Oct. 14, 2021

Karen Benzies appointed director, social innovation

Social innovation initiative enables faculties to engage in SI-based activity
Karen Benzies

Addressing complex social problems to increase our quality of life is at the heart of many University of Calgary research activities. However, the challenges of scaling solutions or the inability to identify their application to the community can limit these works to the academic realm.

Dr. Karen Benzies, PhD, RN, professor, Faculty of Nursing and adjunct research professor, Department of Paediatrics, Cumming School of Medicine, aims to create a culture of social innovation (SI) for faculties at the university. As an experienced social innovator and widely respected academic, entrepreneur, and educator, she is no stranger to the hurdles faced when transitioning research into real-world applications. As the newly appointed director, social innovation, Benzies will lead the social innovation initiative (SII).

The SII was developed to enable faculty to engage in social innovation by scaling existing academic experience, disciplines, and expertise to advance their efforts. Essentially, to lay the roadwork that activates the necessary avenues for creating social impact.

“Social innovation is like a roadway with many on- and off-ramps. The initiative enables SI activity within faculties to engage, interject, and get the necessary support to move forward,” says Benzies. “Our goal is to help move SI work forward in a meaningful way without barriers.”

The SII complements existing structures and processes by linking with SI-based activities, programs, support services, resources, and funding providers, including the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, Innovate Calgary, Knowledge Engagement, the Office of Sustainability, Trico Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Centre, W21C, and the broader UCalgary community.

“There is fantastic research being done across many faculties that encompass social innovation,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “The SII will create valuable linkages for faculties to move this research forward in a useful and meaningful way for our community and society.”

What is social innovation, and are you working in this space?

Social innovation is defined as an idea generated through collaboration that renews existing structures and processes and has the potential to improve the quality of life. SII’s goal is to build capacity among academic social innovators to engage with community partners, develop rigorous evidence and proof of concept for high social quality, sustainable social innovation.

Next steps

The SII team is currently undertaking a concept analysis working with multiple faculties to refine the definition of SI to provide the foundation to measure success at UCalgary. Two new programs will launch to help fund and support SI-based projects, including partnership matching, interdisciplinary collaboration, and capacity building for some of UCalgary’s most promising social innovators.

Learn more about the social innovation initiative.

The Social Innovation Initiative is supported by the Government of Canada Incremental Project Grants. Learn how UCalgary uses the Incremental Project Grants

Karen Benzies is a professor with the Faculty of Nursing, adjunct research professor with the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the University of Calgary. 

She received a PhD from the University of Alberta and completed postdoctoral fellowships at Stockholm University and the University of Ottawa. She is a passionate expert in designing efficient structures and processes, recognizing the value of a social innovation model to sustainably embed effective health and social care system interventions. That model first manifested in Welcome to Parenthood and Alberta Family Integrated Care (FICare) and has expanded to Merge. This family integrated model of care supports a culture shift where parents become true partners in their critically ill newborn’s neonatal intensive team.

Benzies is a frequent lecturer on implementing interventions in complex systems and has contributed to many significant scientific advancements receiving numerous awards. Benzies, with her teams, has managed $33M in operating grants and published over 110 research papers.

Benzies also leads Bright from the Start, research projects dedicated to supporting families of young children to provide solid foundations for brain development leading to healthy and productive lives. Projects include Alberta Family Integrate Care (FICare), CUPS Covid-19, Family Research Agenda Initiative Setting (FRAISE),  Play2Sleep, and Welcome to Parenthood.