The Landscape of Social Innovation in Canadian Universities: An Empirical Analysis


  • Peter Milley Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa
  • Barbara Szijarto Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, University of Ottawa
  • Kristen Bennett Public Health Agency of Canada, Independent Researcher



Universities, Higher Education, Social Innovation, Canada


There has been global growth in the number of social innovation initiatives launched in the university sector over the last decade. These initiatives aim to address complex social problems and to promote institutional change. This surge is occurring without a well-developed empirical knowledge base. This article provides a comprehensive description and analysis of the landscape of social innovation initiatives in the Canadian university sector. Findings show that nearly half of Canada’s 96 universities are associated with at least one initiative; many are interdisciplinary and emphasize collaborative problem-solving with sectors outside the university; and government agencies and charitable foundations are the most common funding sources. Findings suggest there is room for growth and for linking and clustering initiatives. The article concludes with directions for future research.

La dernière décennie a été marquée par une croissance mondiale du nombre d’initiatives d’innovation sociale lancées dans le secteur universitaire. Ces initiatives visent à résoudre des problèmes sociaux complexes et à induire des changements institutionnels et systémiques. Cette poussée de l’activité d’innovation sociale se produit sans une base de connaissances empiriques bien développée. Nous y contribuons en fournissant une description et une analyse complètes de toutes les initiatives d’innovation sociale auxquelles participe le secteur universitaire canadien, de leurs caractéristiques et du paysage qu’elles constituent. Résultats notables: près de la moitié des 96 universités canadiennes sont associées à au moins une initiative; de nombreuses initiatives sont interdisciplinaires et mettent l’accent sur la résolution de problèmes en collaboration avec des secteurs extérieurs à l’université; Les agences gouvernementales et les fondations caritatives sont les sources de financement les plus courantes. Les résultats suggèrent: il existe un potentiel de croissance de l’innovation sociale dans le secteur; il y a moins de liens internes et de regroupement d’initiatives que ne le recommande la théorie de l’innovation; l’accent mis sur la collaboration extérieure rejoint la «troisième mission» des universités, qui existe depuis longtemps, mais les innovateurs sociaux ont des objectifs, des méthodes et des processus distincts pour mener à bien cette mission. Nous concluons avec les orientations pour les recherches futures.

Keywords / Mots clés: Universities; Higher education; Social innovation; Community engagement; Service mission; Social change; Canada / Universités; Établissements d’enseignement supérieur; Innovation sociale; Engagement communautaire; Mission de service; Changement social; Canada

Author Biographies

Peter Milley, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

Peter Milley is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Senior Associate of the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa, 145 Jean-Jacques Lussier, Ottawa, K1N 6N5. Email:

Barbara Szijarto, Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, University of Ottawa

Barbara Szijarto recently received her Ph.D. from the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa and is an Associate of the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa, , 145 Jean-Jacques Lussier, Ottawa, K1N 6N5. Email:


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