Social Innovation and Resilience

20.06.2013 Blog

In a recent supplement to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Francis Westley argues that social innovation and resilience are mutually enhancing. Westley is an expert on the subject and leads the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience in Canada.

Resilience on a basic level refers to the capability of a given entity to withstand shocks and stresses. In recent years the concept has been applied very widely, and has acquired a specific technical meaning linked to sustainable development. A recent report by the ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ defines resilience as ‘the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking. Resilience thinking embraces learning, diversity and above all the belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived as one social-ecological system.’

Westley argues: ‘by juxtaposing the old and the new, the technological and the social, and the political and the economic, social innovations build a resilient social-ecological system.’ Innovation is also in itself a product of such systems, thus facilitating a virtuous circle. Westley argues that one way to strengthen cultures of innovation - and thus resilience - is by placing a higher value upon diversity, as ‘the more (and more different) the parts, the greater the possibility of new and radical combinations’. She characterizes the creativity necessary for innovation to flourish under these circumstances as ‘bricolage’, a term she draws from French junk collectors and defines as ‘making creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand’.

Westley illustrates her point by referring to the ‘cycle of release, reorganization, growth and consolidation that characterizes all resilient living systems’. She expands upon the release phase by using the example of a forest fire, which might trigger a new burst of energy and resources within an established system. After the fire, there is a process of reorganization, growth and consolidation, where new life forms spring up and quickly absorb the released nutrients. Not all can survive, so there is a process of competition until a new equilibrium is reached. Resilience theory suggests that a serious loss of system resilience happens only when the system gets trapped at some point in the cycle.

Westley suggests that the cycle of resilience has much in common with the cycle which takes place during the process of generating new innovations. Just as in the forest fire, old resources are combined in new ways and different innovations compete with each other, until a few successful ideas and organizations replicate and become part of the established order. However, Westley suggests that fostering innovation in itself is not enough to permanently guarantee a resilient system. Instead, society needs to build the capacity for repetition while also making space for more radical innovations which have the potential to transform the system. 

She identifies three specific lessons that Resilience Theory can bring to social innovation.  The first is the importance of looking at a problem systematically, instead of innovating to solve a specific problem without considering the broader impacts. She gives the example of the rise of biofuels which has led to a corresponding decrease in land available for subsistence agriculture, negatively impacting food security in the developing world. The second lesson she notes is the need to balance top-down and bottom-up approaches to crafting solutions, and in particular to recognize the importance of working closely with local people. Westley illustrates this by noting how communities have been made much more resilient in the face of famine when provided with their traditional foods. Both these approaches are combined in her third observation, which is that both local knowledge and government policy must contribute to create opportunities for innovation to occur.

Westley also believes that theories of social innovation can strengthen our understanding of resilience processes. In her opinion, this approach ‘shines a light on the various actors (such as social entrepreneurs and system entrepreneurs) who help these processes happen’. In particular Westley is interested in the figure of the ‘system entrepreneur’ who finds the opportunities to leverage innovative ideas for much greater system impact. As resilience theory predicts, such opportunities occur most frequently when there has been a ‘release of resources through political turnover, economic crisis, or cultural shift’. Westley notes how system entrepreneurs prepare for such opportunities by putting in place the networks and relationships necessary to take advantage of political and economic shifts when they occur. She also identifies characteristics shared by organizations and communities which exhibit high levels of both resilience and innovation. Her assessment is that resilience and innovation are fostered in groups which exhibit low hierarchy, adequate diversity, an emphasis on learning over blame, room for experimentation and mutual respect.

This is a thought-provoking piece, and suggests avenues for future research directions. More work could be done to find and elaborate on societal examples which illustrate resilience theory in action. In addition, more could be said about the rather shadowy figure of the ‘system entrepreneur’, and in particular how they differ from a more traditional social entrepreneur.  Westley begins the piece with the example of Bunker Roy, and it is unclear whether she considers his work in setting up the Barefoot College to be an example of system entrepreneurship or social innovation. Certainly, she suggests that the innovation he pioneered was ‘deeply radical – challenging the conventions of village life, professional associations, and traditional culture’. She also later defines system entrepreneurs as those who find ‘opportunities to connect an alternative approach to the resources of the dominant system’. This seems to fit the Barefoot College example well, as village people and especially women constituted an under-utilised resource who could be trained so that they possessed the technical skills necessary to care for each other.

What is unclear however is why we should not understand Bunker Roy as being simply a highly successful social innovator.  Westley herself notes that his work was an example of what she terms ‘bricolage’, yet even when she describes the system entrepreneur she does not suggest that this person should introduce new resources into the system. Indeed, within resilience theory there seems to be a very important emphasis on processes of adaptation and transformation, rather than the introduction of anything that can truly be said to be new. The system entrepreneur simply brings an alternative approach to existing resources, rather like Bunker Roy who Westley describes as a social innovator. It may be that the distinction is of less importance than Westley suggests, however further elaboration would be helpful as there is something very appealing about the figure of the system entrepreneur and the potential for radical change that such a person might represent.

Photo copyright by Moyan Brenn