Social innovation, systemic change and societal transformation.

04.12.2013 Blog

What’s the link between social innovation, systemic change and societal transformation?

This blog has been written by Julie Simon.

Over the course of the two days of the Social Frontiers conference, the issue of scaling up was discussed repeatedly. We were able to examine some of the issues in much greater depth in the session entitled ‘what’s the link between social innovation, systemic change and societal transformation?’

We had three presentations. The first, from Jürgen Howaldt from the Technical University of Dortmund on ‘Social innovations as drivers of social change – Tarde’s disregarded contribution to social innovation theory building’. The second from Nino Antadze from the University of Waterloo entitled ‘When scaling out is not enough: strategies for system change’. And third, from Alex Haxeltine at the University of East Anglia on ‘Transformative social innovation: a sustainability transitions perspective on social innovation.’ The presentations summarised the content and findings of the papers that were submitted as part of the conference. All papers will be available in the next few weeks.

Howaldt argues that while the concept of social innovation is gaining momentum, it still lacks a strong theoretical basis. Using Gabriel Tarde’s sociological theories, Howaldt sets out his argument that social innovations change social practices, and are therefore actual drivers of transformative social change. The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, unlike his contemporary Emile Durkheim, was interested not in macro-phenomena (such as structures, institutions and social systems) but in micro-phenomena, namely the particular actions of individuals. According to Tarde, these specific actions help to explain how social facts, structures and systems come into being. For Tarde, the processes of invention and imitation (innovation) are the central drivers of social change. These inventions are adopted, adapted, reinvented and imitated thereby changing society and its practices. As Tarde explained, ‘In the realm of the social, everything takes place as invention and imitation, with imitation forming the rivers and inventions the mountains.’ As such, it could be argued that social innovation is a mechanism for social change that operates at the micro level. So, if social innovation is a driver of social change, what are the policy implications? Howaldt argues that policy needs to move beyond a focus on technological innovation and discredited models of economic growth to a focus on empowerment and social innovation.

In her presentation, Antadze drew a distinction between ‘scaling out’ (replication) and ‘scaling up’ (system change). Rather than looking at processes of social change and transformation, this paper and presentation looked at the role of entrepreneurs in effecting change at the system level. According to Antadze, entrepreneurs aim first to ‘scale out’ their ventures – spread the idea or practice in other areas, to other organisations etc. In some cases, however, entrepreneurs realise that ‘scaling out’ cannot change the system (and therefore the problem) that the venture was initially established to address. In these cases, the entrepreneur needs to ‘scale up’. This is, however, notoriously difficult. Antadze summarised the findings of her research in which she and Frances Westley had examined how successful social entrepreneurs go about ‘scaling up’ their social innovation to a policy level. A number of cases are examined: PLAN, Jump Math, Tamarack and CCCO. Only the first was a ‘successful’ example of ‘scaling up’. To explain how and why PLAN succeeded, Antadze and Westley introduce the idea of a ‘system entrepreneur’ – an individual who reframes the problem to focus on and effect system change. This requires a different set of skills, competencies, approaches and strategies.

In his presentation, Haxeltine addresses the central questions: How can social innovation be analysed in relation to systemic change and major societal challenges. He referred to the upcoming FP7 social innovation research project which he will be leading along with Flor Avelino, Julia Wittmayer and others called TRANSIT. The underpinning assumption of this presentation and the paper it summarises, is that addressing the grand societal challenges faced by the knowledge society of the early 21st century will require systemic change. This means that we need a better understanding of the ways in which social innovation can be transformative and thereby create the conditions for systemic change. Haxeltine draws on a transitions perspective to illustrate the role of empowerment, transformative discourses and game changing developments. He outlines a methodology for the development of a theory of transformative social innovation and a set of case studies – including transition towns, the Hub network, the DESIS network, Fab Labs, Credit Unions and time banks -  which are intended to test and refine potential theories. 

All three papers and presentations will be available shortly.