Robin Dick On The Social Innovation Landscape & Changemaker Education


Robin Dick is a Committed social impact, entrepreneurship and business development expert with executive leadership and coalface experience. He is a contributing co-author of Generation Next: Becoming Socially Enterprising, Oxford University Press.

Robin's passions are social innovation/entrepreneurship, social impact and developing/implementing sustainable strategies. He applies these in collaborative and blended practice to change the status quo and create inclusive, positive social outcomes. Robin is currently Program Manager, Social Innovation at CQUniversity. His practical work experience encompasses the private, public, community and education sectors where he has successfully delivered sustainable social, health, environmental, end economic outcomes for communities.

Robin's social impact and policy experience in the UK and Australia includes: mental health, family violence prevention, suicide prevention, homelessness, dementia care, integrated communities, health and well-being, sport and physical activity, community use of schools, Public Private Partnerships, Social Impact Measurement, community master-planning, and community green space/habitat planning.

Robin co-founded and implemented the RMIT University SEEDS entrepreneurship program in 2007 which has now grown to form RMIT's Social Enterprise Group


Robin provides insights into social innovation and education, discusses how government can help create long term opportunities and shares advice for social innovators and entrepreneurs.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details).

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work in social innovation? [2:10]

[Robin Dick] - I was brought up in the manse as a minister’s son, so was exposed to the community ecosystem early.

An International Marketing postgrad at uni changed my view on the world where I realised I could deploy my marketing talent for good and not just the corporate shareholder. [Robin talks about how his exposure to inspiring people was highly influential in choosing to use his career to create positive social impact.]

My first project out of postgrad was 'Design for Dementia:  Just Another Disability?' which was part of Glasgow UK City of Architecture and Design, 1999. This was an amazing human centred design experience for a new-starter. [Robin talks about it being a multi agency approach with Glasgow City Council, Rennie Mackintosh (Glasgow) School of Art, Greater Glasgow Health Board, University of Stirling, celebrated architects, landscape architects and designers. It was all about looking at ways to prolong independence for people with dementia in the community]. It was a revealing and crazy situation to be part of because it's heartbreaking to watch some of these people be dismissed by their own family. This project was inspirational and the backdrop to my passion for social innovation in action.

My next project was a transnational, European Social Fund project on homelessness - Edinburgh Homeless Project. Again it was multi-agency (Council, NFP, corporate), multi/trans/inter disciplinary and multi country (Scotland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, France). [Robin talks about how the different nations were tackling homelessness in different ways and how it opened his eyes as to how you can work transnationally to work towards mitigating issues like homelessness.]

[Robin talks about how he then moved to a consultancy (community master-planning, health and wellbeing, public private partnership delivery, social inclusion partnerships, regeneration areas, green space preservation etc.) and the complexity of community. It also exposed him to the different delivery mechanisms that can be implemented/embraced.]

Social enterprise is often the end game of a lot of substance or investment in community. 

[Robin talks about his move to Australia from Scotland.]

I found probably not the same kind of maturity [in Australia] in terms of cross-sectoral collaboration in community or even that longer term vision of regeneration and social inclusion partnership approaches.

Probably because Australia didn't have quite as much disadvantage as Scotland had had off the back of mining industry loss, steel and ship building loss. 

I ended up in the university sector and whilst there got involved in founding a program called RMIT SEEDS. [Robin talks about this in further detail.] That was probably the most rewarding parts of my journey.

I now find myself at CQUniversity running the social innovation program along with a really dedicated team and desire from within the university to embed social innovation as a core value.


In your role as Program Manager of SI at CQU, what projects and work have you been involved in? [10:29]

It's early days at the moment. We're a young team and we're motivated around the university's membership of the Ashoka U Network. 

[Robin talks about how they're working hard to embed social innovation within the curriculum. He talks about how they are creating a Changemaker Program which is an entry level program about social innovation and what the program entails. He also talks about a number of live community engagement projects that involve student participation; studios, incubators, collaborative partnerships etc.]

Between experience gained working in SI at CQUniversity and co-founding the RMIT University SEEDS entrepreneurship program, what advice would you give to universities looking to develop such programs and what are the typical challenges you have faced working in the tertiary education sector? [12:38]

First of all you've got to do it for the right reasons. If you're a university you could claim automatically you're in social innovation to provide accessible innovation. But above and beyond that, if you want to really have impact beyond rankings and numbers of graduates coming out, you should provide your students with the armoury and toolkit to make good in the world.

Start by seeking out the students that are doing good stuff already. Not necessarily the students on leadership programs or entrepreneurship courses, but the ones who are using up all their available time to drive forward social impact as their passion. They often don’t shout so loud as they’re too busy doing it. If you can find one or two of these students, understand what makes them work, what motivates them and get them to co-design with you then there's nothing to really stop you.

It's got to start with the students.

With that you need to provide structuring, staff and employed commitment that helps the students do the things they're not able to do. [Robin explains in detail the types of support that should be given to these students.]

That's a really time consuming but rewarding activity and it does take buy-in from other parts of the university. 

You've got to get people to understand why you're doing it and you've got to have a real purpose around it and be able to evidence where the outcomes are coming to the university as a whole. You've got to be in it for the long term.

You do find that when you begin to get this kind of activity and energy, other people and other organisations gravitate towards it. 


How have you seen the social innovation sector transform over the last 5 years and where do you see it heading into the future? [15:30]

In the last 5 years, I've lived in Melbourne and Brisbane and the opportunity to see the landscapes in both cities. There's a lot more externality coming into the sector than there was in the past. More universities and schools are getting involved. Trusts and Foundations are beginning to wake up and be more proactive, risk taking, and future-focused.

