Looting the Ivory Tower – “Unpacking the social #innovation ecosystem”

Some of my favourite words in the title of an academic article – ecosystem, constellations, typology – squee!! (yes, I know, I should get out more).

And, thank goodness, it lived up to expectations. They take their big database of social innovation networks, with lots of specific projects, and they bash the database against some theory, pick up all the pieces – especially the ones that don’t fit – and make something rich and strange (that’s an allusion , btw).

And it’s, gasp, useful – the five ideal-type ecosystems are good to think with, I think.  Of course, there’s all sorts of questions – as the authors themselves admit – to be answered. (how) do the ecosystems change over time. Whats the succession? Are there keystone species? What happens if there’s a shift in the climatological conditions?  What if someone goes fishing in the fishpond with dynamite? What if the badgers move the goalposts? Yes, you can push the metaphor further than they have here, without breaking anything.  Anna Tsing should be locked in a room with mushroom risotto slid under the door in exchange for completed chapters of a book about this stuff, basically.


The title: Unpacking the social innovation ecosystem: an empirically grounded typology of empowering network constellations

The authors: Bonno Pel, Julia Wittmayer, Jens Dorland & Michael Søgaard Jørgensen

The journal: Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research,

The DOI: DOI: 10.1080/13511610.2019.1705147

The abstract:

Social innovation is on the rise as a mode of governance through which to address societal challenges. Seeking to empower SI initiatives, researchers and policy makers are concerned with the development of supportive “ecosystems”. This concept usefully calls attention to the distributed nature of SI agency, but many questions remain on the kinds of network constellations involved. This contribution unpacks the “SI ecosystems” concept, specifying how the empowerment afforded through SI networks rests on (1) local embedding, (2) transnational connectivity and (3) discursive resonance. Charting the variety of network constellations as studied in an international comparison of 20 transnational SI networks, a typology of SI ecosystems is constructed. Distinguishing five SI ecosystem ideal-types ranging from loosely integrated and locally focused co-creation hubs to globally connected and widely resonating political movements, the typology informs a differentiated approach to their understanding and development.

Keywords: social innovation; innovation ecosystems; networks; co-production; typology

In plain English/tl:dr: 

Academics trawl through studies on social innovation [one of the big sexy buzzterms du jour] and try to get beyond the general hand-waving and halo-effect of labelling a particular field as an “ecosystem”, to answer specific questions – 

  • What actors, networks and processes does the “SI ecosystems” concept empirically refer to? 
  • Which kinds of SI ecosystems can be distinguished and how do they empower the SI initiatives embedded in them?

[I’d add disempowering, but I never met a situation where I didn’t want to talk about disempowerment… ]

They come up with five “ideal type” ecosystems to think with. There is a lot more work to be done ,but this paper is a bloody good start.

Why ecosystems? Because it takes us away from individual/heroic actors…

Instead of reducing the SI ecosystems to supportive structures for certain innovation heroes, Howaldt, Kaletka, and Schröder (2017a) and Kaletka, Markmann, and Pelka (2017) argue that ecosystems are populated with a multitude of actors and organizations that co-shape social innovations. In order to develop such non-reductionist understanding, they argue the need to move beyond emblematic empirical examples of what “SI ecosystems” mean and comprise – observing instead, in comparative fashion, how SI ecosystems come in a broad miscellany of forms.


soc innov ecosystem

Key concepts:  Social innovation ecosystems – and different “ideal types” – coral reefs, badger setts, fishponds etc.

“four empowerment processes of legitimacy (alignment with local needs), critical mass (for which vicinity is important), provision of accommodation and material resources, and institutional anchorage”


“Constituting the most salient combinations of “local embeddedness”, “transnational connectivity” and “discursive resonance”, their pertinence arguably extends beyond the sample of cases by which they were empirically informed. Beyond their similarity to certain exemplar cases, the empirical adequacy of these constructs speaks from the recognizable sets of attributes (actors, network constellations and empowerment processes Cf. section 2.3) that constitute them. In order to highlight how the ideal-typical SI ecosystems indicate essentially different kinds of empowering network structures, they have been distinguished through evocative metaphorical names.

