Discussing Impact Incubators with Prof David Shirk, University of San Diego

The notion of ‘Impact Incubators’ came up recently, as part of a lunch discussion with Professor David Shirk from the University of San Diego. This short article restitutes some of the big ideas which I wanted to remember from the meeting. Keep reading!

Discussing Impact Incubators with Prof. David Shirk, University of San Diego

The notion of ‘Impact Incubators’ came up recently, as part of a lunch discussion with Professor David Shirk from the University of San Diego. This short article restitutes some of the big ideas which I wanted to remember from the meeting. Keep reading!

University business got me to San Diego this summer, so I took some time to meet some of the people who drive the Impact developments of the city’s two main Universities. Among these people was David Shirk, Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations and Director of the University’s Masters Program in International Relations.

I wanted to meet David for two main reasons.

One, he received an International Impact Award from the University of San Diego in 2016 for his work on Justice in Mexico, so I wanted to learn more about his approach to Impact and explore with him the question of how research could become more Impactful.

Two, the University of San Diego and the UC San Diego University both have a Changemaker program, so I wanted to understand to what extent driving change and Impact was part of the local academic institutions’ DNA.

Well, my lunch meeting proved to be very interesting. Among the various ideas which have come out of our discussion, I particularly wanted to remember David’s suggestions that what mattered overall was to turn education centers and Universities into change and Impact Incubators. What an idea!

Thank you, David.

From research rationalization to Mindset development.

My first question to David went straight into the topic. I wanted to know why and how the University of San Diego had gotten involved in Impact development, and his answer pointed me in a direction very similar to the one followed in Hong Kong: at first, the driver was somewhere in between intellectual development and research rationalization, with a strong focus on rationalization, however.

On the intellectual side of things, the University decided to invest in developing a philosophy oriented towards peace and justice, which naturally led to the idea of creating some change for cross-border communities.

At the same time, the University also realized that it had around thirty different research centers and institutes, which meant that one way or another resource allocation was neither optimal or efficient. So the idea of a Changemaker Hub was introduced as a means to try and coordinate some of the Institution’s research efforts around social innovation and society Impact.

The project came from the AshokaU philosophy – the leading Institution for social innovation in higher education which for the past ten years has promoted the development of about 45 Changemaker Campuses and programs around the world. And it aimed at introducing some new entrepreneurial, teaching and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) mindset within the University of San Diego.

The goal was openly social, clearly, but David also insisted that the purpose was to make the innovation durable and sustainable. Said differently, thinking in terms of Impact development and problem-solving was a way to inject some entrepreneurial thinking into the University’s equation.

Market approach, but not only.

One of the ways used to develop such a mindset with the University consisted in creating social innovation challenges for the students. To put things simply, students would be invited to identify societal issues and to propose adequate solutions to those problems. However those solutions would need to be actionable, and they would need to be sustainable, that is reproducible in the long-term.

To develop their solutions, and for the past five years, the students have furthermore been invited to think in terms of market needs and ventures, but they have also been encouraged to pitch their projects outside campus, to try and create traction around their efforts.

The idea is very Impactful and is very much in line with the largely entrepreneurial mindset of the various San Diego Universities – from what I have seen and heard, at least – but David Shirk brought some nuance to the discussion by suggesting that Impact shouldn’t just be a matter of fostering entrepreneurial mindsets in a startup way.

Markets can solve problems what public inertia can’t solve, there is no doubt about that. Yet his point was that we also need to make sure that research is Impactful in non-market-oriented ways as well, for market won’t bother solving issues which normally fall under the realm of regalian functions.

Justice in Mexico as an example.

David’s research on Mexico / US cross-border Justice is a good example of that, quite obviously, and his Impact Award is a good proof of it.

The project started in the years 2000 as a rather academic project aimed at studying crime and violence in a US / Mexico context. As most academic projects, it led to a series of conferences and meetings, which in turn produced working papers which were disseminated with the public prior to being published in their final version through the normal publication process.

Doing this had a direct Impact on society. For starters, it helped with raising awareness with decision-makers and justice officials on both sides of the frontier, breaking some nasty myths and legends by the same token. But this applied research format also led to some consulting, which eventually increased the reach and Impact of the research by empowering the researchers with a public diplomacy role.

