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Symposium: Paradoxes of Transformative Social Innovation

December 6 2017 at 12:00, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Solbosch campus

This 1,5 day symposium will take place in Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Solbosch campus), starting with lunch on Wednesday December 6th, and ending at 16.00 H on Thursday 7th). The symposium is meant to organize a debate between leading scholars that have explored these ‘TSI paradoxes’ from various angles (such as innovation studies, STS, political philosophy, sociology, political science, Social Economy, transitions studies). It is structured along five sessions that are kicked off by speakers Marthe Nyssens (Université Catholique de Louvain), Ronan Le Velly (Montpellier SupAgro), Cornelius Schubert (University Siegen), and Frank Moulaert (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven). 

Social innovations, with sharing economy, Ecovillages, ethical banks, food sovereignty initiatives, urban labs, maker spaces and social enterprises as prominent examples, are increasingly endorsed for their potentials towards addressing societal challenges of sustainability, social inclusion, democratization and equity. In our project on transformative social innovation we have studied how these new ways of doing, organizing, framing and knowing could be transformative, i.e. challenge, alter or replace dominant institutions. This 4-year endeavour towards TSI middle-range theory has built on empirical investigations into 20 transnational social innovation networks2, conducted in 27 different countries. It has yielded insights into the emergence and sustenance of SI initiatives, their network formation, their initiation of and conditioning through processes of institutional change, and the shaping of these processes by changes in the socio-material context (Haxeltine et al. 2017).

In the course of our theorizations and searches for empowering practical advice, we have encountered in many ways how TSI is a paradoxical affair (Pel et al. 2016; Avelino et al. 2017). 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 reintroduction and fading of social practices – which therefore acquire both ‘progressive’ as well as ‘regressive’ significance. Likewise, we have been struck by the widely diverging framings and self-understandings of the SI initiatives that we studied: Innovative ‘island’ or ‘frontier’? Lifestyle icon or everyday-life transformation? Defensive resistance or constructive thrust forward? Trojan horse or sheep in wolf’s clothing? We have learnt to appreciate the paradoxical nature of TSI as a pivotal insight, informing rather than blocking practically relevant theories of change.

The symposium comprises a 1,5 day program, featuring a diversity of longer and shorter contributions (presentations, commentaries and plenary discussion) on the following questions and topics:

  • How can social innovation be transformative, and what kinds of transformations are we talking about? In what ways does it rather yield reproduction of dominant institutions and hegemonic structures?
  • What are the promising theoretical lenses and tools available to gain understanding of the sketched TSI paradoxes? Which paradoxes are particular to social innovation phenomena?
  • What new kinds of political agency do we see emerging with the ‘social innovation initiatives’ described? How does the political agency of those differ from that of social movements, political advocacy, et cetera?
  • What are the key societal trends underlying the rise of ‘social innovation’, and associated innovation categories like ‘grassroots innovation’ and ‘public innovation’?
  • What kinds of initiatives and developments towards societal transformation are currently typically overlooked?
  • Which are the paradigmatic cases or exemplars of ‘TSI paradoxes’?

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