Photo by Doug Levere
When I consider the promise of project-based collaboration, I get very excited. I have already seen its benefits for traditional college students. Challenged assumptions, deepened learning and clarified career goals, accompanied by fascinating cultural interactions and stories to share. It is not at all surprising that students are seeking more of these experiences- opportunities to get close to people, places and problems, to innovate and add value in meaningful and compelling ways. Figuring out how to offer such experiences at scale represents a fundamental challenge for Higher Education but also a pathway toward continued viability and relevance.
While I am completely convinced of the value of this new paradigm, and immersed in creating such a model at the University at Buffalo, I cannot help reflecting on its promise for those on the periphery of the privilege ecosystem. In the new frontier of innovation and design thinking, the most exciting projects are those associated with the most compelling needs, challenges and communities. These types of high-impact challenges allow students to develop critical skills and competencies while showcasing their work and abilities for multiple audiences. But at the very heart of this paradigm is the idea that those who are closest to challenges are best positioned to address them, possessing the necessary credibility, inside knowledge, and social capital to engineer nuanced solutions. When we look around our own communities, opportunities for innovation are literally everywhere, but especially within the neighborhoods and populations that are closest to the challenges, and farthest from the resources and structures that control them. Clearly, these are the most compelling challenges and represent exciting projects for students of all ages.
But once we recognize the value for our own students, aren’t we compelled to go even farther, to play out the innovation paradigm to its most powerful implications? If it is true that solutions should be “owned” by those closest to their associated problems and most poised to address them, then the youth should be our focus. More specifically, the youth who are stuck in the complex layers of inequities and obstacles associated with their poverty; perhaps not all youth- but certainly those who are motivated to lead positive change through building capacity. Because these youth are far from the levers of privilege, they would need considerable help and support to be able to initiate and steward collaborative innovation. But luckily, cities like Buffalo have an abundance of institutions, systems, leaders and networks poised to offer resources, facilitation and expertise. This is most certainly the case for Higher Education. And since the very future of our colleges and universities will rely heavily on our ability to provide meaningful collaborative experiences to our students- we should be more than eager to rise to the opportunity.
Through my global engagement work, I have already seen community development through this flipped lens. When we take students to rural Tanzania, we visit “social innovators”, who are our partners, working within the most challenged communities and regions, and with the most marginalized populations. Invariably, these community leaders are from the very same communities and contexts that they work to serve, possessing the commitment, relationships, and experiences that position them to make meaningful change. In fact, we have found that these are the best partners, really the only partners who can make a lasting impact within the most challenged communities. Of course, these innovators are in need of collaboration since they lack systems-level knowledge, access to models and research, and critical resources of many kinds. Because of these limitations, they often see grant funding and donations as the only pathway to development, viewing potential partners as benefactors and themselves as fundamentally deficient or lacking. However, in the new paradigm of project-based collaboration, these partners have so much to offer. Our students, looking for real-world projects and platforms for developing and showcasing their skill sets, rightly view our partners as community leaders, mentors, and above all collaborators. Through equitable engagement, they work on producing research, marketing materials, grant applications, and exploring viable models and techniques that can be tested and built upon. Our students also come to understand the benefits and resources that their own privilege affords, and how by working together, they can contribute to change while not attempting to impose assumptions or models on communities and cultures that are not theirs.
Clearly, the worlds of innovation, design thinking, and project-based learning are not going away. In fact, as we come to understand their benefits we will continue to deepen our investment while searching for models that are scalable and sustainable by design. This will force us (eventually) to see our most challenged communities and those who are poised to support and uplift them as leaders and innovators, who are worthy of our collective support and collaboration. We all stand to benefit from this new educational frontier, and there is simply no time to waste.