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The Institutionalization of Social Innovation

November 7 2014

Blog post by Bonno Pel.

Social innovation changes the very ways in which people relate to each other, decisions are made and transactions are done. It is about such basic, fundamental changes that it could trigger large scale societal transformations. For examples of such transformations one could think of a greener economy, a sharing economy or an ‘inclusive’ economy, but also of various ways of ‘doing democracy’ beyond parliament.  2nd TRANSIT project meeting

In TRANSIT we also have this ‘transformative’ understanding of social innovation. We seek to develop the understanding of how SI initiatives could somehow become transformative. This is a matter of trying to learn from the SI processes going on, and of hard intellectual work to figure out the wider processes of social transformations. Taking this field knowledge and systems knowledge together, we gain understanding of Transformative Social Innovation (TSI).  

A very basic entry point for this TSI theory is the observation that social innovation is no longer a marginal activity. Social innovation has gained support well beyond revolutionary quarters and neighbourhood-bound activities - it is already informing official policy visions, and is a guiding concept on national and international levels. This institutionalization of SI is intriguing, of course: Some would say that social innovation is not meant to be institutionalized, and that it is precisely the societal activity that should be an alternative to the institutions we have. Some could also say that we need the governmental organizations and businesses to take up the transformation potentials of social innovations, to make sure that the changes really break through. Then there is the consideration that any attempt at transformation will be neutralized or ‘captured’ by the powers-that-be. In other words, the institutionalization of SI could be really a process of breakthrough, or it could be a delusion, marking the beginning of the end.

Breakthrough or capture? And how about the grey area in between that many SI initiatives will have to navigate? On Friday 24th of October in Brussels, TRANSIT organised a workshop on the governance aspects of transformative social innovation. We invited five speakers that highlighted this grey area from different angles: As the friction zone between inner and outer rule systems, as the result of historical shifts in civil society-market-state relations, as a challenge of finding the light but sufficiently robust institutions that allow for sustained reformations, as a matter of shifting and stabilizing advocacy coalitions, and as the difficulty of finding and articulating common purposes between diverse SI initiatives. All in all, these governance insights help TRANSIT deal with the circumstance that the social innovation concept is carried by a multitude of actors, with different ideas and deployments of the concept in mind. Working out TSI governance, SI actors can gain understanding of the complex actor networks that they are entangled in.

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