Societal change comes about as a consequence of the interaction between organizations and institutions (North 1990
). Institutions are the formal rules and informal social norms that society places upon organizations. Cultural institutions, economic institutions, and governance institutions all play a role in preventing or enabling transformation. They embody the macro level rule sets that frame the behavior of organizations, from governments to private firms as well as that of civil society (Giddens 1976
). As we have noted above, the current rules governing the private sector and the economy are not likely to support innovation for sustainability. Similarly, our culture of consumption and growth stimulates behavior antithetical to tipping our systems in the direction of sustainability.
Change demands innovation across multiple scales. At the macro institutional scale, we need to transform our global and national institutions, from a pattern that supports environmental destruction to one that favors long-term resilience and sustainability. At the meso or problem domain scale, we need to create opportunities to incorporate novelty and innovation. At the microscale of individuals and small groups, where invention originates and where the early source of support for “disruptive” or “catalytic” innovation may be found (Christensen et al. 2006
), we must foster mechanisms and agency that can connect a healthy supply of invention, with the institutional opportunities that emerge.
Innovation studies from the domains of business, technology, and organizational behavior, have long established the importance of approaching innovation from a top-down/bottom-up perspective. In large, continuously innovating firms, the strategic apex sets strategic direction, but innovation occurs at the front lines, on the shop floor, or in small designated teams. Top management does not so much “control or direct” the innovation process, as provide resources and opportunities for exploration and experimentation (Nonaka and Nishiguchi 2001
; Westley 1990
). There is a key role here for intermediaries, or knowledge brokers, at the middle management level, who are able to question the strategic context to understand why and where a firm wishes to move, frame that for those working on the front lines, identify promising innovations, and sell these to the strategic apex (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995
; Burgelman 1983
). This is sometimes called management up-down or “sandwiched” innovation (Lane et al. 2009
). When innovative ideas are connected to strategic priorities this produces the cascade of resources required to bring innovation to markets and scale it up.
In the greater complexity of social and technological innovation designed to address broad system concerns such as sustainability, there are similarities and differences with the corporate innovation model. The emerging work on successful social innovation focuses on the dynamics of scaling up new ways of thinking, new processes for action and decision making, new designs for behavior and new social programs (inventions) for greater durability and impact. This study recognizes significant differences between the dynamics of technological innovation within firms and those of social innovation, including the greater complexity that decouples such innovations from markets and the role of governments as intervening actors (Westley and Antadze 2010
; Moore and Westley 2011
; Hillman et al. 2011
). However, central to both is the role of individuals with particular skills, and the need to focus on cross scale interactions to gauge which innovations have high impact, durability, and scale (Fig. ).
Fig. 2 Cross-scale dynamics of social (systemic) innovations and the role of institutional entrepreneurs. Institutional entrepreneurs are key to systemic transformation. Their role is to question the institutional context, frame it for those working at more (more ...)
