Social innovation and climate emergency

Online Workshop HDCA - SERI, June 2020

Over the last decade social innovation served as an ambivalent buzzword: on the one hand promising more efficient solutions for social and environmental problems in times of austerity; on the other hand,opening innovation discourse to actors from civil society and politics and associated discourses such as grassroots innovation and democratic innovation. A frequent finding of emerging social innovation research: social innovation has to become more political, if the promises associated with the term are to move beyond the buzz. More political for research means a more sustained focus on power relations and change of power relations; more political for policy-makers and funders means a greater willingness to reflect on who has a say in social innovation policy. “Climate emergency” provides an important example. Social movements and networks such as Friday for the Future and Extinction Rebellion deserve credit for a shift in public discussion from climate change to climate emergency, and with it greater recognition that only a decade is left to achieve the Paris climate goals of no more than 1,5 warming. At the same time, both are example for political networks that have long been ignored by more social business oriented research on social innovation, i.e. they tend not to be studied as social innovation. Beyond, this political aspect there are further aspects for a deeper understanding of social innovation and climate emergency. These include technology and social innovation in green economy markets, domestic/communal provision in fields such as housing, energy and water provision, and professional provision and the emergency of new work profiles dedicated to active engagement in response to climate emergency.

The workshop brought together research on this emerging relation from established and emerging scholars in the field. Key questions are: What are the central issues in research on this relation so far? What is the contribution of the capabilities approach and human development?

Moderator: Anna Colom (Open University and Co-ordinator TG Technology, Innovation and Design). Inputs: Rafael Ziegler (GETIDOS, Universität Greifswald), Josephine Balzac (Rollins College), Sylvia Lorek (Sustainable Europe Research Institute) and Asanga Ranasinghe(Stampede Accelerator and Co-ordinator TG Technology, Innovation and Design).

To watch the workshop scroll to the bottom of this page.

Report by Sarah Holzgreve

We had an international, interdisciplinary group of registered participants and experts bringing their own experience and ideas. The online workshop started with 10 minute inputs followed by a joint discussion. In the following paragraphs, you will find a brief summary of the speakers’ key messages as well as of the subsequent discussion.

Rafael Ziegler (GETIDOS, University of Greifswald) provided the first input with two propositions on social innovation, climate emergency and the capabilities approach. First, the capabilities language is a way of navigating the need for shared, global cooperation while paying attention to participation and impacts in context. We need to think about humanity's reaction to climate crisis, but also about who is impacted how, and who has a say in responses to the emergency. For example, when looking at nature-based solutions in cities – such as urban ponds and green roofs for storm water retention, cooling and local food production – it is important to ask: Who benefits from these programs, in what kind of neighbourhoods do they happen, who is involved in their design and implementation? The participatory nature of the capabilities approach offers critical lenses to accompany constructively such discussions, in a cosmopolitan, global language of capabilities but with a focus on context and social and environment justice. 

Second, he noted the tradition of the capability approach to keep a critical eye on hegemonic ideas of economic development, calling here for a critique of hegemonic theory of innovation in green economy and with it a focus also on democratic innovation and exnovation. Innovation tends to be seen as technical novelty for commercial use, like renewable energy for green economies. But here something goes missing. For example, building large dams as green energy renders invisible the prior question of what are the needs of the people affected, thereby systemically reproducing ecological and social injustice. We need to think of social innovation not only as corporate social responsibility and downstream complement to technical innovation but as democratic innovation.  A central inspiration is disobedience and public protest against unjust laws and policies. For example, Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are militant democratic innovations that try to create space for the discussion of issues that get ignored. As a counterbalance to the pro-innovation bias, Ziegler moreover suggested to equally consider social exnovation, that is the deliberate divestment and discarding of social practices and policies. For example, in the province of the University of Greifswald, drained peatland are a major source of anthropogenic C02 emissions. So re-wetting peatlands and ceasing a practice, i.e. dryland agriculture on mires, is an important exnovation and involves difficult policy termination, change in subsidies, farming practices etc.

