Transformative social innovation

From EcoliseWiki

Nature and Scope of TSI

A theory of transformative social innovation (TSI) was developed by the EU-funded TRANSIT research project (2014-2017) as an analytical approach that reveals common ground among and helps improve understanding of a range of grassroots movements and networks for societal change. Rather than describing a particular type of social innovation, TSI is defined as a social innovation process: "the process of challenging, altering, or replacing the dominance of existing institutions in a specific social and material context" [1].

Social innovation initiatives and networks are understood as the key collective actors that instigate TSI processes. Key examples of community-led initiatives studied in TRANSIT include the Transition movement,[2] and ecovillages[3], among twenty transnational networks of social innovation initiatives, from diverse domains of education, research, physical production, policy making, welfare provision, renewable energy.

The core concern of TSI theory is understanding how these social innovations can contribute to transformative change, and how the social innovation actors can be (dis)empowered in this process. Transformative change is defined as, "change that challenges, alters and/or replaces established (and/or dominant) institutions in (parts of) the social-material context."[4]

Different social innovation initiatives strive for diverse institutional changes and pursue very different strategies. Generally, topics of a more sustainable, just and humane economy are recurring to various degrees in most initiatives studied by the TRANSIT project, and many TSI initiatives challenge the dominant institutions of neoliberal economic development [5]. For example: Transition Towns aim to transform global capital oriented and individualistic urban economies by working towards re-localised community-based economies, Impact Hubs and Ashoka aim to transform profit and competition based business models by promoting social entrepreneurship as a way of combining working for social causes with earning an income, while Time Banks aim to transform exclusionary value-exchange systems by working towards complementary currency systems that foster community cohesion and empowerment of marginalized individuals.

To become transformative, social innovations need to go through a process of institutionalising changes in social relations. This institutionalisation process is defined as: “the process by which changes in institutional structures emerge and become more widely embedded” [6]. However, the institutionalisation process is full of challenges and paradoxes, such as risks of capture, appropriation or marginalization by dominant institutions [7]. A central question for TSI theory and practice therefore involves how to better understand and navigate this institutionalisation process [8], in order to assess and achieve transformative change, respectively.


  1. 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. P. 27, 28.
  2. Longhurst, N. and Pataki, G. (2015) Case study report: the Transition Movement. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2.-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.
  3. 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
  4. Haxeltine, A., Avelino, F.; Pel, B.; Dumitru, A., Kemp, R.; Longhurst, N., Chilvers, J. and Wittmayer, J. M. (2016). A framework for Transformative Social Innovation. TRANSIT Working Paper 5. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 61316. P. 19.
  5. Longhurst, N., Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J., Weaver, P., Dumitru, A., Heilscher, S., Cipolla, C., Afonso, R., Kunze, I. and Elle, M. (2016), Experimenting with alternative economies: four emergent counter-narratives of urban economic development, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 22, 69-74
  6. Haxeltine, A., Pel, B. Dumitru, A., Kemp, R., Avelino, F. Jørgensen, M.S., Wittmayer, J. Kunze, I., Dorland, J., Bauler, T. 2017, TRANSIT WP3 deliverable D3.4 – consolidated version of TSI theory, Deliverable no. D3.4. P.17
  7. Bauler, T., Pel, B. & Backhaus, J. (2017), Institutionalization processes in transformative social innovation; capture dynamics in the social solidarity economy and basic income initiatives, in Cohen, M. Szejnwald Brown, H. & Vergragt, P. (eds.) (2017), Social Change and the Coming of Post-Consumer Society, pp. 78-94
  8. Haxeltine, A., Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J.M., Kunze, I., Longhurst, N., Dumitru, A., and T. O’Riordan (2018) Conceptualising the role of social innovation in sustainability transformations, In: Julia Backhaus, Audley Genus, Sylvia Lorek, Edina Vadovics, Julia M. Wittmayer (eds.) Social Innovation and Sustainable Consumption: Research and Action for Societal Transformation. Routledge