Group photo

And breathe. Then crash.

The feeling is universal when you’ve just pulled off an event, but a bit more acute when you’re a diabetic who skipped his lunchtime medication because he was too caught up in hosting/schmoozing duties (sshh, don’t tell my GP…)

Last Thursday my Social Impact Lab hosted the first ever Southampton Social Entrepreneurship Showcase. By all accounts (people’s feedback on the day and subsequently) it was a solid success.

But while the success of the event is important (given the presence of senior university leadership and our external partners) the bigger question, as we look at returning with the Showcase every year from now on, is how we value our achievements. Here are a few thoughts:

The most powerful tool is a student’s voice

Despite the love for my exposition of our philosophy, far and away the most well-received section of the day (intentionally so, I might add) were testimonials from our student social entrepreneurs. We had to be selective here due to time constraints, but we could have had many more on stage.

The eloquence and gentle power of our students always stagger me, but when you also hear what students give up to pursue their passion, and the humility with which they approach careers of impact, it’s hard not to be moved.


Andreas Ostrovsky Pereira, Southampton alum & Founder of Sagar Energy Solutions


..but the metrics battle will rage on 

Our Lab, like many other centres of social innovation or entrepreneurship at universities around the world, are judged both at an institutional level and a sector level. Institutionally, the drivers are the numbers of ventures we germinate, but not the increase in the skills capabilities of the students who participate in our programmes.  At a sector level, it’s the same.

This is a huge problem for us:  philosophically, methodologically and practically.  The number of ventures we help create varies year to year, and it is not our primary purpose.

I want our Lab to be in the vanguard of centres finding ways to value what we do. I’ve attended sessions at the Ashoka U Exchange on the subject, and I’m going to running a mini-session on it at the Social Impact Education get together at the Skoll World Forum next week.

The challenge of challenge-based education 

I opened the Showcase with a pithy (for me) exposition of the Social Impact Lab’s philosophy and methodology. I’m going to publish more on it soon, but at the heart of the latter is a commitment to challenge-based education.

Our work builds on NESTA’s excellent report on challenge-driven universities. I attended a separate but related NESTA event earlier this month on Responsible Innovation and the Role of Universities where Geoff Mulgan frankly told me that, despite success in primary education, they’ve been struggling to take challenge-based education into higher education.

There are good reasons for that; a lack of incentives to reform and remodel programmes, a sclerotic quality assurance process, and, quite honestly, a lack of teaching talent (and associated resources) to make it happen.


I remain deluded  positive enough to believe that with the right argument and a compelling vision, challenge-based education can take root in our HE system and bloom from the sprinkling of modules to something more substantial.




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