In a second input, Josephine Balzac (Rollins College) spoke about climate movement lawyering as a social innovation for climate justice. Throughout history we have had social movements, with a long tradition of civil disobedience, where communities rise to address the power holders and oppressors. She defined civil disobedience as wilful violation of law, undertaken for the purpose of social or political protest, being illegal and non-violent, accepting the consequences of the disobedience, and being connected to the idea of democracy and reforming society. The ultimate goal of these movements is to stir the conscience of society as law so often trails behind what is just. We see civil disobedience right now in the Blacks Rights Movement, in the Standing Rock pipeline protests and also in the climate movement. People are shutting off, blocking entrances, chaining themselves to something, getting arrested: they resist the law. The Climate Defense Project is a non-governmental organisation working for climate justice based on the worked of trained lawyers. Their movement lawyering is a form of social innovation, connected to movements and activists communities. Their argument is based on a necessity defence. Chaining yourself to a fence is less harmful than climate change.

When combining such actions with the capabilities approach, Balzac suggested, we have to ask, how well are people living when they are moved to break the law in the name of justice? What needs to change in order to give them the life they deserve? Can we truly achieve lives of sustainability, equity and dignity without systemic social change?

In a third input, Sylvia Lorek (Sustainable Europe Research Institute) presented research on energy sufficiency in the household. 2/3 of total household energy consumption in the EU can be attributed to heating. The dominant suggestions for reducing energy so far focus on better insulation, more efficient heating systems, and a switch to renewable energy, i.e. again technical solutions. However, we can see that these reductions are often overcompensated by a rising of per capita housing space. Therefore, Lorek suggested, that we need to shift the narrative we are telling about energy: technology will not save us, but we can stand up and bring about change ourselves. We need learning stories about this. To spread this narrative, municipalities could play a crucial role via consultancy and training on how to best to run an efficient homes and offering practical support for moving into smaller flats in the neighbourhood. Vertical villages could provide everything for the basic daily needs, as a place for working and living on small space within one house or multi-level neighbourhood, with laundry services or guest rooms provided from community services. Micro-compact student homes can address the problem of missing low cost flats, made possible by new regulations that allow less than 35 m² as a minimum for flats. If elderly people like to stay in their flat, but need less space, they can rent space to students, but not for money, but for 1h/month in help. Tiny Houses offers fully equipped houses on extremely reduced space, often constructed on a movable trailer. Additionally, we need new modes of financing sufficient homes, like subsidies linked to energy consumption per person instead of per m², tax incentives for owners or tenants that move to smaller flats, or investment into social housing projects like the German Mietshäusersyndikat. 

All this needs builders, architects and planners to overcome the assumption that a good life means having more individual space, as well as housing companies and cooperatives providing incentives and support for tenants to move to smaller units, as well as citizens engage in their neighbourhood and living area.

In a fourth and final input, Asanga U. Ranasinghe (CEO of STAMPEDE, SDGs Tech Accelerator) reflected on social innovation and technology. In 2020, we are in the midst of Industry 4.0, which is accelerating at a rapid pace, offering us suicide drones, first aid drones, technologies like 3D Printing, blockchain technology with immutability/data transparency. WhatsApp, Google, etc. make their way into our hands and minds offering useful and enjoyable services. Digital Tech offers new possibilities and evolve our human bodies, for example by implanting chips and attaching robotic body-parts. But the problem is that the components necessary to produce technology, Silicon, Lithium and other rare earth require mining, which severely pollutes the environment. Not just the mining, the entire process of producing, deploying and using digital technology - that is processing rare earth, manufacturing electronic/digital products and the supporting infrastructure to use digital products (internet, electricity, IoT etc.) - consume huge amounts of energy and leaves mountains of waste, which greatly impacts nature. 

