By Iris Kunze

A Study on Transformative Social Innovation

There are numerous grassroots movements and initiatives worldwide with the ambition to contribute to transformative change towards more sustainable, resilient and just societies. Many of them have a specific vision on the economy and relate to alternative visions of a ‘New Economy’. The research project TRANSIT highlights four prominent strands of new economy thinking in state-of-the-art discussions: degrowth, collaborative economy, solidarity economy, and social entrepreneurship. Taking a perspective of transformative social innovation, the study draws on case studies of 12 social innovation initiatives to analyze how these relate to new economies and to transitions toward new economic arrangements. All the networks we studied – including those not focusing on finance or economics – emphasize the need for a new economy.

Different perspectives on changing the economy

As eloquently described on the website of the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), “It is very common for the social economy to be conflated with the solidarity economy, but that they are not the same thing and the implications of equating them are rather profound.”  It is argued that the “social economy” is a third sector phenomenon which complements the normal state and government, while the solidarity economy in fact “seeks to change the whole social-economic system and puts forth a different paradigm” of development based on solidarity economy principles. Thus in a network like RIPESS there are quite a few people who are actually rather critical of networks such as Impact Hub. Social entrepreneurship, so their argument, is not enough to really change the economic system towards a more solidary one.

So we clearly see that the networks have very different narratives of change. In our first round of comparative empirical analysis, we have reconstructed three such particular meta-narratives:

  1. The narrative that social change happens through incubating social entrepreneurship, by networks such as Impact Hub and Ashoka
  2. The narrative that social change requires us to change our daily life-styles and live in local and more resilient communities, as we see in the ecovillage and transition network
  3. The narrative that we need fundamental political reform to change the capitalist power structures towards a system of solidarity


These different meta-narratives also reveal fundamentally different theories of change i.e. about how change comes about. These theories of change inform specific actions on the ground. Therefore it is important to emphasize that these narratives and theories are not just about talking about change and telling each other stories. This is because they are very much alive in practices on the ground where houses are built, pieces of land are  transformed, community-gardens are set-up, start-ups are born, negotiations with governments take place and so forth.

We use the term ‘new economies’ to describe a broad set of related and intertwined ideas that emerge from critique of mainstream economic thought and practice and reflect visions about prospective or emerging alternative or complementary economic theories and practices. The study addresses the following questions:

  • What kinds of new economy phenomena are emerging, and how can we conceptualize and distinguish them?
  • What are the explicit and implicit narratives about the (new) economy amongst social innovation initiatives?
  • What is ‘socially innovative’ about the ‘new economy’ arrangements of these initiatives, in terms of new social relations?
  • And what is potentially ‘transformative’ about these arrangements, in terms of how they challenge or confirm existing institutional constellations and underlying power relations between the state, the market, the community, and the non-profit sector?


We answer these questions by drawing on empirical analysis of 12 social innovation networks and how they relate to the (new) economy in the three following dimensions: (a) narratives of change, (b) new social relations, and (c) challenging institutional constellations. The 12 networks under study are:

Impact Hub: Global network of “glocal” (global-local) hubs for social entrepreneurs
Ashoka: Network for supporting social entrepreneurs
Time Banks: Networks facilitating reciprocal service exchange
Credit Unions: Network of different types of credit cooperatives
RIPESS: Network for the promotion of social solidarity economy
FABLABS: Digital fabrication workshops open to local communities
Hackerspace: User driven digital fabrication workshops
Living Knowledge Network: Network of community-based research entities/ science
DESIS-network: Network for design for social innovation
Global Ecovillage Network:Network of eco-villages and other intentional communities
Transition Towns: Grassroots communities working on ‘local resilience’
INFORSE: International network of sustainable energy NGOs


Social innovation, societal transformation and new economy

The 12 networks under study have specific visions about the economy and relate to and/or engage with discourses on new and different forms of economies. Our enquiries found that the ambition to work toward and contribute to a different type of economy was present explicitly in all the cases and included ideas on degrowth, localization, social entrepreneurship, collaborative, solidarity and social economy, as well as other ideas, such as ‘post-capitalism’, ‘green economy’, or ‘gift economy’. These ideas and ambitions are embedded in so-called ‘narratives of change’. We define narratives of change as the “discourses on change and innovation, i.e. sets of ideas, concepts, metaphors, and/or story-lines about change and innovation”. Here we are interested in how the narratives of change of the social innovation networks, relate specifically to the (new) economy.