Three inter-related levels are identified: regimes, landscapes, and niches (Geels and Schot 2007
; Markard and Truffer 2008
are the dominant rule-sets supported by incumbent social networks and organizations and embedded in dominant artifacts and prevailing infrastructures, of say, particular industries or social problem arenas. Landscapes
provide the environment in which regimes evolve. They consist of features like the geographical position of the land, climate, and available resources, and “softer” features like political constellations, economic cycles, and broad societal trends. Landscape factors are a major source of selection pressure on dominant regimes, and so, as landscapes shift, so do the possibilities for innovation and scaling-up of innovations. Radical innovation originates in niches
: small protected spaces in which new practice can develop, protected from harsh selection criteria and resistance from prevailing regimes. Transitions (changes from one stable regime to another) are conceptualized in the model as occurring when landscape pressures destabilize prevailing regimes, providing breakthrough opportunities for promising niches. This implies a non-linear process of change in which, after passing critical thresholds, elements of a previously dominant regime recombine with successful niches into a new dynamically stable configuration (Rotmans and Loorbach 2009
Transitions can be triggered, however, by a “disruptive” or “catalytic” innovation, one that addresses the needs of those not served by the dominant institutional and organizational systems, including the governance system (Hwang and Christensen 2007
). A good example is that of the growing success of ecosystem-based management. While, in some governance regimes, notably the United States marine zoning and shifts to ecosystem-based management have been severely constrained by inflexible institutions, lack of public support, and difficulties developing acceptable legislation (Crowder et al. 2006
), in many others new integrated management systems, like adaptive co-management and ecosystem-based management, are emerging and being institutionalized around the world (Garaway and Arthur 2004
; Armitage et al. 2007
; Olsson et al. 2008
; Berkes 2009
; Cundill and Fabricius 2010
Disruptive innovation has a fundamentally different relationship to system transformation than the innovation process identified in the corporate innovation literature and described above. The latter results in a continuous supply of novelty that may build resilience of the firm, and even the industry, but does not fundamentally disrupt it. From a systemic innovation viewpoint, this is the equivalent of ideas that take advantage of opportunities at the regime level but do not fundamentally challenge the broader landscape or institutional level that defines and constrains the problem domain. For example, an innovative program designed to address the needs of the homeless, may provide new technology such as “portable homes” to people living on the streets, but only confirms the resilience of the broader institutions that produce and reproduce the homeless problem, such as our built environments and our property regimes. At a local scale, it could be argued that the Transition Town movement, strong in the UK in particular, represents a deliberate effort to “decouple” from the broader economic and institutional system to secure local resilience in the face of possible collapse of the broader system (Barry and Quilley 2009
). While undoubtedly innovative, these initiatives are unlikely to stimulate the great transformation toward sustainability that we need to avoid pushing the earth system beyond planetary boundaries. For that we need a disruptive innovation, a broad system adjustment to allow for its growth and impact and institutional entrepreneurs who connect the two and help to navigate the transition.
Top Down: Shaping the Context for Emergence
In social innovation contexts, like the ecosystem-based management initiatives described above, setting the conditions works better than setting down rules. Like innovation in the corporate context, research suggests that adaptive learning approaches, allowing for exploration and experimentation, are better suited for ecosystem-based management than are rigid approaches that have set prescriptions for resource use (Garaway and Arthur 2004
; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007
). Corporate strategies aimed at innovating for sustainable development, for example, are encouraged by laws and regulations that reflect social expectations, as opposed to traditional attempts to compel change (Kenny et al. 2011
Reflexive law, as it is called, is less rule-bound and recognizes that as long as certain basic procedural and organizational norms are respected, participants can arrive at positive outcomes and self-correct (Sheuerman 2001
). In response to growing complexity, the detailed rules that regulated entities have been expected to follow are replaced by procedures designed to encourage thinking and behavior in the right direction, while allowing individuals to meet social norms in their own way (Orts 1995
). The recent appearance of reflexive law in natural resource industries heralds an innovative role for governments, and a way that government and business can move forward in dealing with global societal issues.
Behaviors of corporations as well as citizens are more likely to change if the context of negative and positive sanctions is changed, rather than through direct or indirect appeal to attitudes and values (Aronson 2008
) through scare tactics or other means (Feinberg and Willer 2011
). Recent studies of developing and developed economies, and oil-based and non-oil-based economies, give evidence that citizen support for renewable energy can be garnered through linking it to jobs. In Costa Rica, job prospects were linked to “green” tourism. In Denmark, the job prospects created by reducing the country’s dependence on unreliable foreign sources of fossil fuels had a similar effect (Espinoza and Vredenburg 2010
; Fig. ).