Development, Ranasinghe noted, was monitored through economic growth, until in the 70s & 80s the call became stronger to put the human back into the centre of development. Scholars such as Sen and Nusssbaum contributed significantly to the Human Development and Capabilities Approach. The Human Development Index (HDI), which appeared in the first HDR (Human Development Report) in 1990 published by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) under the guidance of Mahbub Ul-Haq, was a crucial shift towards introducing new metrics to measure well-being and growth. The Capabilities Approach provides a normative framework to assess and compare the well-being in societies, and it also allows to theorise matters related to social justice. What are capabilities? They are the answer to the question: what can people do and be? For example, can they reason practically, and can they form affiliations and become a socially recognised individual? In order for substantial freedoms to be enjoyed, internal/basic capabilities (innate, individual characteristics such as physical and mental ability) must be combined with socio-economic and political environment. The interplay between tech, climate and capabilities became very visible in the current COVID-19 situation, resulting in the lockdown: everything went online, which directly affects people, and also the environment; inequities became very visible.  It is necessary to create a discussion of ethics, values and principles around digital technology. Principles for Digital Development, Ransinghe suggested, are a good start. But apart from the principle “design with the user”, they lack depth in terms of connection to the core human element. Countries such as Denmark has some commendable endeavours to bring in the human element back into digital technology, through initiatives such as the Techfestival. A possible role for social innovators and activists is to promote ethics, values and principles for digital technologies and promote the use of renewable energy for the entire process of designing, deploying and using digital technologies.

In the subsequent discussion, also moderated by Anna Colom (Open University and a coordinator for the HDCA Technology, Innovation and Design Group), the following questions were discussed:

How well are people living if they are moved to break the law? What conclusion to draw from that for policy makers and funders who want to support and advance social innovation? The first conclusion should be for the policymakers to listen; and for the co-creation and coproduction movements, to recognize what the issue is, and become willing to meet this bottom up. Then we might get to the position of movement layers, a horizontal position. This working horizontally came up in all the presentations. It really is a key issue of social justice and motivates the search for democratic innovations in oppressive contexts.

We need to change the narrative to learning stories. Can you give an example of a learning story of reducing living space? “Bigger is better” is deep in our minds and TV-shows, and reproduced all the time. Instead, we should focus on all the empty rooms that do not need cleaning, an increase in life quality through happy couples that met via dating apps, and a good neighbourhood.

The capabilities approach is known for its interdisciplinary, human dignity and what people value. How are our different fields connected to tackle the problems of our time? The Greifswald Mire Centre offers one instructive example. It draws on decades of work of ecologists, economists and other researchers working together with nature conservation advocates, collecting literature and methods, and finally creating dialogue with farmers around paludiculture (wet agriculture on rewetted peatlands). It suggests that interdisciplinarity is indeed a great thing but it needs time and “patient” capital for a knowledge base and experience to develop. Unsustainability cannot be tackled in a year and by a project. There is also a transdisciplinary moment in the movement lawyers Climate Defence Project. People that do civil disobedience put themselves in danger, so they need proof from the scientific community showing there really is this need to act, and you also need digital networks and technology. We talk about bringing everyone to a capability threshold. But that means more access to technology, and technology quickly introduces this seemingly limitless luxury at the expense of nature. Here we need the ethics, values and principles discourse for sustainable designing and developing of technology.

At a more abstract level, what does the term “social innovation” contribute to the climate movement and to phenomena like extinction rebellion, especially concerning power structures? That’s why we need a critical innovation perspective. Social innovation links to the way our societies work and think, that is always innovating and calling for change. The danger is that it might thereby stick with the status quo without really contributing transformative change. We as scientists therefore have to ask: Are there really changes in practices? Beyond words and protests, is there an impact on practice? And if so, how can there be diffusion and social learning so that ideas spread? It is correct, the people who drive social innovations, like the Climate Defence Movement, have mostly never heard of the term and do not care much how it is called, as they said in an interview. To name it and give these movements value for decision makers can be part of a power shift.  It is clear that climate change is a wicked, very complex problem. And it is consistently discussed in the literature that when it comes to wicked problems, social innovation really is part of the solution.

