Academic article: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

So, as promised, I am going to start “looting the ivory tower” for useful work on social innovation (despite my reservations about the term – see here and here).

First up, well – a brilliant article …

The title: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

The authors: Bonno Pel & René Kemp

The journal: Technology Analysis & Strategic Management,

The DOI:

The abstract:

Social innovation (SI) is gaining attention as an innovation category. However, the SI concept proves vulnerable to stereotypical understandings. Next to the radically novel, diffusion-oriented and thereby manifestly innovative social ‘niches’, it is important to also acknowledge the rather latent SI phenomena of restoration and shielding. This paper therefore develops a critical-historicizing perspective that highlights the social construction of innovations in social relations. Building on scholarship in Strategic Niche Management, grassroots innovation and critical innovation studies, four ‘shapes of social innovation’ are distinguished. Substantiating and deepening this conceptual classification through empirical evidence on 20 SI initiatives, the analysis highlights how social innovations may take on several of the theorised appearances throughout their existence in society (shapeshifting). Disclosing overlooked SI phenomena, this critical historicizing understanding informs more comprehensive and balanced SI research and practice.

In plain English/tl:dr: “Social innovation” is the latest label policymakers and their remorseless remorafish pals are throwing around.  But it is also about going backwards to old ways (restoration) and protecting the Too Big and Stale to Fail brigade, incumbents who make the party donations, control the purse strings (shielding). So, learn from history and previous thinking, they come up with four kinds of “social innovations” and then test it against twenty projects with that label in their titles. The four types of innovation can all appear in one project – it isn’t either/or.  We should be super careful about this term “social innovation” else we end up just concept-mongering while the planet literally fries.

Key concepts:  

They come up with a 2×2 matrix (one of the oldest hacks in the academic toolkit, but it’s an oldie because it keeps on working).

social innovation four types

(Later in the article they do the same diagram with dual direction arrows between most of the circles, trying to capture the interplay and essential wibbly-wobbliness of Real Life.)

Marc’s two cents

This is great – super useful. An intuitive typology that doesn’t claim too much for itself, is humble about the empirical gaps.  Will cause useful (more light than heat) debates
And reference list to die for (I have cherry-picked particularly interesting looking ones below. Won’t be able to read all, of coruse)

Various quotes-

“Social ‘niches’ can be radically novel or restorative, and oriented towards diffusion or shielding.”

“An important ideological line of division has emerged between individualistic, social entrepreneurship-oriented understandings, and the rather collectivist understandings focused on social movements”

“Defined in critical-historicizing and non-essentialist fashion, SI is understood as the introduction of ‘new’ ways of doing, organising and thinking (Avelino et al. 2019b) that gain this innovative significance through their contrast with prevailing social relations (Haxeltine et al. 2017b). Following this definition, a very broad range of social phenomena could qualify as SI (Jaeger-Erben, Rückert-John, and Schäfer 2015). Crucially, this comprises not only the manifest shapes of SI (with an obvious, pronounced innovative profile), but also their relatively latent counterparts.”

“Particularly insightful has been the account of the ‘restorative niche’, characterised by the ‘absence of any strong diffusion push’ (Ziegler 2017, 349) and by ethical motivations. Struggling for survival against the societal current, the associated innovative agency resides largely in the construction of shelter. This active shielding may entail particularly creative work (Ziegler 2017, 341).”

References of particular note

Avelino, A., J. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. W. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, Michael S. Jørgensen, Tom Bauler, Saskia Ruijsink, and Tim O’Riordan. 2019b. “Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 145: 195–206.

Ayob, N., S. Teasdale, and K. Fagan. 2016. “How Social Innovation ‘Came to Be’: Tracing the Evolution of a Contested Concept.” Journal of Social Policy 45 (4): 635–653.

Cajaiba-Santana, G. 2014. “Social Innovation: Moving the Field Forward. A Conceptual Framework.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 82: 42–51.

Collier, D., J. LaPorte, and J. Seawright. 2012. “Putting Typologies to Work: Concept Formation, Measurement, and Analytic Rigor.” Political Research Quarterly 65 (1): 217–232.