Wind energy as part of sustainability transitions? Öresund, Baltic Sea (photo Mathias Andersson, Azote)
Tax incentives, subsidies, and competitions or challenges are also ways to focus public support and private sector ingenuity on societal challenges from climate change to biodiversity loss (Moore and Westley 2011
). One of the early insights of resilience theory was the need for adaptive management, which in turn called on governments to think of policy as experiments (Holling 2001
). Recently, National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts (NESTA), a government sponsored think tank operating in England, issued a Big Green Challenge. For the prize of one million pounds communities were invited to submit innovative plans for carbon reductions. Over 100 communities submitted proposals that were ranked on innovation and feasibility. Ten were accepted and the communities given some assistance in launching their initiatives. The experiments were diverse and interesting. While, the winners received significant monetary rewards, even the losers had innovative projects underway at the close of the competition (NESTA 2010
The UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program is an international program that offers a framework for stimulating sustainable development. This includes the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Each reserve or site (564 sites in 109 countries as of April 2011) constitute a platform for learning on sustainable development and a place to experiment with various forms of integrated approaches for managing and governing natural resources and ecosystem services (Schultz et al. 2011
; Nguyen et al. 2011
). Experiments such as these can help prepare for a transformation by “beta testing” alternative policy options. Innovations of this kind are not necessarily only local phenomena, but can have large-scale effects through diffusion or scaling up, like the suggested re-greening of the Sahel (Reij and Smaling 2008
) or targeted grazer control during El Niño Southern Oscillation events to restore degraded ecosystems (Holmgren and Scheffer 2001
). The diffusion dynamics of innovation, and their potential positive and negative externalities, highlight the need for global level support of innovation, guided by overarching governance principles for resolving conflicts and facilitating coordination in institutionally fragmented settings (Olsson and Galaz 2011
All this points to the need for “adaptive governance” in situations, such as ecosystem-based management that require integrated management approaches (Dietz et al. 2003
; Folke et al. 2005
). The more successful adaptive governance systems, often emergent and self-organizing, connect individuals, networks, organizations, agencies, and institutions at multiple organizational levels with ecosystem dynamics (Folke et al. 2005
; Bodin and Crona 2009
; Berkes 2010
). It is important to stress that transparent, and inclusive decision-making processes that are viewed as legitimate by stakeholders, are a precondition for effective adaptive governance systems to emerge and be sustained over time despite social and ecological uncertainty and surprise. This is in line with the findings of scholars in transition management (e.g., Grin et al. 2010
; Loorbach 2010
) who argue that the ability to co-ordinate experiments that contribute to system innovation is of crucial importance in releasing lock-ins and enabling shifts to new trajectories. Such “systemic experiments” should broadly focus on broadening the diversity of options, ideas, organizational settings, and practices (see for example Bormann and Kiester 2004
; Rudd 2004
). In other words, building resilience requires systemic experimentation and innovation and this in turn requires enabling those closest to the problem to shape and define solutions.
Bottom Up—Harnessing the Innovative Potential at Local Scales
While government policies, laws, and governance systems can be more or less stimulating to the emergence of innovation and novelty, it is worth remembering that there are natural sources of resilience and innovation in most social systems, overlooked by top-down approaches. A good example is presented by studies of communities in post-conflict Eritrea following the border war with Ethiopia. International aid organizations, sent in by the United Nations to support women in displaced persons camps, were met with some resistance and confusion when they sought to deliver the standard relief package, including treating the refugees for post traumatic stress and alleviating the famine conditions with food supplies. When researchers inquired about suspected psychological trauma, they were surprised to find that despite emotional distress caused by the war and subsequent loss of their homes, the Eritrean women in particular did not consider themselves depressed or traumatized. In fact there is no word for depression in their language; the closest approximation is “yemenfes chinquet
” (oppression of the soul), a condition seen as originating from social rather than biological causes (Almedom et al. 2003
; Almedom 2004
). If you have “oppression of the soul”, you work hard to tell your story—an important cultural tradition in Eritrea—and this connection to a broader community restores a sense of coherence. Storytelling workshops would have been an innovative response to displacement, but were not imagined in international response protocols.
