Purpose: This paper aims to illustrate how dispersed institutes of social innovation operating as intermediary actors within higher education institutions (HEIs) may help overcome many of the institutional bureaucracies and structures that inhibit social innovation in higher education. Design/methodology/approach: This paper reviews core conditions for social innovation, along with the opportunities, challenges and tensions that emerge as HEIs work to apply these conditions in practice. It then describes how dispersed institutes enact principles of decentralization, localization and collaboration in pursuit of social innovation. Findings: Five main ways that dispersed institutes enable social innovation were identified in this review, including bridging academic–practice divides, enabling co-creation and co-production with users, facilitating experiential and co-curricular education, supporting interdisciplinary collaborations and generating customized and place-based solutions. Practical implications: Findings suggest four strategies that HEIs can use to support dispersed institutes, including prioritizing social purpose organizations as institutional partners, incentivizing public engagement and collaboration, leveraging their convening power to strengthen global networks among dispersed institutes and using budgeting models that reflect the importance of creating both economic and social value. Originality/value: Although innovation labs in HEIs have long been a feature of natural sciences and technology services, they are still comparatively new for the social sciences and humanities. This paper addresses a gap in the literature on the value contributed by dispersed institutes of social innovation operating within HEIs such as living labs, makerspaces, incubators and excubators, social innovation parks, cooperation accelerators and technology transfer offices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12-27
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Enterprise Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 28 2022


  • Accelerators
  • Collaboration
  • Decentralization
  • Higher education
  • Incubators
  • Living labs
  • Localization
  • Social innovation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business, Management and Accounting (miscellaneous)
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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