From Social Innovation to Transformative Innovation

Nicky Wunderlich |

This Blog has been written by Dr. Carla Alvial Palavicino, research fellow at the Centre for Global Challenges, Utrecht University.

Can innovation change the world? For many years practitioners of social innovation have highlighted that change does not occur through technology development and economic growth only, but that it often comes from people and communities acting to change their local and larger contexts.

Together with Johan Schot, Matías Ramírez and Alejandra Boni, I was invited to contribute a chapter to the latest Atlas of Social Innovation: New Practices for a Better Future, a publication that documents and highlights different perspectives, approaches and practices on this theme. In this short essay, I reflect on the relationship between social innovation and transformative innovation policy.

In our article, we argue that all innovation should be both social and technical, since technology and society shape each other in an iterative process of co-production. For many years, innovation has been based on a division of labour in which “the innovators” develop solutions that produce economic benefits and “externalities” (such as environmental damage and social inequalities) which need to be managed by society. Such an approach has proved to be insufficient to address the big challenges and uncertainties we are facing today, such as climate change and the growing inequalities and discontent in many liberal democracies.

Our approach is then to focus on processes of transformation at the socio-technical system level. This means that “innovations” in a complex system process can come from many actors, not only technology developers. Users, communities, regulators, workers, all can have initiatives that trigger system change. In the same line, any innovation that seeks to be transformative needs to change not only practices but also rules, institutions, power structures, and other system components that sustain specific configurations. For example, many of our present systems strongly rely on fossil fuels – from electricity, transportation, global commerce to agricultural production. To make these systems “zero-carbon” requires much more than the usage of clean energy sources and reducing energy consumption (although this can substantially contribute to mitigating climate change). It requires changes in the way we do things, for example, changing our expectations and social norms about consumption, travelling, comfort, etc.

This does not necessarily mean that we need to “reduce” our quality of life. In fact, system change would decrease inequality and improve the living conditions for many people in the world. However, if we want to do this sustainably, we must think differently. Opening to alternative futures – and alternative presents- is an essential part of transformation. Transformative Innovation is a toolset that can help us navigate through these alternatives: mapping existing systems and its interaction, opening up alternatives through anticipation, creating a path through a Theory of Change and evaluation tools that enable deep learning. Many of these tools are well known and developed by social innovation practitioners, who have stretched the boundaries of what we understand as innovation for many years now.

Transformative innovation is not necessarily a new approach, but takes many of the dimensions that before were seen as external to innovation as central components of the innovation process: democratization, sustainability, directionalities. In that respect, there is much to learn from social innovation to move forward!

The Atlas of Social Innovation: New Practices for a better future is available as softcover and e-book at: or can be ordered at your local bookstore. The articles are available online at

The article of Carla Alvial-Palavicino, Alejandra Boni, Matias Ramirez and Johan Schot on Transformative Innovation Policy & Social Innovation has open access and can be downloaded here.

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