Social innovation

From EcoliseWiki

Definition of Social Innovation

Social innovation (SI) has been defined as changing social relations through a process that involves new ways of doing, organising, framing and knowing [1]. A key characteristic of SI is that people "do things differently due to this innovation" [1] . Thus, the object of innovation is primarily a "social phenomenon (i.e. a social practice or relation)" [1] rather than a new technology. Avelino and Wittmayer (2016), [2] suggest a framework for analysing social innovations. These can emerge in the context of diverse sectors (e.g. state, market, community, third sector) and be led by actors at distinct levels of aggregation (e.g. sectors, organisational actors, individual actors).

For instance, community energy cooperatives and ecovillages are examples of social innovations. They entail:

  • New ways of doing things – e.g. a new way of producing energy, a new way of living in a community [3];
  • New ways of organising – e.g. a new way of distributing and consuming energy; a new of distributing work among community members [4];
  • New framings – e.g. the word ‘prosumer’ in the case of renewable energy communities who produce and consume their own energy, or the participatory approaches and ‘language’ conventions developed by ecovillage communities [5] ;
  • New ways of knowing – e.g. new knowledge on renewable energy; new knowledge of eco-construction techniques [6] .

The focus of social innovation is therefore on innovation processes and social relationships, rather than intentions or outcomes.[1]

Transformative Social Innovation

Main page: Transformative social innovation.

The term ‘transformative social innovation’ (TSI) is defined as "the process of challenging, altering, or replacing the dominance of existing institutions in a specific social and material context" [7]. TSI has been most thoroughly studied in the TRANSIT EU Framework Programme Research Project. TRANSIT included in-depth case studies of 20 TSI movements and networks, including the Transition movement,[8] ecovillages[9] and others.

Civil Society and Grassroots Innovation

Main page: Grassroots innovation.

As a particular domain of social innovation research, the study of ‘grassroots innovation’ results from a concern with understanding the role of civil society as a site of innovation for sustainability [10] . Contrary to mainstream market-based and top-down technological innovations, the study of ‘grassroots innovations’ [11] examines "the role of social, community-led, values-driven innovations and explores how to harness and diffuse radical community-based action for sustainability" (p.882)[10].

Other studies of the social aspects of innovation, stress the different roles that ‘civil society’ can play as a key participant in sustainable transition processes [12] . According to Frantzeskaki and colleagues is it fundamental to understand how civil society “develops and participates in sustainability transitions” [12] . Although there are different understandings of what civil society is in literature, these authors argue that a key feature of civil society is it is "somewhat autonomous from the state and acting upon interest and motivations that do not aspire to winning political office nor economic benefits" (p.42) [12]. This is relevant also for grassroots innovation research, which emphasis the ‘value-driven’, rather than ‘profit driven’ nature of social innovations.

Drawing from a social-ecological systems perspective, recent studies have looked into the role of civil society and social innovations in the context of the Anthropocene [13] .The Anthropocene refers to the current era in the history of the Earth’s system dominated by human activity. This era is characterized by being a volatile period, as human activity is pushing the planets’ life support systems to dangerous limits [14]. A recent study has pointed to the importance of understanding the "seeds of good Anthropocene": "Seeds are initiatives (social, technological, economic, or social-ecological ways of thinking or doing) that exist, at least in prototype form, and that represent a diversity of worldviews, values, and regions, but are not currently dominant or prominent in the world." (p.2) [15]. Bennet and colleagues identify six types of seeds: agroecology; green urbanism, future knowledge, urban transformation, fair futures and sustainable future seeds. The 'seeds' are identified and characterized based on an analysis of 100 initiatives, including social innovations. Although global decline in environmental quality can be directly linked to an improvement in human health and wellbeing, there could still be an opportunity to revert this trend, through the emergence of new development trajectories. The ‘seeds of good Anthropocene’ provide a starting point to explore the role of social innovations in addressing global sustainability challenges. Yet, the (positive and negative) environmental and social-ecological impact of social innovations is still largely understudied. More research is needed, leading up to recommendations on new policy and economic measures that can unlock the potential of social innovations as key components of much needed transformative development pathways towards a more resilient future.

