Can Innovation Be Equitable?

Headshot of smiling young woman with red hair and lipstickBy Tamsyn Riddle, Student Co-Lead, Access for Every Student Domain

When the word “innovation” comes up, it usually refers to technological changes that make life more convenient: computers, smart phones, driverless cars. In equity-related classes, we often talk about the inequalities between the people who can afford such new innovations and the majority of the world, and we criticize innovation for focusing too much on capitalist notions of efficiency.

Perhaps because of this, in the past I’ve often been skeptical of the idea of social innovation. I’ve often heard it used to refer to projects that are more band-aid-solution than substantive change; in first year I remember learning about a project called PlayPump that allowed communities to power water pumps using the power from children’s movement on a playground set. Not surprisingly, most PlayPumps were largely unused, wasting millions of investor dollars.

However, through the Innovation Hub, my skepticism has been challenged by my new understanding of the potential of innovative thinking to challenge the inequities that exist.

When Julia first described the interview process, with its focus on deeper needs rather than straightforward questions, it reminded me a lot of consciousness raising. This tactic in early feminism allowed women to gain an understanding of the issues they faced on the basis of their gender, and consider what needed to change moving forward. On a smaller scale, we are using a similar open-ended approach to deeply understand some of the issues faced by racialized, disabled, LGBTQ, mature, commuter, international, and non-citizen students.

Coming into the Innovation Hub, I was worried about coming up with solutions that whitewashed and depoliticized the violence and discrimination many students face. A common theme in our interviews was a perceived gulf between values and actual action.

But I think we have reason to be hopeful, even in the face of undeniably large barriers. In reading through interviews, I was interested in how many of the problems students faced came from the piling up of seemingly small, changeable factors: events held at night when someone needs childcare, a door that opens the wrong way, a professor who casually generalizes about racial minorities, a club executive who doesn’t respect a student’s pronouns. These all have profound effects on students’ experiences, in ways that are often invisible to those who haven’t faced these barriers.

Indeed, in brainstorming, a new idea often comes out of a gap between existing services, an empty space that students risk falling into- but that is often unseen to others. To many of the students we interviewed, this invisibility fosters a sense of being pulled apart at one’s intersectionalities.

What if, instead of adding programs for students with specific needs, we examined the structures of existing programs and found where the gaps are- and then proposed new ways to fill them? To me, that, and not having a smaller laptop or a better phone camera, is what innovation is all about.


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