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Research question

How does social innovation interact with other forms of (transformative) change, and how are actors (dis) empowered therein?

Project description

TRANSIT (TRANsformative Social Innovation Theory) is an ambitious research project that will develop a theory of transformative social innovation which is about empowerment and change in society. It is co-funded by the European Commission and runs for four years, from January 2014 until December 2017. TRANSIT will utilize a research method which encourages feedback from social entrepreneurs and innovators, policy makers and academics to develop a theory with practical relevance. The theory will be based on insights from other theories e.g. transition theory, social movement theory and institutional theory. The research project studies how social innovation can bring about empowerment and societal transformation.

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Vision and mission

Vision: Our vision is to increase the impact and potential of transformative social innovation that can empower people and facilitate change for sustainable development in society.

Mission: We want to develop a theory of transformative social innovation with a focus on empowerment and change in society that is both relevant and practical.

Our steps in 2016

TRANSIT looks back at the end of its in-depth research phase, after a total of 20 transnational networks and 40 local manifestations across the EU and Latin America were studied. Currently, TRANSIT researchers are focusing their efforts on finalizing a broader more elaborate empirical research of 80 different local manifestations, which will feed into our Critical Turning Points (CTP) database. This database aims to collect diverse experiences of transformative social innovation processes and is planned to be published before the end of this year.

At the moment we are also amidst developing our third training tool about social learning in transformative social innovation, which will be followed by a practice brief on the same topic. Our ‘Social Learning’ workshop in June 2016, which brought researchers, practitioners and policy makers together to discuss the notion of social learning, will be used to further enrich our upcoming publications.

Finally, we are preparing a TRANSIT brief on TSI theory and transformative change, which will be a step in communicating some of our theoretical insights for policy and practice. These insights have emerged from our previous publication ‘A first prototype of TSI theory’, which was developed in 2015. 

The last two years in retrospect

In May 2015 we were in the midst of preparing our second round of empirical research, in which we researched more transnational social innovation networks and local manifestations. We drew up a database for our more elaborate empirical work in which we aimed to study over 150 local manifestations of networks. At the same time, a team of researchers was dedicated to writing our first practice brief that was published in the summer of 2015. For the development of our Transformative Social Innovation-theory, we continued to integrate theoretical reviews. In November, we will had our Mid-term conference, titled ‘Social Innovation 2015: pathways to social change’, co-organized with SI-DRIVE and SCORAI-workshop, titled “Beyond’ Transition? Understanding and achieving sustainable consumption through social innovation’. By the end of 2015, we finished our second round of empirical work. 

In 2014, we amongst others published our first empirical materials, organized a theoretical and empirical workshop in Norwich, two workshops with social innovators and entrepreneurs, policy-makers, researchers in Argentina and The Netherlands, plus workshops on Game-changers and Governance, created two training tools and finalized the first prototype theory (see our reports).

Conceptual focus

TRANSIT is structured around 4 thematic focus areas: governance, social learning, funding and monitoring. We will develop theoretical and practically relevant insights for those thematic areas, which will form the basis for policy briefs and capacity building tools. Examples of questions that will be addressed include: what forms of governance facilitate transformative social innovation?; how can funding mechanisms become more effective? TRANSIT also zooms in on the effects of macro trends in society, such as the financial crisis, climate change and the ICT-revolution, which we refer to as ‘game changers’. It aims to develop insights about interpreting future changes (that can be used in e.g. forecasting and scenario planning tools) and about improving our effectiveness while working in changing circumstances. 

Research Approach

The theory of Transformative Social Innovation will be formulated in a dynamic and iterative process that builds on existing theory, grounds the emerging theory in in-depth case studies and tests it through a meta-analysis of survey data. In this process, the research team continuously interacts with social innovators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and scientists in a number of workshops applying and reviewing the emerging theory. Further outputs of this process include working papers, training tools, policy and practice briefs for social innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers and policymakers. 