Local innovative capacity is enhanced when conditions for social learning are present, particularly when there are stores of social memory on which to draw. A study of innovative responses to disasters in England underlined the need for government to relinquish orchestrating and planning and instead “engage” (listen and learn about local ideas), “educate” (inform local populations of resources and possibilities available), “empower” (trust in the potential and resourcefulness of local communities, including their long-term memory of traditional responses), and “encourage” (allow a diversity of innovative responses to emerge, as opposed to insisting on a top-down planning process) (Edwards 2010
). Social learning and social memory prove to be excellent sources of innovation, if nourished and engaged (Barthel et al. 2010
). Similarly, the SARS crisis in Toronto was used as a learning opportunity for public officials to identify the hospital cultures that showed the greatest capacity to innovate in response to crisis. It turned out that these hospitals were the same ones that had been identified earlier as “magnet” hospitals—those able to attract and retain nurses. A closer study revealed that they shared a similar organizational culture: one that valued social justice, consultation across levels, decentralized decision making and self-governance, flexible scheduling, and learning (Maunder et al. 2008
Crisis has the effect of creating disruption at the institutional and problem domain levels, and at such times, if innovative alternatives are sufficiently well developed, the system can tip. One example comes from northeastern Honduras, where a climate related disaster, Hurricane Mitch, provided an opportunity for innovation in land management that led to improved well being of those affected (McSweeney and Coomes 2011
). Interestingly, this opportunity was not provided by the aid organizations who were brought into manage the crisis, but rather on a household by household basis—almost “virally”—resulting in a shift to a more equitable land distribution, protected forests, and a community well positioned to cope with comparable flooding 10 years later (ibid p. 5203). Innovation was facilitated by the ability to “tap into collective social memories” (ibid p. 5205). The study revealed that the interventions of aid organizations in the local economy before Hurricane Mitch had actually heightened the community’s vulnerability. “Future interventions,” it was argued, “should foster local capacities for endogenous institutional change to enhance community resilience to climate shocks” (ibid, p. 5203).
These examples point to the importance of engaging bottom-up responses for timely and effective innovation. This requires that attention be paid to nurturing cultural norms of learning and memory. Top-down only responses to crisis often miss the opportunity for learning and innovation because of the emphasis on speed, and on avoiding blame (Walker and Westley 2011
). Innovation occurs most readily in contexts where experimentation and exploration are encouraged and where innovative ideas, projects, designs, processes are connected to the institutional resources and opportunities that can give them broad impact and durability. To this end, agency, in the form of social, political, and institutional entrepreneurship, is vital.
Connecting the Two: the Role of Agency in Transformation
Systemic innovation strategies are fundamentally different from regular innovation strategies in that they are founded on notions of complexity, ambiguity, and diversity. They cannot depend purely on market forces, nor can they be deliberately planned. However, agency clearly plays a role at each stage of the process. Key persons can play pivotal roles in such learning processes including providing leadership, building trust, developing visions, and sense-making (Westley 2002
; Olsson et al. 2004
; Huitema and Meijerink 2009
; Gutiérrez et al. 2011
). These individuals can be important brokers for connecting people and networks (Bebbington 1997
; Crona 2006
; Ernstson et al. 2010
) and also play a key role as nodes in learning networks (Manring 2007
Institutional entrepreneurs and their networks may work simultaneously at building innovation niches into innovation regimes and at destabilizing the dominant landscape and regime to secure the required resources. At the broader institutional or landscape level, they act to “nibble” at the resilience of the dominant system, seeking opportunities in the market, the political/policy sphere and the cultural sphere, where resources can be redirected to the emerging innovation niche/regime and where elements supportive of the new regime can be inserted (see Fig. ). Meanwhile, they nurture innovative alternatives, through sensemaking, building, and brokering partnerships between unusual suspects, selling the innovations to secure resources and creating disturbances in existing regimes and landscapes (Westley 2002
; Olsson et al. 2004
; Westley et al. 2006
Fig. 4 Shifting resilience. While much attention is paid to preventing critical transitions that tip a system into an undesirable basin of attraction, institutional entrepreneurs are often doing the reverse: attempting to tip a dominant system into a more desirable (more ...)
