Social innovation is often mentioned as the solution for current crises and challenges – but when the complexity of our crises is overlooked, social innovation is at best a partial solution. Therefore, we focus on transformative social innovation and the cultural, systemic change it fosters.
The status of the welfare state is changing: social, environmental and economic crises evoked a call for new definitions, models and solutions. In many discourses, both public and academic, this call is answered by the concept and practice of social innovation, its empowering potential, its mobilisation of civic creativity, and its problem-solving capacity. The complexity of current challenges is, however, too often overlooked. Piecemeal and short-term focused social innovation is at best a partial solution to tackle our challenges, that are interlinked and systemic in terms of their reach and impacts, we need systemic answers. That is why in our research, consultancy and education, transformative social innovation is key: social innovation that challenges, alters or replaces dominant institutions in the social context – and leads to systemic change.
Transformative social innovations go beyond technological innovations: we approach the social as an object of change itself, and study change in social relations and new or renewed ways of doing, thinking and organising. The dominant institutions involved in these changes refer not only to formal organisational structures and physical infrastructures, but also to the deeply embedded cultural paradigms that underly them. Transformative changes in these contexts are deeply intertwined with political struggles and shifting power relations between state, government and civil society.
Our research concerns how actors get involved in new organisational forms, taking on new roles and formulating different and partly overlapping narratives of change. In order to foster the transformative ability of social innovations, we offer a nuanced transition perspective on social innovation and cooperate with entrepreneurs, professionals and researchers from various institutes and organisations. We build on sociology, political science, anthropology and psychology to understand processes of social construction at various levels of social aggregation (individual, interpersonal, group, society). Technological, ecological and economic developments are considered in terms of their cultural and political construction and contestation. Focusing on social innovation allows paying tribute to the growing attention for cultural and political dimensions as well as the role of power and agency in sustainability transitions research. It also allows DRIFT to be at the forefront of an emerging field of social innovation research.