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Social Innovation for Sustainable Society

4 April 2017 at 8:16 am
Wendy Williams
A new institute hopes to channel digital technology to solve complex social issues and build a safer, more equitable society.

Wendy Williams | 4 April 2017 at 8:16 am


Social Innovation for Sustainable Society
4 April 2017 at 8:16 am

A new institute hopes to channel digital technology to solve complex social issues and build a safer, more equitable society.

The Social Innovation Research Institute (SII), launched by Swinburne University of Technology on Thursday, is the first institute in Australia to focus digital technologies on social innovation challenges.

The aim is to bring together Swinburne’s expertise in social economy, justice and public wellbeing, with cutting-edge research and development in digital technology in a bid to collaborate with partner organisations to solve emerging or persistent social challenges.

Institute director Professor Jane Farmer told Pro Bono News the institute aimed to address four main areas.

“I guess we are ultimately addressing this issue of what’s gone haywire with democracy,” Farmer said.

“I spent the last four months or so, just going out and talking to business, not for profits and local government and so on, and I’ve come up with the top four broad themes or social values.

“We are particularly interested in looking at ways to measure social value, so going beyond just coming up with lists of indicators but actually how can we use collective intelligence or data that is already out there, with technology to answer the question of what do different organisations produce in terms of social value.

“And then we’re interested in participation and inclusion. So again particularly looking at the role of technology. How do we use technology cleverly and it might be different types of technology for different people or whatever, but how do we use technology to include more people in informing what services we should have or having these debates around evidence I guess.

“The third one is about well being. So how do we address these increasing rates of depression and anxiety in society, how do we actually come up with ways of working and ways of using our leisure time that actually contribute better to well being.

“And then the final theme is around justice and public safety and there we are particularly interested in looking at emerging offending behaviours and again, how can we address these kinds of societal problems, looking at how we can engage the perpetrators in other kinds of activities or include them in society more.”

She said SII would connect researchers across a wide range of disciplines to help contribute to solutions.

“All of these different disciplines have got something to contribute to looking at social innovation and addressing social problems,” Farmer said.

“So part of the remit is to bring together all of the socially relevant research and capability activity in Swinburne and then to act like a kind of conduit to external partners in industry and local government and the NGO sector and social economy sector, and then really get into relationships where we look at real life practical problems.

“We’re particularly interested in empowerment and inclusion and also looking how can we help people to deal in equitable or sustainable ways with societal disruption.”

Farmer said it was exciting to bring together different disciplines.

“I’ve had several conversations with people recently in engineering or in chemistry and their initial reaction is: ‘Why are you coming to see me?’ You do all that social science stuff,’ she said.

“And then when you actually talk to them about some of the social challenges that people are coming with such as access to telecoms or how do we work this internet of everything so that we can share all the best things in society, how do we recycle waste materials, all these kinds of things and then they kind of go: ‘Oh wait a minute, I see what you’re saying, those are kind of engineering or or computing or chemistry or whatever problems’.

“So it’s getting those people into the same space as people who have always talked about things from a social science perspective, it kind of just gives both sides of the equation. It gets different language into the discussion as well which I think is really interesting too.”

Farmer said the institute was also unique in its use of technology.

“A key differentiator of SII is to apply digital technology approaches to social challenges to shape a more equitable, safer and sustainable society,” Farmer said.

She said society was still using technology in “obvious ways”.

“We have phones or we have other communication technologies but I’m particularly interested in I guess what we could do with big data for example,” she said.

“So looking at social value rather than getting people to fill in endless forms about how many jobs have been created, actually looking at how do people talk about organisations or social enterprises or airports or local governments on Facebook, how do people have dialogue using technology and how can we do analysis on that data that are out there and look at sentiment towards organisations.

“Using stuff that’s out there rather than generating more, and using the power of big data science is one area.

“I think maybe the second area is understanding that different people use technology in different ways.

“There is a lot of emerging evidence, that certain groups, maybe older people for example, don’t use technology in the same way as younger people but I think we’ve probably stereotyped that if you like, ‘you know they’re older so they don’t know how to use this technology’ but maybe we should be looking at what are the challenges for older people using technology or the different groups and then adapting technology so we can bring those groups into using it.”

Current projects include an ARC Discovery project using a geographic information system and other spatial technologies to provide a digital dashboard to measure wellbeing generated by social enterprises.

Another initiative with Telstra addresses uneven digital inclusion and participation in Australia due to remoteness, isolation and an ageing population.

Swinburne deputy vice-chancellor research and development, Professor Aleksandar Subic said modern society faced many challenges.

“These challenges need significant input and intervention from social sciences as much as they do from science, technology engineering and maths disciplines,”  Subic said.

“The role of the Social Innovation Research Institute is to work at the interface between humanity and technology, to tackle significant societal issues through interdisciplinary research, and to work with partners on key projects that support social value; participation and inclusion; wellbeing in the community; justice and public safety.”

Scottish government deputy director, and head of equality, human rights and third sector, Yvonne Strachan, who was the keynote speaker at the launch, said it took “many moving parts”, namely governments, communities, organisations and citizens, to come together to optimise the impact of social innovation.

“By working together we can create social enterprises that engage, value and employ many people,”  Strachan said.

“Through being more socially cohesive, we help strengthen communities and make them more resilient to economic and social shocks.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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