You Don’t Need to Wait to Make a Difference 

University Innovation Fellows organized LOOP, the first-ever Latin American Innovation Week and the UIF Latin American Meetup in 2018.

by Leticia Britos Cavagnaro

There is learning about the world, and then there is immersing yourself in the world, and learning as you figure out how you can make an impact.

Often times we think that students need to wait to graduate before they attempt to go out in the real world, yet more and more universities are realizing this does not have to be the case. When University Innovation Fellows from three Uruguayan universities collaborated in organizing LOOP, the first-ever Latin American Innovation Week and UIF Latin American Meetup, tackling real issues facing the country was a key ingredient.

The 4-day event, which took place in Montevideo (Uruguay’s capital) from August 2 to 5, 2018, convened Fellows and students from Chile, Colombia, Perú, and Puerto Rico, as well as local participants who were students, faculty and professionals across fields. The teams organized around themes of interest taking a cue from the UNESCO Developmental Goals. They partnered with local non-profits to connect with people living in precarious conditions in shanty towns, teachers struggling to impact kids in public schools, and women putting their skills to work and creating small businesses. The teams went out on the field to understand these stakeholders and their needs and, after an intense day of work, invited them to the event venue to test some of the solutions they had come up with.

Learnings were plentiful – for the teams, for the partners, and for the stakeholders. When the teams presented their ideas and business models to a panel of university and government leaders, it was evident that applying design skills and mindsets opens up possibilities. None of these complex problems – poverty, access to quality education, and economic development for underserved populations – will be solved in 2 days. They have multiple intertwined root causes compounded by inadequate policies and pervasive societal inequalities. But what it’s clear is that we will never solve them if we don’t look for new ways to understand and chip away at them and, very importantly, if we don’t equip our youth with the confidence and the tools to lead the way.

The Social Innovation Challenge was only one of the many highlights of LOOP. Fellows formed friendships across borders as they kicked off their time together cooking “alfajores” – a traditional Uruguayan treat, and sharing snacks they brought from their home countries.

The fact that the Fellows who organized the event came from Universidad de Montevideo, Universidad Católica and Universidad CLAEH was in itself a testament to the power of student change agents to galvanize collaborations among institutions. This collaborative spirit didn’t go unnoticed by the university and government authorities who attended. Also part of the organizing team were other students. While a few of them learned during the event that they had been accepted as UIF candidates, many were just as excited to work hard bring to life the event, embodying the inclusive ethos of UIF, in which Fellows are not an elite, but simply the sparks and catalysts of a bigger movement.

In the same vein, LOOP also featured Design Thinking and Life Design workshops, as well as talks by engaging speakers. These were open to the public and attended by professionals  and faculty interested in innovation, entrepreneurship, and experiential learning. Participants were also exposed to the inspiring stories of Fellows themselves, told in short format for maximum impact.

Last but not least, LOOP organizers did not forget about a very important dimension that, now more than ever, needs to be in all of our minds when we organize events or simply go about our lives: the environment. While a culture of recycling may already exist in the United States and other countries (with various degrees of implementation success) Uruguay has relatively recently begun to deploy mechanisms at scale to encourage citizens to rethink their waste generation and to adopt recycling practices. Throughout the event, Fellows brought attention to resources they put in place, prototyped strategies to make LOOP a sustainable event and fostered discussions on the topic among participants.

My home country of Uruguay is small – half the size of California and with a population of only 3 and a half million. When we started the UIF program in 2012, I could have never imagined that 6 years later there would be University Innovation Fellows in four of the five universities in the country. They are leading the way in collaborating with faculty and administrators at their schools, across institutions, and with the government and the private and social sectors. Attending this Meetup filled me with pride and makes me hopeful for the evolution of higher education in my country, and beyond. Kudos to them!

Want to experience LOOP this summer? Fellows are holding this event again in 2019. Visit loop.org.uy to learn more!

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