University of Southern California

GreenHouse principals hold one of only three Innovator in Residence posts at major US universities and the only such post in the social sciences. In this capacity since 2014 at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work – the largest such institution in the world – GreenHouse has guided development of the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation, the nation’s first graduate nursing program focused on the social determinants of health and original programs related to field training, the scope and role of the social work profession, and an original theory of social innovation.

New norms for science

Since World War II, the United States has developed a powerful medical research enterprise centered on federal funding sources like the National Institutes of Health — often nicknamed “Big Science.” But the norms of Big Science will have to be adjusted if we’re going to help society’s most vulnerable people.

That was the conclusion we took away from the Islandwood Science in Nursing Roundtable, a three-day interdisciplinary gathering where we guided thinkers from nursing, social work, and public health as they reckoned with the social determinants of health. Working in teams, participants developed future scenarios for nursing science, targeting strategic milestones that would need to be achieved in coming decades if we are to address the American population’s most persistent inequities.

“Human subjects research seeks insights into standard models of human bodies and behaviors, just as we’ve always done with fruit flies and barnacles,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote after the event. “But human beings aren’t barnacles — the people who are being left out of standard models matter. We need new ideas about how we can expand the vision of the sciences to include all the people they normally exclude.”

The event was part of our work developing the new graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and was guided by our research into the social determinants of health and professional education.

More than markets

With their extensive training in social context and complex social dynamics, you might think that social workers were leaders in the burgeoning fields of social innovation and social entrepreneurship. But they’re not, as business and design schools have muscled them out.

We took this message to current and future social work academics in an effort to help them develop their own more socially-oriented approach to innovation.

“There’s a secret about social innovation,” Jeff Leitner told the Islandwood Roundtable on Innovation in Social Work. “The people who teach it, facilitate it and reward it don’t know anything about social systems and how they work. Worse, it doesn’t occur to them that a grounding in social systems is the least bit relevant.”

Unlike the innovation model commonly espoused in business schools, a social work version would look beyond markets and technology as methods of diffusion and would be grounded in legitimate understanding of human systems and institutions.

Developing a more legitimate model for social innovation is part of our work as Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, where we have helped launch the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.