Staving off the apocalypse; finding answers to questions that have social value

10-06-21 USAf 0 comment

If anyone has thought facing one problem was more than enough, they haven’t chanced upon Erwin Schwella. The Dean in the School of Social Innovation at Hugenote Kollege, Emeritus Professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University and a proponent of social innovation, believes three problems are optimal. This is especially so in the case of complex ones that do not have easy answers. These are known as wicked problems

Professor Schwella (left) was addressing the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education’s Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW), themed Entrepreneurship at Universities, on 3 June. Introducing his presentation on Social Innovation to deputy vice-chancellors and other executive leaders of South Africa’s public universities, he said: “It all starts with a problem. And preferably more than one.”

He then explained this apparent dilemma: “You can’t plait one problem. But if you have three problems then you can make a plait. And that starts to help you a lot.”

Professor Schwella was referring to interweaving or connecting ideas to find a solution, one of the tenets of social innovation. Explaining it further, he said: “Social innovation is about being strong on co-creating shared vision and weak on constraining boundaries”.

The concept is clarified on the website of Hugenote Kollege, a private Christian tertiary training institution with campuses in Wellington, Worcester and Kimberley, where Professor Schwella is the founding Dean of the newly established School of Social Innovation.

Social Innovation, it said, is about new ways of dealing with social challenges for the benefit of society. It is about solving society’s problems in ways that are effective, efficient, and ethical.

And it continues with a comment that is perhaps most relevant to university leaders: while people are implementing solutions through social innovation, it “builds personal and purposeful learning leadership competencies and impactful institutional capacity”.

Professor Schwella’s talk included one direct comment about universities. He advised the workshop participants: “We should teach our students that you need problems to build a business. Solve other people’s problems and you’ve got a business’’.

His presentation was on higher education more by implication, in that it focused on leadership and so covered some of the workshop’s key objectives:  

  • to provide perspectives on challenges faced by leaders initiating and overseeing innovation initiatives that yielded value;
  • to discuss the role of Social Entrepreneurship and opportunities for universities;
  • to give delegates an understanding of the entrepreneurship ecosystem that is required for creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship; and
  • to discuss the attributes of executive leaders at universities.

Professor Schwella is an international leadership expert. He is one of eight Fellows for 2021-2022 of the International Leadership Association (ILA), based in Maryland in the US. According to the ILA website, Fellows are “a select group of expert members who have a desire to give back to the field of leadership” and work across sectors and disciplines to do “worthy work at the intersection of leadership, research and practice”.

Professor Schwella, who has chaired the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group, referred participants to his article published on its website in June last year. Titled The Global Pandemic: A trigger for Deeply Systemic Disruptive Social Innovation? Or an Inevitable Global Apolocalypse?, He said the article was deliberately pessimistic — not necessarily his nature — but for the purpose of the argument. This article begins: “Our political, social, and economic ideologies and institutions are not adequately dealing with global wicked problems. Leadership must start and sustain courageous leadership conversations, or we will not make progress towards solving these growing problems and the probabilities for an apocalyptic end increase”.

His article referred to Earth Overshoot Day, which the Global Footprint Network calculates as the date on which the world globally enters into environmental overdraft. That is, the date on which people’s consumption of resources exceeds the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources during that year. It was first calculated in 1971 as 29 December. The most recent Earth Overshoot Day, calculated for 2019, was 29 July.

“According to the Network,” wrote the professor, “human consumption currently requires one and a half worlds to sustain the global population. This is a source for a myriad and multitude of wicked leadership and governance problems, globally, nationally, and locally”.

He said social innovation takes place in an ever-changing disruptive world where the future is undefined. To emphasise this uncertainty, Professor Schwella quoted American baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra’s well-known comment, “The future ain’t what it used to be” in his presentation. He also quoted Joe Gerber, Managing Director of the American research and design network IDEO’s CoLab, who said: “What future do you want to create? How do you work your way backwards to get there?”

Schwella summed up Social Innovation as being about the four Cs: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity in the context of a VUCA world, which is a mnemonic for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. “And then in this ecosystem enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which leads us to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and information technology,” he said.  He added that social innovation’s setting is “increasing waves of recurring global apocalyptic crises such as pandemics, global warming, droughts, tsunamis, famine, crime, corruption and war,” he said.

Using apocalyptic crises to devise solutions to societal problems

The big global question is: “How do we, collectively and inclusively, design and deliver systemic global societal institutions to create and share public value effectively and ethically?”.

Social Innovation is relevant in South Africa where this country’s wicked problems are clearly outlined in the National Development Plan: poverty, inequality, unemployment, weak institutions, disastrous public and private governance, bad leadership, and corruption and maladministration. He hailed the National Development Plan for its good diagnostics but added “the prognostics have somehow failed us”.

The National Development Plan aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. He believes it can achieve these goals by drawing on the energies of its people, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capacity of the state, and promoting leadership throughout society.

He said that co-constructing a social innovation ecosystem in South Africa, for implementation purposes, is about:

  • who has the problems;
  • what are the problems;
  • where are the problems;
  • who are the co-creative partners;
  • what is the co-creative process; and
  • where and what is the project?

And the bias for action, said Professor Schwella, is: “Those who say it cannot be done, should get out of the way of those who are doing it!”

Universities South Africa convened the Executive Leadership Workshop through its Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, in collaboration with the British Council and Stellenbosch University.

Through ELW 2021, the EDHE Programme was looking to achieve a shared understanding among DVCs and other executive university leaders, on the characteristics of entrepreneurial universities in the South African context; to equip and strengthen the DVCs to promote entrepreneurship at their universities and engage in institutional entrepreneurship policy development work as relevant to their contexts; to instil in DVCs a clear understanding of their role as executive leaders at their institutions and, ultimately, to increase the number of universities with entrepreneurship development policies.

The EDHE programme is mainly sponsored by and is being implemented in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.