Policy and Governance - the role of government in social innovation

 Abstracts and Articles

Tipping toward sustainability: emerging pathways of transformationWestley, F, P. Olsson, C. Folke, T. H. Dixon, H. Vredenburg, D. Loorbach, J. Thompson, M. Nilsson, E. Lambin, J. Sendzimir, B. Banerjee, V. Galaz, S. van der Leeuw

The loop, the lens and the lesson: using resilience theory to examine public policy and social innovation, Moore, M.L, F. Westley, O. Tjornbo, C. Holyrod 

Game Changers: the big green challenge and the role of challenge grants in social innovation, Tjornbo, O, F. Westley 

Public sector policy and strategies for facilitating social innovation, Moore, M.L, F. Westley 

Tipping toward sustainability - emerging pathways of transformation


The central question explored in this paper is whether social and technical innovations can reverse the trends that are challenging critical thresholds and creating tipping points in ecological systems, and, if not, what conditions are necessary to escape the current pattern. This era has seen significant technological and social innovation; however, much of this innovation has occurred without respecting ecological integrity or complex system interactions. Large-scale transformations in technology and energy systems have the potential to significantly improve our lives, but if, in framing them, our globalized society fails to consider the capacity of the Earth, then there is a risk that unsustainable development pathways may be reinforced. Current institutional arrangements, including the lack of incentives for the private sector to innovate for sustainability and the lags inherent in the path dependent nature of innovation, mediate against an appropriate and creative response to complex challenges, as does our incapacity to easily grasp the interactions implicit in complex problems. Contextual or institutional changes can make innovation for sustainability more attractive in two ways: (a) NGO and public pressure can increase the costs of not innovating and (b) government can change the rules through negative and positive sanctions and stimuli so that investment in such innovation potentially pays off in new business or investment for the company. A shift is needed in our governance processes from those that do not privilege systemic innovation to those that do. Additionally, promising social and technical innovations with potential to change unsustainable trajectories need to be nurtured and connected to broad institutional resources and responses. In parallel, institutional entrepreneurs need to be supported so that they can work to reduce the resilience of dominant institutional systems and cultivate the creation of viable alternatives for when disruption does occur and systems are seeking innovation. 

Tipping towards sustainability

The Loop, the lens and the lesson - using resilience theory to examine public policy and social innovation


The authors identify four distinct phases of the social innovation process based on resilience theory’s adaptive cycle, and argue that governments need to employ phase-appropriate public policy tools to support and catalyze social innovation. What follows are the phases of the social innovation process, with policy tools that support each phase. 

“Back loop” phases need policies to enable idea generation, new coalitions to emerge, selection, and implementation planning. 

Release: collapse of rigid, powerful rules and institutions; creative (re)combinations of ideas, people, and resources. Requires: 

  • Policies that convene different individuals/groups (e.g., multi-stakeholder consultations, participatory planning processes, Royal Commissions) to promote discussion, interaction, social learning, and a mix of diverse forms of knowledge and people to build new relationships and trust among previously disconnected groups.   

Reorganization: transition from “ideas”/“talk” to implementation planning; restructuring around visions; selecting best options. Requires: 

  • Policies that create a selection and evaluation process to help innovators and newly formed groups debate, develop plans, and select an innovation (e.g., pilot projects, challenges with a reward to stimulate, select and reward innovations). 

“Front loop” phases require policies that support adoption.  

Exploitation: reorganized groups leverage resources needed to launch and “scale up” (move into broader contexts) innovations (ideas, programmes, technologies) from local successes to broader systemic change. Requires: 

  • Policies for leveraging resources (social, intellectual, and financial capital) and removing barriers to scaling out and up (e.g., incentives to help create a market for innovations already established at a smaller scale; legislation; regulations; taxes; subsidies; market mechanisms). 