Innovation and Community-led Initiatives

(from old Status Report page: needs editing and integration)

  • Our research confirmed, moreover, how CBIs provide fertile grounds for nurturing not only social innovation, but also market-based forms of innovation. [16]
  • Contribution to the implementation of “The Eco-innovation Action Plan”5 with the goal to reduce pressures on the environment through innovation and market access.
  • CBIs cultivate both social and, almost two thirds of CBIs, also market-based forms of innovation. More specifically, 38% of the surveyed initiatives are engaged in the formation of new markets by creating new goods or services which were previously unavailable. Thus, initiatives often provide a natural link between innovative ideas for sustainability and markets, as for example observed in the market for organic food. [16]
  • "TESS research indicates that local initiatives cultivate social and, almost two thirds of them, also market-based forms of innovation." [17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J.M., Pel, B., Weaver, P., Dumitru, A., Haxeltine, A., Kemp, R., Jørgensen, M.S., Bauler, T., Ruijsink, S., O’Riordan, T., 2017. Transformative social innovation and (dis)empowerment. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change.p.3. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2017.05.002
  2. Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J.M., 2016. Shifting Power Relations in Sustainability Transitions: A Multi-actor Perspective. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 18, 628–649. doi:10.1080/1523908X.2015.1112259
  3. Hargreaves, T., Hielscher, S., Seyfang, G., Smith, A., 2013. Grassroots innovations in community energy: The role of intermediaries in niche development. Global Environmental Change 23: 868–880.
  4. Avelino, F. (2015) Transformative Social Innovation Narrative of Tamera Ecovillage. A Summary.
  5. Hall, R., 2015. The ecovillage experience as an evidence base for national wellbeing strategies. Intellect. Econ. 9, 30–42. doi:10.1016/j.intele.2015.07.001
  6. TESS, 2016. TESS-booklet_-Community-Climate-Action-across-Europe.pdf.
  7. Haxeltine, A., Pel, B., Dumitru, A., Avelino, F., Kemp, R., F., Bauler, T., Kunze, I., Dorland, J., Wittmayer, J., and Jørgensen, M. S. (2017). Towards a TSI theory: a relational framework and 12 propositions. TRANSIT working paper 16.
  8. Longhurst, N. and Pataki, G. (2015) Case study report: the Transition Movement. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2.-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.
  9. Kunze, Iris and Avelino, Flor (2015).Social Innovation and the Global Ecovillage Network. Research Report, TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2 -1 Grant agreement no: 613169
  10. 10.0 10.1 Seyfang, G., Longhurst, N., 2013. Desperately seeking niches: Grassroots innovations and niche development in the community currency field. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 881–891. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.02.007
  11. Seyfang, G., Smith, A., 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environ. Polit. 16, 584–603; Seyfang, G., Haxeltine, A., 2012. Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions. Environ. Plan. C Gov. Policy 30, 381–400. doi:10.1068/c10222
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Frantzeskaki, N., Dumitru, A., Anguelovski, I., Avelino, F., Bach, M., Best, B., Binder, C., Barnes, J., Carrus, G., Egermann, M., Haxeltine, A., Moore, M.-L., Mira, R.G., Loorbach, D., Uzzell, D., Omann, I., Olsson, P., Silvestri, G., Stedman, R., Wittmayer, J., Durrant, R., Rauschmayer, F., 2016. Elucidating the changing roles of civil society in urban sustainability transitions. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 22, 41–50. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2017.04.008
  13. Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., 2013. The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 4, 8–13. doi:10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001
  14. Lövbrand, E., Beck, S., Chilvers, J., Forsyth, T., Hedrén, J., Hulme, M., Lidskog, R., Vasileiadou, E., 2015. Who speaks for the future of Earth? How critical social science can extend the conversation on the Anthropocene. Glob. Environ. Change 32, 211–218. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.03.012
  15. Bennett, E.M., Solan, M., Biggs, R., McPhearson, T., Norström, A.V., Olsson, P., Pereira, L., Peterson, G.D., Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Biermann, F., Carpenter, S.R., Ellis, E.C., Hichert, T., Galaz, V., Lahsen, M., Milkoreit, M., Martin López, B., Nicholas, K.A., Preiser, R., Vince, G., Vervoort, J.M., Xu, J., 2016. Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 441–448. doi:10.1002/fee.1309
  16. 16.0 16.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named multiple TESS Final Report
  17. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named multiple TESS, ARTS & PATHWAYS