month workshop series was implemented where 20 youth experienced learning and collaboration however, participants were not ready to move forward with social enterprise projects. In Nepal (2016 – 2018), the program was initially piloted with select youth and evolved into a 9-day innovation bootcamp with 18 youth. The innovation bootcamp was well-received by youth who continue to be engaged with social change for their communities. The program also included a mentorship component where seven mentors were identified and recruited from Nepal and internationally, matched with youth mentees to foster intimate relationships of learning and expansion. At the end of the Nepal bootcamp, (9) ideas were pitched to a panel of community judges, out of which (7) have emerged as viable projects in development.
The impacts of our work are illustrated through quantitative and qualitative data collected at different stages of the Nepal run program. While our impact assessment data is primarily qualitative gathered through transcribed one-on-one in-depth interviews, quantitative data was also collected through post program surveys.
Analysis of the quantitative narratives shows that the program was highly rated by participants especially in the areas of bootcamp environment and cultivating culture. These were critical areas for us as we attempted to create an unconventional learning environment and culture that valued co-design where youth could contribute to the process in fulsome ways. On a scale of 1-5 (5 is very satisfied; 1is unsatisfied) participants rated key areas of their experience, below is a snapshot of average rating scores: Workshop Quality: 4.1 / 5; Content Relevance: 4 / 5; Culture & Space: 4.6 / 5; Expectations Met: 4 / 5; Interaction: 4.2 / 5; Creative confidence: 4 / 5.
The qualitative data collected through in-depth interviews was used to develop a set of illustrated changemaker stories to further our Knowledge Translation and Exchange (KTE) efforts. The stories follow youth participants who completed the INNOCO program and demonstrate the transformative change they experienced that led to actions on individual, community and systemic levels.
The seven viable projects that emerged from the Nepal bootcamp, are in there initial developmental or operational phases. This includes a literacy and reading program in a rural community; a homestay for women facing domestic violence; a hydroponic farm; and a kiwi farm and waste management system. The Nepal youth group also realized their vision by registering as the Nepal Youth Innovators (NYI), a space for young people to connect to like minded changemakers and cultivate meaningful connections and collaborations to better contribute to social change.
In summary, the key areas of co-design as an overarching value enabled redefining the ME=WE framework that was then translated into a comprehensive and flexible set of program tools for youth engagement. The impacts of this social innovation model in its entirety is both powerful and promising for future work. The ME=WE framework has already been used as the foundation for another project based at Zayed University that aims to innovate food systems, and at Impact Hub at Georgian University in the USA. The program tools will soon be shared on an online platform for youth, educators and/or academics to easily access and adapt for their local communities. We believe that INNOCO is a strong example of a social innovation pathway that cultivates young changemakers and a study in co-designing alternative forms of learning that disrupt linear models. As one of the Nepal youth participants so aptly states “What we learn in schools is not everything, I want kids and young adults to learn life skills that will bring out the best person that they can be”