An embedded case study approach is used to ground and test the emerging middle-range theory on transformative social innovation. This approach combines both qualitative, in-depth case study analysis, as well as quali-quantitative comparative meta-analysis. In total, TRANSIT researches a sample of approx. 20 transnational networks.

 (Transnational) networks

Many social innovators of today work locally, but are connected with other innovators around the globe. TRANSIT explores these linkages by researching international networks of social innovation in Europe and Latin America as case studies both qualitatively and quantitatively.

  • DESIS-network, Network for design for social innovation and sustainability 
  • FABLABS, Digital fabrication workshops open to local communities 
  • INFORSE, International network of sustainable energy  NGOs 
  • Participatory Budgeting, Network of communities and municipalities reinventing how public money is spent and prioritized
  • RIPESS, Network for the promotion of social solidarity economy
  • Seed Exchange Network, Protects biodiversity by defending seed freedom for integrity, self-organization and diversity 
  • Slow Food, Linking food to a comitment to sustainable local and global development 
  • Time Banks, Networks facilitating reciprocal service exchange 
  • La Via Campesina, Aiming for family farming to promote social justice and dignity 

Structure of the project

TRANSIT is structured in 6 Work Packages.

WP1 Project management – the coordinator is DRIFT (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and it is set up to coordinate, develop, integrate and manage all (financial, scientific, information) resources of the consortium. It does the overall management, establishes and keeps contact with an Interdisciplinary Advisory Board and it will be facilitating scientific & internal knowledge management.

WP2 Synthesis – the coordinator is ICIS (University of Maastricht, the Netherlands). The main objective is translating theoretical insights into working papers, policy recommendations and practical tools. The tasks are the organisation of synthesis workshops, the production of working papers, policy briefs and prototypes for tools.
The focus areas of those outputs are:

  • Global Societal Challenges and Game-changers in relation to Social Innovation
  • Governance
  • Social Learning
  • Resourcing
  • Monitoring

WP3 Theory and concepts – the coordinator is the 3S-group (University of East Anglia, United Kingdom) and the overall objective is to develop a practically relevant middle-range theory of transformative social innovation processes in an iterative process and in co-production with a variety of actors. Central questions are how social innovation relates to its context and how it is influenced by and influences the dynamics in society as well as how we can value and measure impacts and processes of transformative social innovation.

WP4 In-depth Case Studies – The coordinator is the Aalborg University (Denmark) and the focus is the collection and analysis of in-depth empirical evidence about social innovation. This will be done by carrying out in-depth case studies of transnational social innovation networks and their local manifestations that follow a set of methodological case study guidelines.

WP5 Meta-Analysis – the coordinator is the ULB-CEDD - Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. In contrast to WP4 that has an in-depth focus, this WP aims to collect and analyse a high quantity of evidence about social innovation. This will be done by conducting a survey amongst local manifestations of transnational social innovation networks. The results will be collected in an open-source an internet-based database (web-based resource hub). The data is analysed by means of detailed comparative, quali-quantitative analyses against the research questions identified in WP3.

WP6 Communication and engagement – the coordinator is IHS (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and the objective is the communication of the project results, stakeholder engagement and the facilitation of learning and capacity building in EU and Latin America. This WP shares knowledge and insights about transformative social innovation with a web based resource hub and it actively engages with other actors via engagement workshops, a reference group and by linking to existing SI platforms.


The TRANSIT project is coordinated by DRIFT (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands), and involves twelve separate research institutes from across Europe and Latin-America.

  • DRIFT (Coordinator) – Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands
  • 3S-group – University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
  • ICIS – University of Maastricht, the Netherlands
  • IHS – Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands
  • ULB-CEDD – Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • AAU – Aalborg University, Denmark
  • SPRU – University of Sussex, United Kingdom
  • IEC-UNQ – Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina
  • COPPE – Rio de Janeiro Federal University, Brasil
  • People-Environment Research Group – Universidade da Coruña, Spain
  • BOKU – University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Austria
  • ESSRG – research and development SME, Hungary

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