Abstract and Articles

A critical systems approach to social learning: building adaptive capacity in social, ecological epistemological systems, McCarthy, D. Crandall, G. Whitelaw, Z. general, L. Tsuji 

At the root of change: the history of social innovation, McGowan, K, F. Westley

The social innovation dynamic, Westley, F. 

From scientific speculation to effective adaptive management: a case study of the role of social marketing in promoting novel restoration strategies for degraded dry lands, Westley, F, M. Holmgren, M. Scheffer 

Change lab/design lab for social innovation, Westley, F, S. Geobey, K. Robinson

The potential of mass collaboration to produce social innovation, Tjornbo, O 

Resilience and positive disintegration in mental health systems,      Robinson, K, F. Westley 

The Research journey: travels across the idiomatic and axiomatic towards a better understanding of complexity, McGowan, K, F. Westley, 

Note of a newcomer: looking in at social innovation in Waterloo Region,   Bird, C.


A critical systems approach to social learning - building adaptive capacity in social, ecological epistemological systems 


The paper has a focus on social learning, defined as an on-going, adaptive process of knowledge creation that is scaled-up from individuals through social interactions fostered by critical reflection and the synthesis of a variety of knowledge types that result in changes to social structures (e.g., organizational mandates, policies, social norms). The authors use an environmental case study to identify different perspectives based on types of learning. They describe the requirements of social learning along three axes or dimensions: (1) typology of knowledge, (2) critical reflection, and (3) scale of social–ecological structures. The integration of these three dimensions provides the opportunity to map a trajectory of social learning in a particular social–ecological system context and to map various knowledge perspectives. The typology of knowledge relates to the types of knowledge people hold. These types include: (1) scientific—universal, invariable, and context independent knowledge generated through standard, western scientific method; (2) local—pragmatic, variable, and context dependent knowledge that is generated through local experience and historical community interactions; and (3) governance—pragmatic, variable, and context dependent knowledge that involves deliberation about values which reflect an understanding and informed interpretation of political, legal, and regulatory discourses or regimes in a given context. Critical reflection relates to different “loops” of learning. The first center or loop of learning asks, “Are we doing things right?” The second center or loop questions the goals or assumptions of the first loop by asking, “Are we doing the right things?” The third center or loop asks if power structures are acting too much in support of definitions of “rightness” or, conversely, if any presumed “right way” is becoming too forceful? The third dimension, scale, requires an understanding of cross-scale interactions and emergence. It highlights the dialectic relationship between individuals and the creation of social structures through repeated behaviors and rule systems. In any given situation, the perspectives can be researched and mapped onto the 3-dimensional graph. It is then possible to identify how each of the perspectives relates to one another. Once this is understood, it is possible to identify areas of opportunity for social learning. The value in the tools is a response to the fact that in many situations intractable conflicts can be perpetuated depending on the way the parties “frame” or define the conflict issues. Applying this tool will help to map the perspectives, clarify the differences among these perspectives, and, therefore, allow stakeholders to communicate better across perspectives.  

A critical systems approach (PDF)

At the root of change: the history of social innovation


This paper introduces a new theory surrounding the process of social innovation using historical case studies. In particular, the authors use the case of the intelligence test over the first half of the twentieth century in the United States to hypothesize on the trajectory of social innovations and inventions. They highlight how the discovery and definition of new social phenomena, as well as the combination of new and existing phenomena, allow a glimpse of “what could be,” and what, when scaled up or out, can ultimately shift an entire system. 

The authors suggest that this process requires the work of multiple actors, occupying three general roles: the poet, the designer, and the debater. Historical data suggests these agents act on both the niche and landscape level, and can travel effectively between them, spotting approaching windows of opportunity to create pathways to their desired adjacent possible, while incubating new social innovations. 

At the root of change (PDF)


The social innovation dynamic


Social innovation is an initiative, product, process, or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows, or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact. While social innovation has recognizable stages and phases, achieving durability and scale is a dynamic process that requires both emergence of opportunity and deliberate agency, and a connection between the two. The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to the overall social and ecological resilience.  

Social systems themselves are complex, having multiple interacting elements, and to continue to serve their intended purpose they must have the ability to continuously adjust according to things that may emerge as a result of their complexity. Each social system has its own identity and a way of functioning that can be understood in terms of its culture (the beliefs, values, artifacts, and symbols), its political and economic structure (the pattern by which power and resources are distributed), and its social interactions (the laws, procedures, routines, and habits that govern social interaction and make it predictable). Therefore, durable social innovations will in some way take advantage of emerging opportunities in social systems and cause disruption by affecting the fundamental distribution of power and resources, the basic beliefs that define the system, or the laws and routines which govern it.  

To do this effectively, a social innovation must cross multiple boundaries to reach more people and organizations that are working at different scales (from local to regional to national to global), and those that are linked in networks. This process of affecting change through social innovation can be captured in a continuous cycle that tracks the release of resources into a system, the reorganization of those resources, their growth, and finally their conservation. While social innovation has these recognizable stages and phases, achieving durability and scale is a dynamic process that requires both emergence of opportunity and deliberate agency, and linking of the two. The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to the overall social and ecological resilience. Generation of novelty is largely dependent on the recombination of elements; therefore, as we exclude these groups from contribution we also lose their viewpoints, their diversity, and the particular elements they have to offer the whole. So social innovation not only serves vulnerable populations, it is also served by them. And, given that the resilience of linked social-ecological systems is dependent on the introduction of novelty to keep the cycle of innovation continuous, resilience is also increased by that re-engagement. Understanding the dynamics of social innovation allows for a more intentional approach in creating change at a systems level. 

