Social innovation as a key factor for change

"Les nouvelles sont mauvaises, d’où qu’elles viennent..." (The news is bad, wherever it comes from...) sang Stéphane Eicher thirty years ago. We have to admit that the situation has not changed much since then. The challenges that await us are ever greater and the urgency to act on social and climate issues is now felt with increasing acuity. And yet, as some of you may have heard during our Dies academicus, I want to convince you that we must be optimistic. Not a blind insouciance to the world's unbridled march, no, but a solid confidence, underpinned by what I see around me. Here and there, a multitude of ideas are emerging whose objective is to rethink a "system" that has run out of steam in order to build new models for society. Initiatives in this direction take place daily on the UNIL campus. Many of them have touched, excited and inspired me, and I would like to present some of them to you today.

I recently had the chance to attend the final day of the Bachelor in Social Sciences course Great contemporary social issues, organisé par André Berchtold, Francesco Panese et Laetitia Della Bianca. Cet enseignement pas comme les autres a invité cette année 193 étudiant·e·s à développer des solutions pragmatiques à des problèmes de fond qui les préoccupent dans les domaines «environnement et durabilité», «sécurité, discrimination, prévention», «bonne santé et bien-être», «économie, salariat, travail décent» et «communication, information, désinformation». Ce cours s’inscrit dans une dynamique progressive : après un apport théorique proposé par ses organisateurs et des interactions avec des expert·e·s issu·e·s du monde académique et de la société, les participant·e·s sont invité·e·s à collaborer au sein de groupes tirés au sort. Chaque équipe identifie alors un problème social qui la préoccupe, adopte une méthodologie, étudie la littérature existante, se rend sur le terrain, rencontre des personnes directement concernées, puis conçoit une innovation réalisable qu’elle doit présenter par oral et au moyen d’un poster avant de revenir sur sa démarche dans un bilan réflexif. L’énergie des étudiant·e·s m’a particulièrement marqué, ainsi que la diversité et la pertinence des problématiques relevant des sciences humaines et sociales, qui sont à mes yeux d’une complexité considérable. De la prévention contre l’exposition au GHB à l’accès aux établissements publics par les personnes en situation de handicap, en passant par la lutte contre le cyberharcèlement, la précarité estudiantine, l’endométriose, la transformation du maraîchage pour prévenir les suicides d’agricultrices et d’agriculteurs soumis·e·s à des pressions environnementales croissantes, ou encore la valorisation des friperies pour combattre la fast fashion, the range of these themes gives hope that our students are enrolling at UNIL with the desire to build a better future. It also echoes the new Statement of intent of the Rectorate, which I am delighted about. The advantages of such a course are numerous: in addition to the exchange of skills and knowledge, it allows us to develop creativity and sociality, to apprehend concrete situations that will be the lot of a large number of our future graduates, to offer training tools to all (whether or not they wish to pursue an academic career) and to promote social innovation, i.e. the transformation of the social through the social without technological resolution. 

Social innovation is also the speciality of Jeffrey Petty and Anne Headon, Heads of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation HUB at UNIL. The latter in turn stresses the need to dissociate the concept of "innovation" from its strictly tech-centred facet. Our attitude to business must change: it is no longer a matter of promoting technological advances alone, but of reconciling low/no-tech and entrepreneurship by supporting the implementation of local projects anchored in communities, more eco-centric and collaborative, in order to ensure their financial sustainability and to be able to implement their model in other regions. To contribute to this change in mentality, the HUB supports projects with a social and/or environmental impact, such as those resulting from the Great contemporary social issues course, notably through UCreate. The HUB's flagship programme is divided into three parts, which can be introduced at different stages of a project's development. UCreate1 offers a "one-stop shop" that invites anyone affiliated with (or a graduate of) UNIL to come and discuss an idea, regardless of its degree of maturity, and then guides it through the existing ecosystem. UCreate2 (a short exploration module over five workshops) allows participants to "reveal" their concept and their entrepreneurial potential. UCreate3 selects eight teams per semester who want to turn their idea into reality. Their projects, whether technological or not, must be compatible with the HUB's sustainability values. They are given financial support and tailored expertise to help them develop a prototype, test it in the real world, build their network and reduce the risk of failure (if you attended the Dies academicus, you will have seen two initiatives that were supported by UCreate3, Musée à l'emporter, which brings art to rural schools, and Low Impact Food, which repurposes food biomass into mealworm food for the production of a high-protein powder, which is less polluting and water-intensive than meat). In collaboration with the faculties, the HUB also gives interdisciplinary courses in social innovation to enable students to acquire the basics of entrepreneurship and to learn to work together in inter-faculty groups that enable the exchange of expertise and the deconstruction of prejudices. All these activities, which are not exhaustive, aim to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit of young UNIL graduates, to accelerate their career path and to facilitate their integration into the non-academic work environment.

The transition to employment is one of the major concerns of the "Equality, Diversity and Careers" Department headed by Vice-Rector Liliane Michalik, who also oversees the HUB. She too is optimistic in view of the large number of pioneering projects that are flourishing at UNIL. But be careful not to confuse social innovation with philanthropy! Even if it swaps a profit-making policy for a useful commitment to the population, social innovation is nonetheless based on serious impact-based business models, which enable companies to become profitable once the initial boost has been absorbed. The money invested in young start-ups on a one-off basis is therefore not a grant or a renewable donation, but an assurance that they can quickly become self-sufficient thanks to a solid foundation. According to Liliane Michalik, changing the way we operate also involves building bridges between the multidisciplinary expertise present on the UNIL campus and the actors in society, who are confronted with practical problems every day. In this sense, the Interact project encourages collaboration between the University and the City of Lausanne. Thematic meetings are organised around subjects chosen by the two institutions (equality, diversity, inclusion in its last edition) and teams are created between researchers from UNIL and employees of the City. Their joint work receives methodological support that leads to concrete actions in response to specific questions (for example, how Lausanne's socio-cultural activities contribute to the achievement of equality between women and men, or how the reality of school playgrounds conveys gender bias). Similarly, the Volteface platform which is attached to the UNIL's Competence Centre for Sustainability, supports research-action projects on the social aspects of the energy transition that bring together researchers from UNIL and actors from civil society (administrations, companies, associations). Both entrepreneurship and such initiatives ensure a transfer and dialogue of knowledge from research and the field, which are fundamental for the development of societal models that are truly adapted to the challenges of the future. 

The 2021-2026 Statement of intent of the University of Lausanne's Rectorate, which can now be consulted online, is entitled Preparing for the future. The challenge is clear: it is becoming imperative to reverse our point of view and to reflect on the system in which we operate in order to transform it from within. Social innovation is a key factor in this essential economic-political change. UNIL, through the historical expertise it has built up in the humanities and social sciences, can and must position itself as a pioneer of this change by making its skills available to society and by giving its students the tools and means necessary to be able to act consciously at their level. As I said at the Dies academicus, I believe we can change the world if we do it together. So let's start with your ideas. Here. And now.

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