Each of the 12 social innovation network under study explicitly relates to the underlying philosophies of one or more of the four new economy strands – degrowth, collaborative economy, solidarity economy, and social entrepreneurship. Table 2 summarizes which social innovation networks relate to which of the four strands of new economy thinking.

Table: Relation between new economy strands <> social innovation networks under study

Strands of New Economy

Social Innovation networks under study
Degrowth & Localization Global Ecovillage Network, Transition Towns, INFORSE, Time Banks
Collaborative Economy Ashoka, Impact Hub, Time Banks, Fablabs, Hackerspaces, Science Shops, DESIS, Global Ecovillage Network, Transition Towns
Solidarity Economy RIPESS, Global Ecovillage Network. Time Banks
Social Entrepreneurship &Social Economy


Ashoka, Impact Hub, Time Banks, Credit Unions, DESIS, INFORSE


We found that all social innovation networks under study relate to different and new forms of economy, either by referring explicitly to one or several of the new economy strands as outlined above, or by using different terms, thereby co-shaping existing and/or new ‘narratives of change’ on new economies. These narratives of change interact with game-changers such as the global economic recession of 2009: narratives respond to such game-changers, while (re)framing them at the same time. None of the narratives on ‘new economies’ as observed in our case-studies are entirely ‘new’, nor are they explicit ‘responses’ to the economic crisis. However, it seems that the perceived economic crisis has provided these alternative narratives with a ‘boost’ of renewed interest and opportunities. Our empirical studies demonstrate that several of our social innovation networks strategically and intentionally play into such ‘discursive dynamics’ and game-changing trends.

All our initiatives under study involve articulations of new social relations, as an important element of new economic arrangements. All our case studies of social innovation initiatives promote connectedness and relationships based on trust and authenticity. Some emphasize direct interpersonal relationships of higher (ecovillages) or lower intensity (DESIS, credit cooperatives), while others emphasize connectedness through sharing physical and virtual spaces (Fab Labs, Impact Hubs etc.). All case study initiatives promote norms of collaboration and sharing on the basis of principles of equality, inclusion and transparency. They defend a transformation of relations towards collaboration/cooperation instead of competition, towards inclusion instead of exploitation, towards connectedness instead of alienation, and to empowerment instead of passivity.

New economy arrangements (e.g. sharing practices or cooperative organizational forms) seem to play a significant role in various initiatives and networks aiming to contribute to sustainability transitions, or other manifestations of more just and resilient societies. While new economy arrangements certainly include many technological aspects, we argue that these empirical phenomena also deserve more focused and elaborate attention for their deeply socio-cultural and socio-political dimensions. As such, we have proposed to understand ‘new economy’ phenomena as social innovations.

The full research working paper can be downloaded under the following link: Avelino, F.; Dumitru, A.; Longhurst, N.; Wittmayer, J.; Hielscher, S.; Weaver, P.; Cipolla, C.; Afonso, R.; Kunze, I.; Dorland, J.; Elle, M.; Pel, B.; Strasser, T.; Kemp, R.; and Haxeltine, A. (2015) Transitions towards new economies? A transformative social innovation perspective (TRANSIT working paper ; 3), TRANSIT: SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.


Iris Kunze is a geographer and sociologist. She is a senior researcher at the Center for Global Change and Sustainability at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna. Iris is currently researching transformative social innovations within the EU-FP7-TRANSIT project. Before she has coordinated the doctoral school of sustainable development while researching on concepts of human-nature-relationship at BOKU. Her expertise is on intentional communities, sustainable ways of living, empirical research on social movementsand ecovillages, as well as in transition studies, social ecology and governance. Iris`s homepage is

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