Cross-scale transformation in complex systems

Cross-scale transformations graphic


Led by Stephen Quilley, this research theme concerns the inherent tensions involved in trying to maintain complex societies while changing the underlying structure of the modern capitalist economy in order to make the transition to more sustainable ways of living. 

Research projects

Current research projects include:

  • Social innovation and social media: an investigation of the extent to which participation in online communities changes individuals’ value systems and beliefs, and might be used as a platform to build communities committed to sustainable lifestyles. This project is led by Quilley and Ola Tjornbo, together with Perin Ruttonsha.   
  • Social financeled by Sean Geobey looks at social finance as a mechanism of transformation. 

Collaborative consumption: Examining Virtual Exchange Economies as a Mechanism for Transformative Social Change

Project Leads: Stephen Quilley, Ola Tjornbo

Contributing Researcher: Perin Ruttonsha

The collaborative consumption movement has capitalized on internet technology and social media to facilitate a revival of traditional exchange economies, effectively reinstating sharing as a cultural norm — defined by virtual acts of bartering, renting, lending, swapping, and gifting. This particular variety of virtual social network (VSN) represents a disruptive business innovation and novel mode of consumption, which implicitly draws together communities of interest; optimizes use of existing resources; equalizes consumer access to goods and services; allows consumers to save time, space, and money; and, opens new channels for individual income generation. Additionally, collaborative consumption challenges the dominance of the centralized systems of distribution that have been constitutive of the modern economy. In this context, the focus of this research is to examine the capacity of the Internet and social networking tools to incite shifts in consumer values, attitudes, and behaviours as an approach to social innovation and environmental activism.

Specifically, the project seeks to identify the drivers for involvement in the online exchange economy, and the potential for cascading resonance in the broader cultural-economic landscape, over time. It considers whether the rise in both the presence of and participation in online distribution networks is indicative of, prefaces, or can translate into deeper lifestyle shifts toward responsible consumption, ecological consciousness, and social rationality. It will examine whether VSN members are drawn to this new mode of consumption because of its eco-social distinctiveness, and/or if their participation predisposes, and ultimately provokes within them an eco-community-orientated mindset. In other words, could the brand of collaborative consumption, and the eco-social characteristics that it implies, endow individuals with a new system of symbolic significance that could dislodge their relationship with the mass consumption mentality? The study will investigate the social mechanisms that underlie this global movement of virtual sharing as possibly a key lever in facilitating transformative change. This draws on an assumption that the influence of group etiquette, the sense of belonging gained through community membership, and the desire to maintain a good online reputation could compel new codes of behaviour, while subsequently dismantling the psycho-social underpinnings of hyper-consumption. To follow, it would consider the extent to which social engagement through exchange economies could have a cascading, disruptive resonance on personal identity construction, lifestyle preferences, sustainable habits, and community resilience.

Research will comprise a series of case studies of local businesses engaged in the collaborative consumption movement, analyzing general trends across the group, while also narratively highlighting the lived experiences of this new class of consumer. 

Papers and other work

Geobey, S. Social finance blog.

Tjornbo, O. 2013. The potential of mass collaboration to produce social innovation. Conference paper for Social Frontiers, Nesta, London, UK. November 14-15.

Geobey, S. 2012. Redefining returns: social finance awareness and opportunities in the Canadian financial sector (PDF) . 

Quilley, S. 2012. System innovation and a new ‘great transformation’: re-embedding economic life in the context of ‘de-growth’. Journal of Social Entrepreneurship3(2), 206-229. 

Geobey, S., Westley, F., and O, Weber. 2011. Enabling social innovation through Development Impact Investing. Unpublished SiG@Waterloo working paper.