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This global affairs course lets U of T students develop actual government policies

Students have seen their policies implemented in Ireland and Mexico

Dan Breznitz, Uri Gabai, Eddie Kibirige, Tina Chang (all photos by Johnny Guatto)

It’s not unusual for university students to develop proposals for governments or businesses as part of their classwork. It’s less usual for those organizations to actually implement such policies.

But that’s what will happen for at least two student groups in Dan Breznitz’s Innovation, Institutions, Governments and Growth class at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

That’s why Uri Gabai – who heads the strategy and economic research unit of the Office of the Chief Scientist in Israel – is here today at the Munk School, explaining the difference between technological innovation and social innovation as students Kawooya (Eddie) Kibirige and Ting-Wei (Tina) Chang take notes.

“I don’t care who is doing the tech innovation,” Gabai is telling the students. “I care about using tech innovation to help people – people with disadvantages or disabilities, for example. Innovation is a tool to achieve other goals.”

The students consider this. “So you’re saying we shouldn’t necessarily focus on high tech,” Chang says. “That we should rephrase our problem statement to show how the Israeli government can leverage its assets to achieve its goals?”

Breznitz looks at his watch and Chang and Kibirige stand up, making way for the next group of presenters. Gabai shakes their hands. “Don’t hesitate to interact via email or Skype,” he says as they leave.

The Innovation, Institutions, Governments and Growth course is offered to students in the final semester of Munk’s two-year Master of Global Affairs program. This is the third year for the course – previous students have seen their proposals implemented in Ireland and Mexico.

Breznitz, who co-directs the Munk School’s Innovation Policy Lab, says the course is deliberately designed to draw the students out of their comfort zone. The first part of the course is similar to other graduate-level seminars, with the students looking at innovation and entrepreneurship systems in different countries. In the second half of the course, they put the theory to use, developing projects in partnership with whatever foreign government agency is working with Breznitz this year.

Last year, Breznitz says, two student projects were chosen by Ruy Cervantes Fergoso, director of innovation, society and knowledge economy in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, for implementation. In October, some of the students from the class traveled to Jalisco’s capital Guadalajara to present their reports to government officials at the inaugural Public Policy Innovation Seminar.

Haleigh King and Irene Ferro Colmenares, who graduated from the program in 2015, were two of those students. King’s group proposed a strategic approach to better well-being in Jalisco, while Ferro’s group studied Jalisco’s innovation ecosystem and suggested ways the state government could better support it and interact with it.

“My group’s project was on the innovation ecosystem in Guadalajara, Jalisco,” Ferro (pictured at right) said. “Guadalajara has the reputation of being sort of a Silicon Valleyesque place for start-ups, so we had to evaluate the ecosystem, and then come up with ideas for how the government could better support it and interact with it because it was very separate.

“We interviewed a lot of the people who work in start-ups and the government and the incubator space in Guadalajara and also university professors,” she recalled. “We interviewed venture capitalists and people who worked in the technology sector, because Guadalajara’s really big for manufacturing technologies. We provided recommendations based on communications, regulatory matters and the markets.”

Ferro said it was difficult working with a client in a different country. “We relied on Skype and email a lot, and tried to do as much research as we could from up here,” she says.

Fellow student Celine Wadhera agreed. “Skype and email were time-consuming, especially with the language barrier. It was very challenging.”

But for all its challenges, the course was worth it. “It was the best real world experience that we got out of the Munk program,” Wadhera says. “It really gave us an opportunity to work with unique clients who are in government but also engaged in entrepreneurship and innovation; kind of dealing with that whole network.”

King, who now works for the non-profit organization Textbooks for Change, also felt that the course was worth the effort. “The experience of working for a client on a relevant topic at such a young age gave me a competitive edge when entering the work force. The course taught me some practical things such as the importance of effective report writing and how to accurately structure a presentation for multiple audiences. It was a stepping stone to understanding how social innovation can solve problems in the private, public and not for profit sectors.”