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Paradoxes of Transformative Social Innovation:

December 18 2017

interrogating new knowings of governance and imaginaries of societal transformation

Brussels (BE), Académie royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, December 6th-7th 2017  

In the last month of the TRANSIT project, researchers from the ULB brought together scholars from various backgrounds to organize ‘regards croisés’, confronting perspectives, on a particularly intriguing aspect of TSI theorizing. An aspect that makes it particularly challenging to come up with solid, straightforward explanations of TSI: “In the course of our theorizations and searches for empowering practical advice, we have encountered in many ways how TSI is a paradoxical affair. The transformation of institutions involves at the same time their reproduction, the search for emancipating organisational forms introduces new power relations, the development of social innovation networks stabilizes yet also diffuses collective identities, and the historical shaping of social innovation involves intriguing patterns of re-introduction and fading of social practices – which therefore acquire both ‘progressive’ as well as ‘regressive’ significance. (a fragment from the symposium description).”

The symposium gathered 37 researchers from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark, France, Norway and Hungary. The diverse backgrounds of the participants (sociology, transitions studies, STS, geography, political science, philosophy, economics amongst others) show how the topic of transformative social innovation is a truly transversal interest, appearing in many established lines of social-theoretical thought. The 1,5 day set-up featured five sessions in which the topic was discussed:

The symposium was started with a presentation by Bonno Pel (ULB) on the TRANSIT project. The presentation highlighted the theoretical perspectives through which our TSI theory has been developed: Developed as a critical, relational and processual theory, our theory has been particularly appreciative of the paradoxes of TSI. (See here for presentation of Bonno Pel). The same session featured empirical examples of TSI paradoxes, presented by Julianna Faludi (Corvinus Business School, Budapest) and Paul-Marie Boulanger (Belgium) as one of the early founders of the Basic Income Earth Network. Their presentations brought the topic to life, showing concrete examples of TSI paradoxes in design for all (presentation Faludi) and unconditional income entitlements for all (presentation Boulanger). After these introductions, the second session took the exploration of the topic into one of the main sites of TSI paradoxes. Prof. Marthe Nyssens (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) addressed from a Social Economy perspective how social enterprises are paradoxical hybrid organizations, combining common, individual and group interests in ways that can be charted over time. Her systematic exposition of social enterprises’ developments towards weak or strong social innovation made for a powerful first move in analytically breaking down the paradoxes. (see presentation Marthe Nyssens).

The second day was started by Jens Dorland (Aalborg University, Copenhagen campus, Denmark). His exposition highlighted the paradoxes lurking in the TRANSIT data on transnational SI networks, underlining how basic understandings of ‘transformative agency’ collapse when looking more closely at the supposed actors and units of analysis (see his presentation). The session continued with a plenary discussion on the important review of SI research practices recently published by prof. Moulaert and colleagues: “Social Innovation as a Trigger for Transformations; The Role of Research”. Instead of acting as discussant for prof. Moulaert (who unfortunately was struck by illness), TRANSIT lead Julia Wittmayer (Dutch Research Institute of Transitions, the Netherlands) distilled three important discussion points from the review – is it the task for SI research to articulate the paradoxes, and/or to resolve them? (presentation Julia Wittmayer).

The sessions four and five involved contributions taking aim at the heart of the TSI paradoxes topic, both driving towards more precise understandings of what ‘social innovation’ and the associated ‘transformations’ mean and empirically refer to. First, Cornelius Schubert (Universität Siegen, Germany) launched the compelling idea of ‘SI as a repair innovation’, which in turn reveals how some TSI paradoxes arise from the assumptions that surround it (on the evolution of society, on governability, on SI as a ‘social technology’, and on the engineered transformation of society through innovation) (see presentation Schubert). The symposium was concluded by a lecture from Prof. Ronan Le Velly (SupAgro Montpellier, France), presenting “Allowing for the projective in analysing alternative food networks” (see presentation Le Velly). His contribution started with the for many well-recognizable issue that ‘alternative’ ways of doing and knowing are often not that radically alternative, whilst on the other hand being motivated by real desires for alternative practices. It was highly instructive to see how prof. Le Velly made these ‘mere’ visions, imaginaries or projections of alternative practices into a solid starting point for empirical analysis of TSI issues – as these projections of SI initiatives are negotiated within actor networks over time, the paradox of ‘alternativeness’ is empirically broken down into a series of tensions, trade-offs and dilemmas for which situated actors seek to find workable solutions.

All in all, as also appreciated by the discussants (György Pataki, Grégoire Wallenborn, Olivier de Schutter), it is a surprising success of the symposium that the TSI paradoxes were not the culmination points in neither the presentations nor the plenary discussions. More prominent were concrete tensions and dilemmas, alternative and competing understandings, identifications of tradeoffs, and especially the dialectical lines of thought in which contradictions are negotiated, accommodated and possibly dissolved over time. This does not mean that the paradoxes are not relevant to SI-oriented research, though  –  it rather brings home how these paradoxes can be starting points for explorations, intermediate conclusions to flesh out further, tensions to articulate more systematically through multi-criteria diagrams, or urges towards a revisiting of founding concepts. In various ways, the presenters and discussion participants have thus brought forward how the articulation of TSI paradoxes can fertilize SI research; the useful question to ask for researchers is then what place a TSI paradox should have in a more encompassing argument. The latter affirmative point about the relevance of TSI paradoxes we would have loved to discuss with Frank Moulaert and colleagues. Their aforementioned SI policy review paper provides many thought-provoking observations about where SI research is, has been and should be going. This involves concerns about the sustained societal relevance of SI research, and more broadly about the relevance of the Social Sciences and Humanities vis-à-vis the promises of the ‘hard’ sciences. Increasing this relevance could mean that SI research could help to enhance the SSH position through its action research potentials, therewith demonstrating the need for engaged and in-depth confrontation of the dilemmas and trade-offs that pervade current societal challenges. It could also mean that SI research should have a more critical role in society. That would involve articulating not only the internal contradictions of dominant institutions, but also the paradoxes of trying to resolve these contradictions through social innovation ‘tools’ or ‘social technologies’.  


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