Might the capability approach be applied to engage and empower people from marginalised groups in the creation and development of social innovations in ways that really benefit them and treat them with dignity? Again listening and learning from practice is crucial. Let’s look at an example of small scale Indian farmers suffering from droughts. A local “social innovator” started a conscientisation process inviting every family to understand water retention options in the watershed, the discussion of issue in groups (for example women self-help groups) and finally the joint agreement and development at the village level with external partners. Such carefully and complex processes are key.   A paper in the special issue of the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities by S. Ibrahim very instructively discusses such processes in terms of a three c-model. Generally, the capabilities approach helps to analyse the position of marginalised people in all positions and hierarchies, especially in environmental disasters and so forth, and to ensure that there is freedom for people in our society to do and be what they want; not in an extractive way but diverse and collaborative logic.

We are on the tipping point of the climate emergency. There is not enough time for all to behaviours, we need a drastic change. Are there any ideas, how social innovation can help us here in a quick way? That is the million dollar question. We have the small incremental changes in single communities, groups and cities, and these actions could be scaled up. But we as humans seem to be somehow biologically resistant to deep change, even when we know it is inevitable. It would be great if there would be a simple answer and magic bullet. Most of us mentioned that justice has to be demanded. It is not going to be given freely, as some of the main beneficiaries of the status quo sit at the top. That is where the power question comes in. So how can we stand up collectively and demand this power back? It is difficult, but a look into history also suggests hope.

The Covid-19-experience is interesting. Who would have believed that governments would give and risk billions of dollars for solidarity and the health of citizens? These are the steps made on the ground, hopefully the beginning of the shift we need: That all the existing visions, ideas and actions flow together and suddenly might be enough. New things seem to be possible after the lockdown. But let’s not mix acceleration and urgency to easily. Urgency is well documented for biodiversity and climate change, but it does not mean that acceleration in our usual sense of more and faster innovation is the solution. The answer to urgency can also be not to do something, exnovation. We urgently need to have a mental shift in our view on growth, individually but also systemically, and we need to start doing things about climate emergency, not only talking about it or print books on climate emergency, while jetting through the world and so on. Still, this individual level may just take to long for all our billions of people to change. Going back to Rafael’s dam example: What if all people were asked in beforehand of any construction or planning process: What do you need? What is a plan for sufficient energy? Instead of simply providing what can be offered and “mitigating” negative impacts after? 

Wrap up: It became clear that we are in a point in time that calls for horizontal work and collaboration, and interdisciplinary. We had a truly global discussion with people from Sri-Lanka, Germany, UK, US, Spain, Australia. Thanks to everyone who took part!

Suggested further readings:

Balzac-Arroyo, Josephine. 2020. “Movement Lawyering: A Social Innovation to Achieve Climate Justice.” Article under review, available from the author.

Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim Spangenberg. 2019. “Energy sufficiency through social innovation in housing.” Energy Policy 126 (C): 287-294.

Ranasinghe, Asanga. 2020. Tech, Climate Emergency and the Capabilities Approach. Brief prepared for the webinar, available from the author.

Ziegler, Rafael. 2020. Innovation, Ethics and Our Common Futures. Edward Elgar.

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The Online Workshop as Video:

ISIRC Special Session

Fergus Lyon, Irene Garnelo-Gomez and Rafael Ziegler organize the stream on sustainability, social innovation and climate emergency at the International Social Innovation Research Conference, 1.-3.9.2020 in Sheffield, UK. Text of the call and further information:

Online Workshop in Daily FT

The Daily FT, Sri Lanka, has published a report about our online seminar. You read it here: