Lumina Foundation recently announced a series of Challenges and a dedicated Pavilion on InnoCentive.com to spur innovation in areas that would transform higher education in America. The Foundation’s first Challenge, Design of Student-centric Websites for Open-Enrollment Colleges and Institutions, is underway and will close on April 30. Two additional Challenges were recently launched and are currently available on Lumina Foundation’s Open Innovation Pavilion. We recently spoke with Juan (Kiko) Suarez, Vice President of Communications and Innovation at the Foundation, about this exciting initiative.
Hello Mr. Suarez – thanks very much for speaking with us. For those not familiar with Lumina Foundation, can you tell us a bit about your work?
Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 60% by 2025 (we call this Goal2025). Lumina’s outcomes-based approach focuses on helping to design and build an accessible, responsive, and accountable higher education system while fostering a national sense of urgency for action to achieve Goal2025.
The Challenges you are launching support the Foundation’s new Strategic Plan, which includes some big goals for higher education in this country. Can you tell us more about the problems you’re addressing and the goals you’ve set?
We are solely focused on helping the country reach Goal2025. This strategic plan covers the time frame between 2013 and 2016. Over the years, we found that Lumina must play four roles in this journey to the goal: goal setter, framework developer, thought leader, and honest broker. We have published a plan with eight strategies organized under two imperatives: mobilization and design. Mobilization is aimed at getting different actors in post-secondary education (e.g., policy makers, education institutions, non-profits, and employers) to commit to serious increases in attainment of students that are considered “non-traditional” but represent a new majority in the 21st century: students of color, low income, first generation, and adults with some college credit but not a degree.
The second imperative, design and build, is aimed at redesigning key components of the current postsecondary system that we believe will unlock more capacity and better quality to serve those students. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the issue: America currently has only 40% of its working age adults between 18-64 with some sort of recognized credential or degree beyond high school. Our goal is to increase attainment to 60%, without losing quality (or even doing a better job with quality of learning). This means getting 23 million more people in the U.S. studying and receiving a meaningful credential, certificate, or degree post high school. We believe that credentialed learning is currency for individuals and the country. We can attract more jobs of the future, and grow our economy by $500 billion if we can have that done by 2025.
Many foundations would traditionally issue an RFP and/or award grants to address their needs. What prompted you to partner with InnoCentive and use crowdsourcing as part of your strategy?
We will continue to issue targeted RFPs and grants as our main vehicles to fund relevant work, but open innovation adds to our capacity to bring solutions from talented Solvers all over the world that otherwise we would never reach. Our agreement with InnoCentive is perfect for that, since they have the community, processes, and tools to make that happen in a very well organized and transparent way.
The Foundation’s focus is on higher education in America, yet many of our Solvers are from other countries. How do you believe our non-U.S. Solvers can contribute and provide value?
Ideas have no borders. We are becoming more and more proactive in our work, and we are getting to know many recognized experts in the U.S. However, we are looking at open innovation as a complement to our work. Social innovation is what we do, and there are many people in the world with ideas that could fit one of our strategies. Everybody has Challenges, and social change is about changing hearts and minds. I’m convinced that partial or full solutions will come up from unexpected corners of the planet. The concept of engaging the “long tail” is really promising, and we need all possible help in finding ways to increase attainment in a big way.
There are clearly many players who are working to improve educational systems and policies, including national and local government agencies, other foundations, and many non-profit organizations. What role do you think this initiative will play within this broader landscape of efforts?
Private philanthropy is just learning how to use these channels of innovation. The more specialized we are, the more we tend to work with the head of the curve, a handful of recognized experts who have been working on these problems for decades. They have the gravitas, know the people and the issues, and have seen what works and what doesn’t. Working in social change requires a balanced approach that is both tactful and bold. A lot of new talent joins these well established groups, whether they are think tanks, universities, or non-profits, and we feel very comfortable funding work there because we know the quality of the work is excellent.
However, in my new capacity of VP of Innovation, I wanted to expose Lumina (and hopefully many other private foundations will join) to the power of the “long tail,” a model that causes reservations and concerns at times where there are powerful ideas and projects from the “head” that can’t be funded for lack of resources. When resources are scarce, our due diligence is even more strict and we target our partners very rigorously. I hope that I can prove to our colleagues and Board the value of the long tail. One of the areas that seems very promising for foundations is crowdsourcing for “idea generation” early on in the process. I don’t think we are ready for all possible Challenges (reduction-to-practice, e-RFP) yet. However, I’m convinced foundations will soon understand the power of managing social innovation as a concept that involves the “activation of the long tail” for certain elements and moments of the process, assembling and integrating the results from both traditional and open channels and coming up with better quality solutions for social change.
Thanks for your time Mr. Suarez. Do you have any particular advice or guidance for our Solvers as they tackle the Foundation’s Challenges?
I want Solvers to be free to come up with their views on solving our Challenges. I really don’t want to limit or constrain their ability to think out of the box. We are inevitably in the box or too close to it (actually, a very sophisticated complex system of postsecondary education is not really a box, but a highly interconnected network with thousands of nodes and relationships). It is up to us to give Solvers enough to come up with meaningful and creative solutions to the Challenges. We understand that they may not be “experts,” and we already have processes to engage those. The issue we are dealing with is very complex, and it lives in a very complex ecosystem. We are a foundation that deals with the macro-issue of increasing attainment at country level, so we want solutions that could lead to systemic adoption and be very scalable. We have witnessed hundreds of pilots stall because they were not capable of scaling up without tons of additional funding. Solutions must be as viral and contagious as possible, whether they are targeted at adoption by higher education institutions, policy makers, or other actors.
We are also interested in creating the necessary conditions so that good solutions spread. If you think of a biological virus, we want attainment solutions that spread in many ways, highly contagious and adaptive. We understand that some of the systems we are dealing with are very “immune” to change by the nature of their own DNA (e.g., education, government), yet we can’t pretend they are not part of the solution. They need to be “infected” with viral solutions that lead to dramatic increases in education attainment of populations that have traditionally been disenfranchised for lack of resources, socio-economic status, or ethnicity. If you believe that learning should not go uncredentialed, if you believe education is an enabler of social mobility, if you believe there are ways that will get more students to market with a degree or meaningful credential for what they know and are able to do focused on learning and not necessarily on the time they sit in class, and if you believe credentialed talent is an asset for individuals and countries, then join us. Join one of our Challenges, have fun, be creative, and make some money with it!