New MFA program in Social Innovation Seeks to Create Social Entrepreneurs
These days, it’s a tough decision to go to graduate school: with unemployment still near nine percent and the prospect of a lifetime paying off student debt, many young people are uncertain that a graduate degree is worth the trouble.
A former graduate student (and student debtor) myself, I am skeptical when I hear about new programs. Why, I ask myself, should students trust that this program will get them ahead in life—and that it will be worth the price tag?
What makes me warm up to a program is one thing: an emphasis on practice alongside theory, or, more specifically, a way for students to do concrete work that matters before they finish their degrees. In previous centuries, young people would have become apprentices to masters of their craft, gaining valuable experience doing real tasks while learning along the way; graduate programs that replicate this model are, I believe, most likely to lead their participants to successful careers.
Cheryl Heller, the pragmatic dreamer who created and will be chair of the new MFA in Social Innovation program set to launch in 2012 at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, couldn’t agree more. After years working as a consultant to Fortune 100 companies as well as non-profit organizations with a social change focus, Heller had seen various approaches to ideas like sustainability. It was enough to make her skeptical toward the whole concept. “With sustainable design, we either don’t go far enough, or we are in danger of convincing ourselves that just focusing on sustainability is enough,” she told Dowser. Heller had seen how “sustainability” could become one of those soundbites our culture loves—like “green,” and like “social innovation.”
But Heller also strongly believes that this is the moment for people to focus on sustainability, because “the world wants purpose now,” she explained, adding that the definition of sustainability should be very clear: “Social innovation has to benefit both society and the environment.”
The new MFA program will take students (twenty-five per cohort) through two years of learning–in and out of the classroom–with a diverse group of practicing designers and experienced educators. Learning will take place through three principal methods: immersion in the world where a student wants to make a social impact; developing the concrete business and design skills necessary to implement innovation; and an understanding of how to integrate social transformation into a business model, through design.
Above all, the program is designed to get people working out of the classroom. Many of the courses will be structured so that students are working with an actual client, like a corporation or non-profit organization, to deliver a product or service. This enables an important shift to a “client perspective” that revolutionizes how students do their work. And students will be working together, rather than just individually. Collaboration, Heller says, reflects a “problem that the world needs to solve.” Looking around the world, an inability to collaborate is one of the main obstacles to social innovation, she explained. The MFA in Social Innovation is recruiting internationally in the hopes of fostering a cross-cultural environmental that helps students get hands-on experience with teamwork in a diverse environment.
Many of Heller’s life experiences—such as her work with Paul Polak, a leader in the social enterprise movement and founder of the social innovation company D-Rev and the non-profit iDE, have led her to hold strong convictions about social design, which have shaped the MFA program at SVA. As a result, Keller not only values a focus on client perspective and collaboration; she also believes in a for-profit model as the best approach to social impact. That’s why so much of the MFA program will be geared toward corporate clients.
“Opportunities are never guaranteed in this world,” explained Heller. “But there is a growing awareness of corporate social responsibility, and a huge appetite for innovation and practical application of design to social problems.” The program will reflect this need by connecting students to clients in the corporate world who are looking for innovative solutions to sustainability challenges.
Applications for the first class of the MFA in Social Innovation are open until January 30th, 2011, and students are encouraged to apply through the program website. Those who are interested but not ready to matriculate this year can follow the program through its public online webinars, such as this recent one, where Cheryl Heller describes her vision of design for social innovation. Another exciting, similar approach to graduate education can be found in the MFA in Products of Design program, also set to launch at SVA in 2012, and also currently accepting applications.