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Narratives of change : how social innovation initiatives engage with their transformative ambitions

Authors: Wittmayer, Julia M.; Backhaus, Julia; Avelino, Flor; Pel, Bonno; Strasser, Tim and Kunze, Iris
Publication date: 2015
Keywords: case studies, narratives of change, networks, social innovation, theory

This paper has been presented at the Pressure Cooker Workshop “Theories of change in sustainability transitions” University of A Coruna, 10-11th of September 2015. It has also been accepted for presentation at the SCORAI/TRANSIT Workshop “Beyond Transitions” Vienna, Austria, November 17th, 2015. It is a slightly adapted version from the one that features in the upcoming proceedings for the latter workshop.

Numerous initiatives worldwide aspire to contribute to social change towards more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies. In this paper, we approach their underlying theories about transformative change as ‘narratives of change’, broadly defined as sets of ideas, concepts, metaphors, discourses or story-lines about change and innovation. Such narratives of change reveal, amongst other, why the world has to change, who has the power to do so and how this can be done. A literature review supports this notion and helps assembling a method to reconstruct and analyse narratives of change concerning context, actors, plot, the production of narratives and their perceived role in social change processes. Following this method, and using interviews, participant observation and relevant documents as input, the narratives of change of three social innovation initiatives are constructed, namely Ashoka, the Global Ecovillage Network and RIPESS.

Having been selected for their transformative ambitions, these three narratives acknowledge that social change is necessary. Their comparison led to three main insights, namely the great variety that exists in terms of the framing of the world, the driving actors and the actual change process. It also revealed the great importance that social innovation initiatives accord to narratives and stories and the different ways they engage in shaping societal discourses. Lastly, narratives of change are not just ‘stories out there’, rather they recount the theories of change which are practiced and acted upon by the very social innovation initiatives which propagate them.


Wittmayer, J. M., Backhaus, J., Avelino, F., Pel. B., Strasser, T. and Kunze, I. (2015) Narratives of change : how social innovation initiatives engage with their transformative ambitions (TRANSIT working paper ; 4) TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.

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