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Nelson to lead School’s efforts on social innovation and entrepreneurship

Gary Nelson, the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy, has been appointed director of social innovation and entrepreneurship at the School of Social Work. In this new role, Nelson will help lead the School’s efforts “to explore, promote and nurture new ways of addressing social problems,” said Dean Gary L. Bowen.

“The creation of this new administrative position is entirely consistent with the … strategic focus on making innovation fundamental in the work of the University,” Bowen said.

Nelson will build off the work he began last year with the creation of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab. This creative space is housed at Durham’s American Underground and aims to bring together MSW students with young entrepreneurs in business, law, government, technology and other fields to think creatively about how to address some of society’s most pressing problems, including poverty, homelessness, access to mental health care and other social issues. The lab was created in partnership with UNC’s Campus Y and its innovation hub, The Cube.

In addition to overseeing the lab, Nelson will work closely with the Jordan Institute for Families to develop and implement a five-year plan to promote and monitor the progress of social innovation and entrepreneurship within the School. This focus will include trainings for faculty and students and building collaborative relationships with other schools and departments on campus and in the community.

“Part of what we will look at is how we create a culture of innovation,” Nelson said. “Innovation is driven, in part, by an ability to integrate different perspectives, really ‘different’ perspectives, to think and act differently ourselves. And then the next question is when we innovate, think and act differently, do we see a positive demonstrable social impact? To me, the essence of social innovation is the social impact – the creating of social benefits for others and ourselves.”

Nelson, who has long been interested in community change, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development, thinks innovation and entrepreneurship are key to better solutions for serving families in crisis, including those within the child welfare, foster care or behavioral health environments. For example, agencies could work more closely with clients as partners, learn from them and lean on their expertise to help drive outcomes that best serve a family’s needs, he said.

“A lot of the service innovation that we see currently is still more about control and efficiency than social impact,” Nelson said. “It’s about being managed from above or by outside experts as opposed to families or individuals being the experts in their own lives and learning from the expertise of others. Ultimately, if families and individuals don’t buy in and participate in the co-creation of solutions, it’s not going to work.”

At the same time, social work researchers, practitioners and educators must make innovation fundamental to their own work and actively identify others who are interested in supporting an entrepreneurial environment. “Innovation is made possible when people who have been working in isolation begin to work together, spurring our systems forward for shared social benefit.”