UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From theory to practice : an analysis of transformative social innovation at the University of British Columbia Pajouhesh, Seyedeh Paniz


Higher education institutions are striving to become both models and leaders in innovation for sustainable development, as sustainability is becoming a growing priority around the world. The approaches adopted by many universities, however, are typically implemented as an add-on to existing structural and social frameworks, which often constrain new ideas and practices that transcend traditional institutional structures or, at best, promote incremental change for sustainability. Incremental change, however, may not suffice to cope with prevailing sustainability challenges. In fact, it may only serve to perpetuate unsustainable trajectories that are embedded in institutional processes and practices characterized by inertia and path-dependency. It is necessary to overcome the limitations of piecemeal improvement to develop purposive approaches that enable, accelerate and scale-up transformative social innovations. This thesis examines the activities that have informed and guided innovation processes for sustainability at the University of British Columbia over the past twenty years, through the lens of socio-technical transitions theory, in order to gain greater insight into the dynamics, mechanisms and agency that the theory suggests is necessary for engendering transformative social innovation. Based on an extensive literature review, document analysis, and expert interviews with key stakeholders, the findings suggest that the institution exhibits the necessary conditions to foster transformative change for social innovation. An analysis of its sustainability policies, practices and processes over the past twenty years reveal that the University has created and continues to sustain the conditions for this complex, long-term and multi-level systemic change through experimentation and learning and multi-level coordination and synchronization – with exception of a few institutional barriers that have challenged non-conformism and innovation development or the diffusion of ideas and practices across scales. Recommendations are provided for the University, and for other institutions, to better govern a transition to sustainability. Though the University of British Columbia model will not necessarily suit a generic application to other universities, as the context in which they operate will be different, the findings from this study shed light on best practices, and possible barriers and challenges, to governing sustainability transitions at higher education institutions.

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