Funding is a real issue in Australia in social enterprise & innovation. We're beginning to now see the move towards seed funding and great confidence around collaborative practice in the Trust and Foundation sector which hasn't necessarily been there in the past. 


How have you seen the social innovation sector transform over the last 5 years and where do you see it heading into the future? [15:30 - continued]

The banking and insurance sectors are leveraging the opportunity more by putting some coin in the game. Again it's still very social enterprise focussed. Whilst I'm not against that, part of the benchmarking practice we need to understand is that social enterprise emerged from disadvantaged and complex situations in community. Very often, social enterprise is the emergence of that confidence [in community]. Sometimes we've tended in Australia to grab these things as silver, shiny things and think it's some kind of way to fill a void. But we have to put the hard yards in here as well and look at communities as a population and not just single theme issues. [Robin breaks this down further.]

To work hard on that stuff, you've got to get in there as a multi-agency and multi-sectoral force and work with the local community, to enable them to determine their course and the ways which they want to be supported.

With these sorts of approaches you've got to understand you're going to invest a lot of money and you're not going to see a lot of return for a long time and you've got to be patient.

If we can mobilise the Trust and Foundation sector, the Government sector and Impact Investment sector and have them recognise where they flow in that pipeline, I think we'll see social enterprise emerge as a real force where it's needed.

You’re an accredited Action Learning Facilitator Robin. What exactly is Action Learning, what sort of outcomes can come from Action Learning and how is it used? [19:26]

I first got involved with Action Learning with the School for Social Entrepreneurs here in Australia.

Action Learning is ostensible ‘learning by doing’ within a supported peer framework.  It emerged from the NHS and Mining sectors in the UK where middle and senior managers were increasingly faced by complex challenges and problems which they were unable to solve on their own. A guy called Reg Revans developed the structuring and psychology to bring them together to present their challenges and then be engaged with curiosity and openness from peers to assist them to recognise the next phases of action they would need to take in their own situation to move forward.

It's a very powerful tool if you can get the group right.

Action Learning can take passionate and committed people on a positive pathway where they are ultimately in control and they own their actions. They can choose to move forward at their own pace. Failure is ok so long as you adopt the reflect, conclude, plan, act mantra.

Once you present your challenge you own it, but are exposed. Action Learning allows this to happen outside your comfort zone but safely.

[Robin explains in further detail about the 'act, reflect, conclude, plan' model as well as how it can be a powerful way of working with others in a collaborative sense.]

How do you believe government can best support the social enterprise sector and what do you think could be changed from a policy perspective to better enable organisations and institutions to create positive social change? [21:31]

Government has a huge role to play. Sometimes we don't recognise that and can feel as if other parts of the ecosystem will take it's place and I don't think it will.

Government exists for a reason and everything else sits within it. We've got to see it for what it is. It's a way of enabling those within the community who aren't able to sustain or who are marginalised or disadvantaged and the government is really able to help that group can bring them out of that.

How do we ensure that people have a safe place to move out of hopelessness and to greater outcomes?

Government plays a huge part in social innovation. It provides the legal frameworks, the ability to be protected through welfare, the ability to be employed. It helps create the right type of job market and it should be there to help those in a failed job market. [Robin shares in detail how government can and should provide support.]

It takes the government to bring the corporate, not-for-profit and investment sector together in community to try and work together to work out the long term opportunities to move people out of disadvantage.

You’ve worked in a number of continents. Which countries do you believe are at the forefront of delivering innovative social impact initiatives that are making a difference and what can we learn from them? [24:35]

[Robin shares his thoughts about Finland and talks about how Nordic countries are more respectful of government role and tax contribution as well as a greater focus on place and space, education and renewables. He goes on to discuss the fundamental ingredients Germany has to move a country forward.]

[Robin talks about the scene in Scotland, as well the USA which he considers to be highly transactional/money-focused. He talks about the polarity of affluence and poverty, the lack of welfare and safety net and how this has bred some amazing social innovation organisations and enterprise.]

In your experience what have been the most common reasons why new social change initiatives fail? [27:36]

In most cases it's because the environment and timing is wrong.

Access to professional or discipline support and expertise. Just now we don't tend to have enough of a coordinated response to support.

Not enough time provided to establish - expectations are too high or misplaced. Very often we see the short term and as a transactional thing; we don't tend to see the long term and outcome thing. That's where we fall.

External pressures are hard. Sometimes the support needed from management or an entrepreneur's family is not understood clearly.

Which particular social problems in Australia do you believe need to be urgently tackled using a co-design or human-centred design approach to help generate change? [29:41]

Populations with long-term low socioeconomic status where poverty and its associated problems have been carried forward through successive generations and there is diminished hope. This is where you start and where you should concentrate.

[Robin talks about how gambling and Pokies (slot machines) are a real issue in Australia which is destroying communities.]

Have you come across any inspiring projects or initiatives recently that you’d like to share? [31:23]

[Robin talks about 'Downtown Brooklyn' and how he heard Andrew Kalish present on the regeneration of Brooklyn. He found it was both inspiring and it related to some of the approaches he'd experienced in Scottish regeneration projects.]

To finish off, what are the top 3 books or resources you’d recommend to our listeners? [34:27]

[Robin discusses the books listed below in detail.]


Initiatives mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Robin on LinkedIn or Twitter. Feel free to leave comments below.

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