How universities can support social innovation

By applying research and knowledge to complex challenges, there is real potential to improve social outcomes for people locally, nationally and internationally.

In January 2016 we worked in collaboration with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) and closely with other stakeholders including the Young Foundation, Nesta, the Design Council, Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) and Research Councils UK, to experiment with a creative approach to commissioning projects in this area – a social innovation ‘sandpit’.

Today we are announcing six social innovation learning pilot projects developed by participants at the sandpit.

How did the sandpit work?

Social innovation is a diversely understood area, so our first task was to work with experts to establish a broad inclusive definition as a starting point for the sandpit.

Social innovation: Innovation with the primary aim of improving social outcomes for people through collaboration or co-creation. The innovation may take place in the public, private or charitable sectors, or direct with user communities.

Working from this understanding of social innovation, we co-designed the sandpit with NCCPE and an experienced sandpit facilitator, to adapt methods often used for developing research projects into an intensive 2.5 day residential workshop suitable for social innovation knowledge exchange. The sandpit and its activities were designed to support attendees to collaborate, develop projects and pitch them to a funding panel at the end of the event. Input from external experts was carefully designed to stimulate ideas and project development.

All project teams were supported to develop projects based on co-creation, collaboration and equity, with a ‘triple helix’ structure involving the university, work with intermediary organisations (such as a third sector or public sector organisation), and user communities.

The sandpit model is not designed to fund all projects that are pitched, but all projects receive feedback to support in developing the work further, should a team wish to seek support elsewhere. The sandpit we designed was distinctive in that it was a space to develop knowledge exchange projects with users, rather than research projects.

Were the sandpit aims wider than funding projects?

The sandpit was designed to lead to more than the funding of six interesting and exciting learning pilots. It also sought to capture wider learning points and development for all involved, to stimulate a more embedded approach to social innovation in higher education.

It was an exciting and intensive experience to run the sandpit. Participants actively engaged in dialogue with each other, the facilitators and mentors and you could see connections and collaborations, current and potential, being formed.

What do the projects looks like?

We were delighted with the quality of projects developed, and the six projects announced today focus on a range of social issues including: young men’s mental health; equipping student leaders to address sexual violence on campuses; bringing together local and university communities; preventative healthcare for young people; promoting tolerance amongst diverse groups of young people; and examining how university and community can work together to address food poverty in six localities through an alternative local food system.

What next?

We are looking to share our experience and learning with other organisations interested in funding projects in social innovation using a similar methodology, and we plan an evaluation of the pilot projects to identify transferable practice.


We would like to thank all the participants for their energy, ideas and commitment, our stakeholders who provided input into the design and delivery of the sandpit (including the Young Foundation, Nesta, the Design Council, Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), and Research Councils UK), and the individuals who provided mentoring advice. Working with you all was both exciting and challenging – your contributions of experience and insight into both project development and how universities might incorporate social innovation methodologies more effectively into their work has been invaluable.