Studying Social Innovation
PhD student Jennifer Wilson has developed a novel approach to studying social innovations such as tiny home villages
Risk-taking isn’t typically associated with social work doctoral research, which often turns to tried-and-true research methods and cleaves to traditions in the field and in the academy. But at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), student and faculty scholarship is increasingly pushing boundaries to achieve greater public impact, striving for empirical rigor while also meeting community needs for actionable information.
PhD student Jennifer Wilson is tackling that challenge with her dissertation research on tiny home villages for people experiencing homelessness. Drawing on design thinking and human-centered design principles, Wilson’s methodological approach is novel.
Tiny homes were introduced as a homelessness intervention two decades ago, and there are more than 50 tiny home villages in North America today, including Beloved Community Village in Denver. But although they’re beginning to proliferate, there is little empirical evidence for tiny homes as an intervention for people experiencing homelessness, Wilson explains.
Although empirical data are sparse, Wilson contends, practice and field knowledge have much to contribute to our understanding of how tiny home villages are built and managed, what programs are delivered alongside the housing, what works and what doesn’t, and whether outcome objectives are being met. Honoring that knowledge is vital in a social service ecosystem increasingly demanding rapid innovation but lacking the time or budgets to support rigorous scientific study, such as the gold-standard randomized controlled trial. Social work research methods — many borrowed from psychology or other disciplines — simply haven’t kept pace with social innovation.
“People living with issues related to poverty don’t have time to wait for research and science to tell them what works,” says Professor Daniel Brisson, executive director of GSSW’s Center on Housing and Homelessness Research (formerly the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness) and Wilson’s dissertation director. “As a result, people create their own innovations to address major social challenges, and researchers are often left out of this process. Jenn is working to bring the best of the research field together with the best of innovations in the practice field.”
Looking to the business sector and implementation science for methodological guidance, Wilson aims to identify and define the minimum critical specifications for tiny home villages addressing homelessness — the essential basic ingredients necessary to successfully replicate and scale the intervention. Wilson is also asking, “How can we use field and practice knowledge to operationalize the minimum critical specifications for any social innovation?”
To answer those questions, Wilson will use a sequential mixed-methods design that first includes a narrative review of all that is known about tiny home villages, looking at literature across the spectrum from peer-reviewed journal articles to blog posts. From that review, Wilson will create a list of tiny home village characteristics. Using the Delphi method — a forecasting process framework borrowed from the technology and defense industries — Wilson will ask a panel of field experts to review the characteristics, ranking and initially defining them. When the list of minimum critical specifications has been narrowed, Wilson will conduct in-depth qualitative interviews with field experts from up to 10 tiny home villages nationwide to provide site-specific detail about the application of each component. From there, Wilson will propose a set of defined minimum critical specifications for tiny home villages.
However, the ultimate goal is bigger than tiny homes, Wilson notes.
“In carrying out these steps, this dissertation will also operationalize and test a method for identifying and defining the minimum critical specifications of a social innovation in early stages of adoption, using tiny home communities addressing homelessness as a case study,” Wilson wrote in her dissertation proposal, which was approved in December 2019. “Given the limitations of conventional research methods, this approach will be critiqued for its ability to provide a nimble and replicable method for examining social innovations in the field.”
“The literature is clear about the importance of defining a social innovation in order to scale it,” explains Wilson, who is working on the comprehensive literature review now and will complete data collection this year with funding from the Barton Institute for Community Action, which has supported tiny homes as a response to homelessness since they were introduced in Denver in 2017. “The hope is that this process could be applied to any social innovation to define its most essential components.”
She and Brisson have partnered with Beloved Community Village (an initiative of Colorado Village Collaborative) since its establishment in 2017. Early on, Colorado Village Collaborative Co-Director Cole Chandler mentioned that a best-practices model would be helpful.
That’s what Wilson aims to deliver. “I want to write a dissertation that will be useful, that I can deliver directly to the community for their immediate use,” says Wilson, who, in addition to writing a traditional dissertation also plans to create a white paper that can be used by any organization building new tiny home villages.
“What the community needs and what the academy values aren’t always well aligned,” says Morris Endowed Dean and Professor Amanda Moore McBride, a member of Wilson’s dissertation committee along with Professor Kimberly Bender. “The challenge of public impact scholarship is to bring community and academy together in a way that serves both.”
Wilson is striving to do just that.