What is an Innovation Hub?

Headshot of smiling woman with curly blonde hair in blue dressBy Alexandra Rodney, Student Innovation Leader, Operations Team

I’m Alexandra, a PhD student in Sociology here at the University of Toronto, and I am going to be contributing posts about the research side of things to the Innovation Hub blog. Whether you’re new to the Innovation Hub or have participated in some part of creating the Hub, you may be asking yourself “what is an innovation hub?” To answer this question we need to think about the concept of innovation and the postsecondary context. There are over 87,000 students at the University of Toronto who are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. The UofT student demographic today is vastly different than a generation ago and is also different than it will be in the future. If student demographics are changing it raises the question of how student services need to change in response. This is where innovation comes in!

Innovation is a hot topic in the business world in regards to creating new solutions for market needs and is beginning to gain traction in institutions of higher education.  I recently read a book titled Leading Innovation and Change: A Guide for Chief Student Affairs Officers on Shaping the Future (Smith et al. 2015) that provides a roadmap for bringing innovation to postsecondary institutions, particularly to student life departments. The authors describe student affairs staff as key players who can keep universities relevant in the future through innovation.

Echoing trends in leadership theory, the authors assert that “knowing how to lead innovation is the key to establishing and sustaining a thriving organization in the 21st century.” In regards to higher education organizations, they advocate creating an “innovation hub” as a strategy for invigorating novel strategies for change. An innovation hub creates an environment in which innovation can happen through developing infrastructure and acting as a campus-wide resource. The hub can be a physical space, a point of contact or an environment in which innovation is fostered and modeled. Within an innovation hub, the goal is to discover “sustaining innovations” (those designed to improve existing systems) and “disruptive innovations” (revolutionary creations that significantly alter the existing landscape).

As we learned at the Innovation Hub kick-off event, innovation involves “doing different differently”. How are we planning on doing different differently? So far we have developed five core domains that need to be addressed at UofT for innovation and productive change in the Division of Student Life, St. George.  We’ve also created a flattened hierarchy at the Innovation Hub, with students co-leading teams that will gather information about different facets of the student experience. Students, staff and faculty will be working together to understand what life is like at UofT from students’ perspectives. Based on the information they gather about students experiences, they will collaboratively think about innovative ideas that can be implemented in order to make students’ lives at UofT even better (in ways that we may not have realized there is room for improvement!).

As a UofT student who has been learning and teaching here for 12 years (I also did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at UofT), I have been privy to hearing the good, the bad and the ugly stories from students, staff and faculty. I’m excited to see that data on student experiences is going to be captured at a broad level and in a way that is student-centered. I’m also excited about the part that comes after data collection: ideation, prototyping and implementation (where we develop solutions, bring them to life and adjust as we incorporate learning along the way – more on this in a future blog post!). As a sociologist, I don’t generally get to think about creating practical solutions to social problems and I’m looking forward to the future when we can hear from students about how our solutions have improved their student experiences.

Are you interested in contributing to the Innovation Hub process? Participation is welcome from all members of the UofT community. Stay tuned to our events page for upcoming Innovation Hours!

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