TRANSIT asks for permission for the placement of cookies

“Beyond” Transition? Understanding and Achieving Sustainable Consumption through Social Innovation

January 6 2016

Reflections on the SCORAI Europe workshop at the Impact Hub in Vienna, Austria, on Nov 17, 2015 in collaboration with the TRANSIT project

by Julia Backhaus (ICIS, Maastricht University) & Julia Wittmayer (DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam)  

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

In Europe, social innovation is en vogue. Public, policy and scientific discourses herald its effectiveness in dealing with current societal challenges related to sustainability, resilience, work, welfare, social inclusion and cohesion. It is argued that social innovation is key in bringing about desired changes in times of austerity and social budget cuts. Former EU president Barroso, for example, stated that “if encouraged and valued, social innovation can bring immediate solutions to the pressing social issues citizens are confronted with” and the Bureau of European Policy Advisors (BEPA, 2010) argues that social innovation provides an effective way to ‘empower people’ and ‘drive societal change’: “at a time of major budgetary constraints, social innovation is an effective way of responding to social challenges, by mobilising people’s creativity to develop solutions and make better use of scarce resources”.

Since about 2012, large-scale, international research projects co-financed by the European Commission make explicit reference to social innovation, although topics and issues addressed follow a lineage of projects that started in the first decade of the New Millenium already. The total financial contribution of the EU to currently ongoing research projects dealing with social innovation in one way or another amounts to more than 40 mio. Euro (for an overview of previous and current projects, see here)

On Nov 17, 2015, the day before four of the current European projects (TRANSIT, SI-DRIVE, SIMPACT and CRESSI) convened for the presentation and discussion of preliminary research results and exchange on research methods and approaches, SCORAI Europe organised a workshop in collaboration with the TRANSIT project. The declared aim was to discuss sustainable consumption in the light of and in relation to social innovation and to challenge conceptual underpinnings of the prevailing ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’ discourses. Selected papers were invited and clustered around three themes: (i) conceptual contributions, (ii) case study analyses and (iii) discussions of roles and (inter-)actions of participants in social innovation projects, programmes or networks. Of the twelve papers presented, three were co-authored by colleagues from the TRANSIT project and bear a direct relation to the ideas on transformative social innovation that are developed in the project.

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

The first session contained papers drawing on (almost) the full range of the social sciences including psychology, sociology, political science, history and economics. These papers focused on discussing merits and shortcomings in conceptualising and advancing research on sustainable consumption and social innovation. It became clear that approaching the topic as well as “the real world” from a “flat ontology” perspective whilst paying attention to structural and institutional matters fosters theoretical (and potentially also practical) advancement and, of course, inter-disciplinary exchange. A paper by TRANSIT colleagues Julia Backhaus and René Kemp, in collaboration with Harro van Lente, was part of the first session. The authors compare different ontological views of four scholarly traditions concerned with societal change processes, namely a) Polanyi’s Great Transformation, b) theories of institutional change, c) practice-based approaches and d) socio-technical transitions literature. Also TRANSIT colleagues Adina Dumitru and Ricardo García Mira contributed a paper with colleagues from the FP7-funded Glamurs-project on sustainable lifestyles through the lens of space and time.

Also the second session was inspired by different disciplinary approaches but focused on concrete cases, including social entrepreneurship, ecovillages, cohousing, community (food) pick-up points and urban social innovation. The ensuing discussion shed light on the challenge (and, at the same time, the necessity) to think about and act on social innovation and sustainable consumption in combination. It also pointed to issues or aspects both ‘perspectives’ can learn from each other, in particular regarding civil society engagement, movement and activism. This session hosted two papers related to TRANSIT: firstly a paper by Keighley McFarland and Julia Wittmayer on the transformative potential of community food pick-up point schemes and secondly a paper by Julia Wittmayer, Julia Backhaus, Flor Avelino, Bonno Pel, Tim Strasser and Iris Kunze developing the concept of narratives of change to understand the transformative ambitions of social innovation networks.

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

TRANSIT/SCORAI workshop in Vienna (picture by Kristina Izmailova)

The third session set out to address roles and (inter-)actions of participants in social innovation and sustainable consumption initiatives and addressed issues of framing, research-based education, individual coping strategies and social capital. In the discussion that followed, most attention was, however, paid to the role research and researchers could or, perhaps, should play in pushing the sustainable consumption agenda, also in the context of social innovation.

The final plenary debate touched on many issues (for all papers, discussants’ contributions and discussion reports, please consult the workshop proceedings, available for download here. and revealed a staggering silence of the sustainable consumption community when challenged to think about truly transformative concepts, ideas or practices (transformative not in terms of ambition or potential but in terms of actual impact). It also pointed to the fact, that most of us take a sustainability focus for granted to such an extent that it remains implicit and threatens to become a blind spot that is not explicitly addressed anymore. Since social innovation is an agnostic concept which only in relation to a normative goal such as sustainability becomes meaningful, all goals and aims of social innovation processes should be made explicit. The workshop organising team is seeking to develop an edited volume with interested authors that taps into this issue and brings sustainable consumption and social innovation thinking and initiatives with transformative aims and achievements into fruitful exchange.  

Stay informed. Subscribe for project updates by e-mail.