Type A: The “coral reef”. This rich and extended kind of ecosystem provides strong empowerment across all three dimensions of empowering network constellations. Combining strong local roots with a wider translocal identity, political voice and a favorable discursive sphere, these SI ecosystems combine a multitude of the associated twelve (Cf. Figure 1) empowerment processes into a network structure that is particularly supportive to local SI initiatives aiming for broad transformative impacts…..

Type B: The “badger castle”. This second type represents the opposite end of the spectrum, indicating rather secluded habitats. These SI ecosystems provide relatively little empowerment across the three dimensions. This partly reflects the institutional voids that have some SI initiatives struggling for resources and supportive alliances. On the other hand, this category of ecosystems also comprises the sparse, loose networks actively sought for by initiatives cherishing independence, flexibility, and diversity, which also deliberately seek out or build secluded spaces….

Type C: The “Fish pond”. This type of SI ecosystem empowers primarily through strong local embedding, and significantly less so through translocal connectivity (transgressing the edges of the “pond”). Discursive resonance can be either weak or strong. The key empowerment processes are legitimacy, locally developed critical mass, provision of accommodation and material resources, and institutional anchorage. These ecosystems are typically sought for by local SI initiatives for the affordance of material support and immediate means for sustained operation. The network formation is characterized by physical proximity. Key actors are the local governments, civil society organizations, NGOs, citizens, students and entrepreneurs that form local communities….

Type D: The “Fungi strand”. This fourth category of SI ecosystems is characterized by its high empowerment through translocal connectivity (i.e. the subterranean extensions of fungi strands), and relatively low empowerment through local embedding. Empowerment is mainly afforded through translocal critical mass, collective voice and identity, and facilitation of knowledge sharing. Typically involving well-developed network organizations that seek to boost the circulation of organizational models, practices, framings and codified knowledge, these ecosystems tend to involve relatively high levels of discursive resonance. Driven generally by political rationales of organizing collective action and moving beyond dispersed and locally confined action, various policy entrepreneurs, intermediaries, internationally operating professionals, large NGOs and academics can be seen to act as key agents in this translocal linkage…

Type E: “Seeds flight”. This fifth type of SI ecosystem empowers primarily through the communicative sphere around socially innovative concepts – which can be thought of as seeds flight, carried by the winds of society. This fifth type of ecosystem differs from the “coral reef” and the “fungi strand” types for the pivotal significance of “discursive resonance” and the relatively negligible role of local embedding and translocal networking. This discursive resonance involves the authoritative actors and organizations that lead in discourse formation, but also the communication infrastructures through which organizational models, practice formats, fashionable framings and codifying knowledge are mediated and spread…


Marc’s two cents

See above- I couldn’t contain myself to wait until here in the blog post to gush!

Should you read this?

Hell yes – but you may find it heavy going if you’re not an academic.


References worth closer attention

Aiken, G. T. 2019. “Community as Tool for Low Carbon Transitions: Involvement and Containment, Policy and Action.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 37: 732–749. doi:10.1177/2399654418791579.

Amanatidou, E., D. Cox, and D. Gagliardi. 2018. “Social Engagement: Towards a Typology of Social Innovation.” In MIOIR/MBS Working Paper Series-Working Paper 82

Avelino, F., J. M. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, et al. 2019. “Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment: Towards a Heuristic.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 145: 195–206. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2017.05.002.

Biggeri, M., E. Testi, and M. Bellucci. 2017. “Enabling Ecosystems for Social Enterprises and Social Innovation: A Capability Approach Perspective.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 18 (2): 299–306.

Kaletka, C., M. Markmann, and B. Pelka. 2017. “Peeling the Onion. An Exploration of the Layers of Social Innovation Ecosystems. Modelling a Context Sensitive Perspective on Driving and Hindering Factors for Social Innovation.” European Public & Social Innovation Review 1 (2). doi:10.31637/epsir.16-2.3.

Ziegler, R. 2017. “Social Innovation as a Collaborative Concept.” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 30 (4): 388–405


Mental note to self – use this for thinking about how to diffuse “Active Citizenship Toolkit” – how much local embedding, translocal stuff etc.  Tbh, want to get it trialled and USED in Manchester before making a big song and dance about it…

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