The social innovation dynamic (PDF)


From scientific speculation to effective adaptive management - a case study of the role of social marketing in promoting novel restoration strategies for degraded dryland


Using a case of conservation practices in degraded drylands, the authors explore the challenge of how to have a niche and a scientific idea, gain traction amongst the general public, and have widespread application. In doing so, they review the social marketing literature as a potential response to this challenge. Social marketing provides a valuable framework for understanding stakeholders’ motivations. Social marketing has been used to determine whether a stakeholder group is prone, reluctant, or unable to support a social initiative, finding that it will depend on three things: the group's motivation to act, its ability to act (in terms of having the appropriate skills), and its opportunity to act (in terms of whether or not the external conditions support action). By revealing the significant differences in motivation amongst various social groups concerned with or affected by a social issue, social marketing offers practical insights into the trade-offs and policy interventions that might help a scientific idea to gain wide spread application.   

From scientific speculation to effective adaptive management (PDF)


Change lab/design lab for social innovation


This paper provides an overview of the origins of the concepts that have informed the creation of Design Labs and Change Labs over time. Their main frameworks are drawn from bodies of work from group psychology, complex adaptive systems, design thinking, and computer modeling and visualization tools. These approaches offer a rich conceptual ground for the development of breakthrough solutions to intractable problems in complex systems. These approaches each bring distinct value but also have drawbacks when looking at how they might be applied in situations where a social innovation approach would be highly desirable. A Social Innovation Lab would bring together some of these old elements in new ways to surface the tensions and complexity of the systems it is working within. It would bring the lens of the field by having a focus on cross-scale dynamics, the integration of vulnerable populations, and working towards systemic resilience. 

Change Lab (PDF)


The potential of mass collaboration to produce social innovation


This paper looks at how online platforms used to leverage “collective intelligence” or the “wisdom of crowds” might play a role in social innovation processes. It argues that, because social innovation processes are complex, no one online platform is likely to be relevant at all stages of such a process. Instead, it is helpful to divide social innovation into three stages of invention, development, and implementation, each of which demands different types of activities and skills. The paper then looks at three different online innovation platforms: Innocentive, Open Source Ecology, and TED, and identifies the different types of innovation activities these platforms support. It notes that none of the three is relevant at all three stages of an innovation process but that each may be able to contribute at one stage. In conclusion, the paper argues that it is only by finding new ways to combine different types of online innovation platforms into a coherent process, which uses the right platform at the right time, that mass collaboration can be used to support social innovation. 

The potential of mass collaboration to produce social innovation (PDF)


Resilience and positive disintegration in mental health systems


The interpretive framework used to understand mental illness shapes both our understanding of its causes and symptoms and our selection of interventions.  In the last 50 years, increases in the effectiveness of pharmacological drugs have dramatically increased the manageability of symptoms and while effective at controlling symptoms in the short run, the psychopharmacological approach rests on a number of assumptions that the resilience approach calls into question. Namely that: 

1. If the individual and the society are in conflict, the individual should change 

2. System breakdown can be explained and treated at the lowest level of organization where problems are observed and; 

3. Stability is the same as resilience so irregularity is a problem and chemicals should be ‘in balance’ a psychopharmacological approach has come to dominate.  

The authors of this paper argue that the psychopharmacological approach is a simple approach to a complex problem and that resilience suggests the limitation of the model. They suggest that an approach rooted in resilience studies, and draw on Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration to suggest an approach to mental health that includes a positive role for discontinuity and variability in the development of the individual. This approach may offer an alternative to the simple suppression of symptoms. Dabrowski’s approach offers interesting avenues for investigation into the role of growth and development within a human life cycle and the role of agency within nested complex systems. Moreover, understanding the mind and its cycles of breakdown and reorganization is central to understanding human social systems and their interaction with ecosystems. An approach rooted in resilience raises different questions about the mind and its modes of failure and creation. In particular, it offers a way to understand the role of discontinuity, novelty, and cross‐scale interactions. Looking at the mind can also help to clarify the relationship between social and ecological systems. 

Resilience and positive disintegration (PDF)


The Research Journey


In this paper, seven researchers reflect on their journeys in engaging with and synthesizing complex problems through their research. These journeys embody an adaptive approach to tackling problems characterized for their interconnectedness and emergence, and they transcend traditional units of analysis. The authors argue that making such a process deliberate and explicit will help researchers better combine different research paradigms, particularly those traditionally seen as opposing. By describing their personal journeys in dealing with the emergent properties of complex problems and participant involvement, the researchers highlight why a research agenda must incorporate elements of emergence and adaptation. This paper argues that that research journey should be more than accidental, and it should guide the theoretical and practical approaches to complex problems.  

The research journey (PDF)


Notes of a Newcomer - looking at social innovation in Waterloo Region


In this report, Bird recounts her meetings with several organizations in Kitchener-Waterloo, and through storytelling draws out important elements of social innovation work. In doing so, she translates academic concepts into on-the-ground examples. Three theme areas applied include: home, bridges, and partnerships. Collectively, the stories unravel the complex system within this regional geographic sphere.    

Notes of a Newcomer (PDF)