May 01, 2023

African universities as enablers of social innovation and sustainable development


Universities can facilitate the development of solutions to pressing societal challenges. Universities have the potential to generate knowledge about global challenges, influence policy making and practice on how to address these challenges and develop innovative solutions themselves. Yet, more insights are needed on how universities can utilize this potential more strategically and efficiently. Most research on the roles of universities beyond teaching and research has focused on the Global North, while universities in the Global South, particularly African universities, have been largely overlooked. This project addresses this gap and uses a social innovation perspective to investigate how universities can contribute to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The overarching research questions guiding the project are: How can African universities facilitate social innovation and sustainable development? What challenges and tensions need to be overcome in this process? What opportunities and mechanisms can be leveraged to reach these goals? We will interrogate these questions in a research team comprising researchers from seven universities from South Africa, Ghana, Uganda and the UK. The research is based on a qualitative research design and works towards three project goals:

  1. Building a research network focusing on the role of universities as change agents to investigate how African universities can promote social innovation and addressing grand societal challenges in different contexts.
  2. Primary data collection on opportunities and barriers for universities to promote social innovation. Our primary data collection will initially focus on South Africa, Uganda and Ghana but we intend to expand the research scope to additional African countries.
  3. Disseminating research findings. We will share our findings to inform a wide audience on how universities can leverage their potential to promote social innovation and tackle global challenges.

The expected outcomes include: a transdisciplinary workshop in Cape Town, a co-authored research article, several media articles, two organized sessions at international conferences and a co-edited special issue. The research will be pursued in collaboration with the WUN Global Higher Education and Research (GHEAR) network which also provided funding for the project.