Conservation: building formal rules, norms, skills sets, and routine efficiencies as an innovation matures and becomes the status quo. Requires: 

  • Policy approaches for institutionalizing the innovation, possibly scaling up to other regional or national settings, analyzing what has occurred and which new policy priorities have emerged, and preparing for the future. 

In sum, different policies suit different phases of the social innovation process. Policies influence a system’s preparedness for the need for social innovation and for its generation, selection, adoption, and institutionalization. In turn, the innovation itself affects the type of policy responses required by the public sector. Governments could use support to play their key role in developing and implementing phase-appropriate policies to catalyze social innovations, while social entrepreneurs and associated groups could use spaces and processes to participate in this process.

The loop, the lens and the lesson (PDF)

Game Changers- the big green challenge and the role of challenge grants in social innovation


A key challenge for governments faced with increasingly limited financial resources lies in finding new ways of partnering with the not-for-profit sector to deliver innovative solutions to intractable social problems. One of the core arguments has concentrated on the need for different forms of capital—social, intellectual, and financial—in order to generate social innovations. Doing so would allow government to tap into previously inaccessible resources contained in local communities, and to harness them to produce social goods. However, it also requires that government take on a new role as a facilitator of social innovation rather than a direct actor. This paper is based on a qualitative investigation of the Big Green Challenge program in the UK. It was a competition designed to stimulate community groups to generate programs to tackle climate change in their localities. Using this case as an example, the authors examine the role that challenge grants and competitions might play in stimulating social innovation and ask questions about how government can help innovations to scale up and out. 

Areas of interest to foundations include discussions on the strengths and weaknesses identified in the case study pertaining to the use of “challenge” grants. Also, that processes of social innovation move through distinct stages that involve: first, the generation of new ideas in response to observed needs; and second, the establishment and diffusion of these ideas in an existing system. Importantly, however, the types of resources and skills needed to move an innovation forward are different at each stage. Finally, the authors re-affirm that social innovation is inherently disruptive, as many of the innovations ran into (and sometimes overcame) regulatory and attitudinal barriers to their progress. Therefore, as funders, it is important for foundations to enter into these processes with their eyes wide open.   

Game changers (PDF)

Public sector policy and strategies for facilitating social innovation


Government support for innovation often focuses on research and development of technology. However, without attention to broad institutional change, technical innovations may represent short-term Band-Aid solutions that mask but do not address worsening conditions. While government policy can at times constrain innovation, Moore and Westley argue that governments have a key role in supporting and enabling social innovations to address complex problems, and that different policies or policy processes will be best suited to facilitate each of four phases of any successful social innovation process. These social innovation phases and associated policy approaches are as follows: 

Phase 1 – Generation: A crisis or disturbance makes it clear that the status quo is no longer an option because it has increasingly made the system vulnerable with its rigidity. When complex problems need to be better understood and new ideas are needed, policy processes that enable interactions and build trust between previously disconnected groups help create the conditions for social innovations to emerge. 

Phase 2 – Selection: Reorganize groups around the new ideas, visions, and innovations. Enact policies that motivate and reward the generation of innovative ideas and involve an evaluation or selection process to choose among potential innovations.  

Phase 3 – Adoption: Leverage resources and remove systemic barriers for the innovation. Policies that enable social innovations and the innovators to access resources—including social, intellectual, and financial capital—are critical to scaling out innovations. Policies that create a market or demand for the innovation (whether it is an idea, program, or product) are necessary. These often proactively address structural barriers, but must be very specific so as not to open opportunities for negative or needless exploitation of scarce resources. 

Phase 4 – Institutionalization: Institutionalize the innovation, scale up, and prepare to be resilient in the face of the next disturbance. Policies that help analyze what has occurred and which new policy priorities have emerged as a result of the innovation are important, along with policies that prompt or provide investments in possible social innovations that build capacity to be resilient to future change.  

In sum, different policies are suited for the generation, selection, adoption, and institutionalization processes that any successful social innovation undergoes. Phase-appropriate government interventions are required to facilitate social innovation. 

Public sector policy and strategies (PDF)