Ireland could learn the lessons of social entrepreneurship

Students who opted for a course which focused on Ireland as real-world case study are here to present their findings

Prof Dan Breznitz has studied innovation growth economies such as Taiwan, Israel and China. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Prof Dan Breznitz has studied innovation growth economies such as Taiwan, Israel and China. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 01:10

Prof Dan Breznitz must number among the most internationally eclectic members of Ireland’s broadly defined diaspora.

The Israeli native came to reside for a time in Ireland nearly two decades ago, as a political science graduate student at the American university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While here, he interviewed many technologists, entrepreneurs and policy makers in the public and private sector for his doctorate, research that eventually went into his award-winning book Innovation and the State: Political Choice and Strategies for Growth in Israel, Taiwan, and Ireland.

Now, after eight years on the faculty at Georgia Tech in the US, he’s gone to Canada, as Munk Chair of Innovation Studies at the University of Toronto, with a cross-appointment to the Department of Political Science. He’s also co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School, and director of academic research.

And he’s back in Ireland this week, accompanied by graduate students who just completed a rigorous course in Toronto on social entrepreneurship, with a focus on Ireland as real-world case study.

Addressing Ireland’s problems

The course was produced and taught in tandem with Sean Coughlan of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (socialentrepreneurs.ie), a charity which supports entrepreneurship that addresses Ireland’s social and environmental problems.

Because the new Munk School was giving him complete freedom in developing its research and innovation programme (“It’s like having a great research and teaching start-up,” he says), Breznitz approached his friend Coughlan about doing something they’d long talked about: helping people abroad and in Ireland better understand, and develop, social entrepreneurship, in a way that could benefit Ireland.

Why did he want to do it? “Because of my connections to Ireland, and because for a long while, I’d like to give back to Ireland. Thanks partly to Ireland, I got my first book written,” he says.

Students who opted for the course – which Breznitz says was a mix of “very hard-nosed” academic work, and of working with projects on social entrepreneurship and Ireland – are here to present their findings and engage with government officials and TDs.

The students had to look at complex issues around increasing and enhancing policy around social entrepreneurship; the positives and negatives of funding projects using so-called “social bonds”; and finding ways to more accurately measure social and economic outcomes.

“The real aim is not to offer conclusions but hopefully to steer debate, and open new venues of thinking about either new or old programmes in a way that I hope will be sustainable. Even if the only thing that comes out of it is a change to half a sentence in a piece of legislation, then that’s an achievement,” he says.