Dóci, G., E. Vasileiadou, and A. C. Petersen. 2015. “Exploring the Transition Potential of Renewable Energy Communities.” Futures 66: 85–95.

Edwards-Schachter, M., and M. L. Wallace. 2017. “‘Shaken, but not Stirred’: Sixty Years of Defining Social Innovation.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 119: 64–79.

Haxeltine, A., B. Pel, J. Wittmayer, A. Dumitru, R. Kemp, and A. Avelino. 2017b. “Building a Middle-Range Theory of Transformative Social Innovation; Theoretical Pitfalls and Methodological Responses.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 59–77.

Jessop, B., F. Moulaert, L. Hulgård, and A. Hamdouch. 2013. “Social Innovation Research: A New Stage in Innovation Research?” In The international handbook on social innovation: collective action, social learning and transdisciplinary research, edited by Moulaert, et al., 110–127. Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar.

McGowan, K. A., and F. Westley. 2017. “Constructing The Evolution of Social Innovation: Methodological Insights From a Multi-Case Study.” European Public & Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 93–109.

Pel, B., and J. Backhaus. 2018. “Realizing the Basic Income; Competing Claims to Expertise in Transformative Social Innovation.” Science & Technology Studies.

Pel, B., and T. Bauler. 2017. “A Transitions-Theoretical Perspective on the Social Economy; Exploring Capture Dialectics in Flemish ‘Insertion’ Practices.” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics 88 (2): 279–298.

Pel, B., J. Dorland, J. Wittmayer, and M. S. Jørgensen. 2017a. “Detecting Social Innovation Agency; Methodological Reflections on Units of Analysis in Dispersed Transformation Processes.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 110–126.

Pfotenhauer, S., and S. Jasanoff. 2017. “Panacea or Diagnosis? Imaginaries of Innovation and the ‘MIT Model’ in Three Political Cultures.” Social Studies of Science 47: 783–810. doi:10.1177.0306312717706110.

Pol, E., and S. Ville. 2009. “Social Innovation: Buzz Word or Enduring Term?” The Journal of Socio-Economics 38: 878–885.

 Scott-Cato, M., and J. Hillier. 2010. “How Could we Study Climate-Related Social Innovation? Applying Deleuzean Philosophy to Transition Towns.” Environmental Politics 19 (6): 869–887.

Shove, E. 2012. “The Shadowy Side of Innovation: Unmaking and Sustainability.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 24 (4): 363–375.

Smith, A., and R. Raven. 2012. “What is Protective Space? Reconsidering Niches in Transitions to Sustainability.” Research Policy 41 (6): 1025–1036.

Smith, A., and A. Stirling. 2017. “Innovation, Sustainability and Democracy: an Analysis of Grassroots Contributions.” Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics 6 (1): 64–97.

Strand, R., A. Saltelli, M. Giampietro, K. Rommetveit, and S. Funtowicz. 2016. “New Narratives for Innovation.” Journal of Cleaner Production 197: 1849–1853.

Suchman, L., and L. Bishop. 2000. “Problematizing ‘Innovation’ as a Critical Project.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 12 (3): 327–333.

Wittmayer, J. M., F. Avelino, J. Backhaus, B. Pel, T. Strasser, and L. Zuijderwijk. 2019. Narratives of Change: How Social Innovation Initiatives Construct Societal Transformation, Futures.

Ziegler, R. 2017. “Citizen Innovation as Niche Restoration – A Type of Social Innovation and Its Relevance for Political Participation and Sustainability.” Journal of Social Entrepreneurship 8 (3): 338–353.

“What else by the author(s) looks good?”

Well, the Pel stuff below in the reference list. And Rene Kemp – he’s one of  major guys in the whole field…

The institutionalization of Transformative Social Innovation;: A comparative case study on institutional bricolage and mainstreaming B Pel, F Avelino, A Smith

Unpacking the social innovation ecosystem: an empirically grounded typology of empowering network constellations B Pel, J Wittmayer, J Dorland, M Søgaard Jørgensen Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 1-26

Mainstreaming Renewable Energy Prosumerism:: Directionality of an ongoing Transition B Pel, JM Wittmayer, T De Geus, S Oxenaar, F Avelino, M Fraaije


Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup


Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

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