In this context, scholars have focused on the role of shadow networks, informal networks that work both outside and within the dominant system to develop alternatives that can potentially replace the dominant regime if and when the right opportunity occurs (Gunderson 1999
; Olsson et al. 2006
; Westley and Vredenburg 1997
). Shadow networks are incubators for new ideas and approaches, for example for governing and managing social-ecological systems. Pelling et al. (2008
) discuss the role of shadow spaces and organizations in fostering innovation and experimentation for social learning and adaptation to climate change. For example, regime change has become an issue in Hungary following repeated failures of conventional management policies to handle a series of floods on the Tisza River starting in 1997 (Sendzimir et al. 2008
). A “shadow network” of activists and academics has emerged to point out how current river management appears trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of coping reactions that never build enough momentum to adapt and improve the situation. Increasing public participation catalyzed by the shadow network pushed the water policy debate toward more experimentation with alternatives, but implementation appears stalled. Here, the importance of a champion to sustain dialog until learning is enshrined in policy becomes evident.
An example can be drawn from the case of the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia, Canada, where a network of institutional entrepreneurs worked simultaneously to: (a) destabilize the global market for old growth forest products and (b) challenge the government control of tracks of pristine wilderness through native land claims in Canadian courts; (c) convene stakeholders at local and provincial levels in negotiation and framing exercises, that also involved personal commitment to changed perceptions of the other actors; (d) broker agreements around clusters of innovative ideas; (e) sell those ideas to government and economic decision makers (Tjörnbo et al. 2010
). The success of the work of institutional entrepreneurs is often dependent on timing: the occurrence of exogenous shocks, the availability of resources, the synchronicity with other trends or transitions occurring in the system. Skill, however, is also a key, including the capacity to anticipate when an opportunity or shock will occur. For example, Gelcich et al. (2010
) describe how a new governance approach for marine resources emerged in the late 1980’s in Chile at a time of marine resource crisis and political turbulence. The resource crisis triggered a few collaboration initiatives between fishermen and scientists in informal networks to start solving problems together and experimenting with new ecosystem management approaches. Political turbulence in the late 1980’s provided a window of opportunity for fishermen to organize, scale up the innovation, and influence the new national fishery legislation and institutionalization of a new governance system for marine coastal resources in Chile (Fig. ).
Boats of a coastal fishing cove, or “caleta” involved in marine adaptive governance, Chile (photo Carl Folke)
Social Media and Design Thinking: Two Promising Process Innovations
We need to understand how particular narratives give rise to certain dominant innovation pathways shaped by powerful interests, often with substantial financial and institutional backing. These are the “motorways” that direct current mainstream environment and development efforts and guide investments in agricultural science and technology. But these dominant pathways can often obscure or even overrun alternatives, the less-travelled “byways”, “shadow tracks”, or innovation regimes that define and respond to different sets of goals, values, and forms of knowledge, presenting alternatives to mainstream strategies for dealing with complex and dynamic social, ecological, and technological change and responding to shocks and stresses (Leach et al. 2010
Tapping these “shadow tracks” then becomes a key challenge to governance, especially because traditional, expert-driven, centralized, and top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to effectively address convergent, nonlinear, and rapidly changing global problems characterized by high uncertainty. What this suggests is that we need to bring together and apply to these problems as many different ideas—and as many different heads—as possible to trigger real transformations toward global sustainability. Here is where emerging social media and associated advances in information and communication technologies can play a role. Because of its distributed nature, the Internet can make possible the rapid decentralized innovation our world urgently needs. It can help generate financial and political support for safe-fail experiments in communities around the world, using diverse technologies, organizations, and ideas.