Beyond influencing decision makers, the Justice in Mexico project also made a positive contribution to society in that it helped to inform the public debate and to equip people with new and unbiased information which so far was unavailable and had thus led to both misinformation and misunderstandings.

Impactful research generating external funding.

An interesting aspect of Impactful research is that it increases the reach of the researchers, particularly from a financial perspective.

In the case of UC San Diego (the other San Diego University, for clarity), financial reach is obtained largely through tight connections and relationships with investors and Venture Capitalist (VC) firms, but in David’s case, the model isn’t economics-based so VC funding doesn’t apply. Still, the Justice in Mexico project is fully funded by non-university donors and government grants, which suggests that developing Impact is a very significant way of increasing access to research funds for Faculties.

This is not to say that having recourse to external funding is easy. These relationships can be tricky because they create fears that the researchers might lose their academic independence, for starters. More significantly, they also force academics to think differently, in terms of value creation for the external funders – which obviously is a tricky exercise that academics are not used to putting into place.

Impact is a dynamics which needs to be nurtured.

The discussion with David eventually led to the question of dynamics. Creating a mindset is great, but as I’ve written in the past, a mindset needs to be nurtured and turned into a process in order to become sustainable.

In the case of the University of San Diego, David explained that an office is responsible for monitoring Impact, and regularly a prize is delivered to reward Impactful researchers and their outreach – whether these researchers are professors or students.

Recognizing Impact work.

“A prize? Awesome, but then what?”

The point can seem irrelevant, but in reality, the question of rewarding Impactful research is much more important than it seems.

Beyond the prize, what matters is the recognition that a researcher has made a major effort to change the world and make it a better place when others haven’t. In many cases, spending time (and money) on a project because of its impact is more than audacious, it is risky. Why? because it forces the researchers to operate outside of the usual context and to get outside of their comfort zone. It also pushes them to invest their energy in work projects which usually aren’t rewarded as far as career progression grids are concerned.

In short? Impact is often something which happens out of personal conviction. In many occasions, in fact, my discussions with researchers originating from various Institutions have led to the conclusion that University administrators expect a significant shift to be operated without creating any incentives to make that shift happen. In this case, the recognition therefore sends an important message.

Reach and institutional context.

Beyond the personal recognition factor, Impact rewards also represent an opportunity in terms of marketing and reach development for the researchers. In this case, for instance, David’s Impact led to an article in which I bumped online and which pushed me to get in touch.

Overall, the point for David was therefore to say that Impact creates an opportunity to develop a favorable research environment. Which also suggests that the research environment can benefit from an Impact Initiative provided that a favorable environment is created to create am Impact culture around the researchers.

Creating Impact Incubators for facilitating and fostering Impactful research.

The culture element was extremely important in David’s narrative, and he didn’t need to convince me that he had a point. In essence, the culture is at the heart of everything and it acts as the foundation of whatever you try to develop.

Ultimately, what you want as a University is not to push for Impact without following up on the project. Right? No. What you want is to create enthusiasm around the initiative, so that people decide to integrate the mindset. Not because they are asked to, but because they want to and because they see their interest in doing it.

At some point, developing Impact does require an ability and a willingness to develop your own reach, and that implies some work. First, being Impactful as researchers requires a form of personal strategy which needs to be encouraged and developed from an institutional perspective. Second, increasing one’s reach implies communication and outreach efforts which, clearly, create an additional workload that many people simply won’t be willing to take on. As it turns out, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, but you can give them some incentives to look at things differently…

So? Well, having the appropriate Impact culture in place is the beginning of the whole process. David called that “creating Impact incubators aimed at facilitating and fostering Impactful research”, and I thought the expression was brilliant. Let’s stick with it.


*** This note was written to transcribe my thoughts and conclusions following my discussion with Prof. Shirk and the conclusions formulated on this page remain my own. ***



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Author: I'll Make You Think SMART

Hey there, I’m Antoine, I’m a 30-something PhD and I read a lot. Politics, society, technology, business, self-development, you name it! This is my food-for-thought blog, and I bet I’ll Make You Think SMART, one book at a time! Read smart, think smart!