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Universities Can Help Solve World's Problems Through Social Innovation

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When officials at England's Peterborough Prison got frustrated about the increasing financial and societal cost of re-arresting, re-convicting and re-imprisoning the same people every few years, they turned to a new approach. The approach involved an innovative tool known as a "social impact bond," in which outside investors pay the upfront program costs in exchange for a portion of government savings if (and only if) the program works.

In Peterborough's case, the result was a 6 percent drop in recidivism at a time when rates increased by 16 percent nationwide.

Now imagine how universities -- with their vast resources, research capabilities and connections -- in concert with government, civil society and business sectors -- could create, promote and nurture programs as innovative as the Peterborough experiment and even more so.

Social impact bonds are only one example of the kinds of new financial instruments that enable new cross-sector partnerships. In this rapidly changing world, we need to provide new leaders with the skills to move beyond defined boundaries and find solutions. It's time for a new conversation on social impact -- one that focuses on results and outcomes, not just how much money is spent or how many people receive social services.

Universities -- which build skills, knowledge and engagement and serve as catalysts for important conversations -- are ideally qualified to serve as hubs for this work. They contribute ideas and policy recommendations on how to effect change. They can help pave the way for social innovation to move beyond buzzwords.

The new Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, funded by philanthropist Alberto Beeck and his wife, Olga María, a 1981 graduate of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, will do just that. The center will provide training to create impact, bring vigorous debate on tools for greater impact and foster innovation for better policymaking. A state-of-the-art laboratory to test new ideas and methods will be a key part of the new center.

We will meet our ambitious goals through innovative courses and by fostering partnerships across disciplines, sectors and schools. Working closely with faculty members, we will provide incentives for them to study different aspects of social innovation, including new finance mechanisms for the social sector, how technology engages communities, how data can improve social outcomes and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Georgetown aims to create university-led prototypes envisioning new partnerships, finance and social structures that reflect 21st-century realities.

Social innovation leverages the creativity, expertise and resources of business, civil society, academia and government to produce results and move the needle on serious social challenges. New approaches and applications already are incredibly diverse -- ranging from reducing corruption with mobile money payments in Afghanistan to preventing disease in Peru by incorporating new health information into the education system.

What unites these innovations is a focus on results. These efforts require initiative, innovation, resilience and an ability to work across all sectors. We know that government, business and civic society cannot solve these problems alone. Collaboration and innovative thinking is required across the board. And universities can lead the way.

Change -- in any realm -- requires an entrepreneurial mindset as well as a systematic approach to address some of our most entrenched problems. This is especially important during a time when emerging economies hope to raise living standards even as growth slows. Europe is pursuing austerity measures and our own country is cutting funding for social services, education and job training. We need to have systems in place to counteract this trend and find more creative approaches that lead to real, measurable impact.

To accomplish this, we will need skills from all sectors -- from civil society, which understands how communities work; from the business sector to help find and fund more scalable solutions; from the technology industry, which can develop tools to better reach disconnected groups; and from government, which has a legal and moral imperative to improve outcomes for all its citizens.

Georgetown and the Beeck Center now have the opportunity to create rigorous research tools to help shape and define the field of social innovation. We want to provide students the experiential- and skills-based learning that will make them effective change-makers, no matter what field they enter into.

Universities invest in people in a unique and sustaining way. We want to provide future generations with not only new tools and skills, but also the empathy to positively impact the world around them. With their obligation to further the public good, universities like Georgetown can and will help lead the way.

Thomas Edison once said that the light bulb was an invention "with 1,000 steps." The creation of the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown is the first of many steps.

Sonal Shah, former director of the first White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, has just been named executive director of Georgetown's new Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, opening Feb. 11, 2014.