This capacity cannot be taken for granted however. We are already experiencing severe sustainability challenges facilitated by rapid information technological change. Examples here include not only rapid online coordination aiming to undermine the authority of climate science as illustrated all to clearly during “Climategate”, and hackers breaking into carbon market databases, but also the acceleration of the destruction of natural resources. This last concern was raised during the last meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2010, where the case of Internet trade with threatened species was widely debated.
This calls for an explicit approach to direct the decentralized power of the Internet in ways that contribute to transformations toward sustainability. Scientists have found that all complex systems that are highly adaptive, like markets, tend to share certain features. First of all, the individual elements that make up the systems, such as companies in a market economy are extraordinarily diverse. Second, the power to make decisions and solve problems is not centralized in one place or thing; instead, it is distributed across the system’s elements. The elements are then linked in a loose network that allows them to exchange information about what works and what does not. Often in a market economy, for example, several companies will be working at the same time to solve different parts of a shared problem, and important information about solutions will flow between them. Third, highly adaptive systems are unstable enough to create unexpected innovations but orderly enough to learn from their failures and successes. Systems with these three features stimulate constant experimentation, and they generate a variety of problem-solving strategies.
The Internet and its subsystem, the World Wide Web, exhibit exactly these features. So, they could be the foundation for rapid problem solving and “knowledge generation” on a planetary scale; for a new generation of ecological monitoring systems (Galaz et al. 2010
); for more effective multinational scientific collaboration (The Royal Society 2011
); for polycentric experiments that increase social-ecological resilience; and for radically new forms of democratic decision-making. Most fundamentally, however, it can facilitate the conversation we must have among ourselves to identify and realize innovative approaches that support planetary stewardship and help us stay within critical planetary boundaries.
To date, though, open-source approaches have been applied to solving technical problems like the creation of complex software, large databases, or online encyclopedias. Now, we urgently need to explore if we can use this kind of approach—and the culture of voluntarism that underpins it—to address our bedeviling social, political, and environmental problems like climate change. Research and experimentation on such innovation platforms as crowd thinking and design thinking are underway and hold promise for accelerating social innovation that addresses complex problems such as environmental issues (Rockefeller Foundation 2008
; Brown 2009
). Positive examples here include Internet based micro-finance initiatives such as Kiva.org; knowledge sharing platforms for climate adaptation and water and sanitation innovations (e.g., WeAdapt 2011
; Akvo 2011
) and problem solving virtual platforms such as the MIT Center Collective Intelligence project CoLab, Internet-based approaches to assist the emergence of innovative ideas (e.g., InnoCentive and Environmental Defense Fund Eco-Challenge Series). Examples also point to the convening and mobilizing power of social media. With the help of the advances in information and communication technologies including satellite technologies, social mobilization has taken place around efforts to curb both illegal deforestation and surprising outbreaks of large-scale forest fires in the Amazon (Foster Brown 2006
), the illegal and unreported fishing in Antarctica (Österblom et al. 2010
While, recognizing that open-source methods cannot give us clear and final solutions to problems that are ultimately rooted in politics, they are still a powerful way to develop scenarios and experiment with ideas. If these methods are coupled with the skills and capacity to engage in trans-disciplinary, cross-sector problem solving, to design processes to sustain knowledge integration and behavioral change, they can help us build worldwide communities of like-minded people who, in the course of working together on tasks, become bound together by trust and by shared values and understandings. The growing interest on the part of governments, universities, and think tanks in Change Labs is promising. Such change labs offer a place for creative, cross-sector and cross-disciplinary decision-making and innovation. The process is supported by careful design and facilitation and is resourced by research geared to the decision maker’s needs. The focus is on those “wicked problems” that seem insoluble, and reconciling seemingly antithetical elements such as the need to grow the economy and to maintain environmental services, or to maximize both short term profitability and long-term sustainability (Banerjee 2008
; Bason 2011
) (Fig. ).
There is no deficiency of social and technological innovations, but innovation capacity needs to be redirected supporting transformations that reconnect people to the biosphere (photo Carl Folke)