Time for social-ecological innovations

New innovation concept links social innovation, agency and resilience thinking

See video above with centre researcher Per Olsson explaining the concept of social-ecological innovations.

Humanity is now influencing every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature. If we are to stay within the planetary boundaries, major transformations are needed in the human-environment interactions. This includes innovations that can increase human well-being and at the same time enhance the capacity of ecosystems to produce services.

In a new book entitled "Social Innovation — Blurring Boundaries to Reconfigure Markets", centre researchers Per Olsson and Victor Galaz provide the first comprehensive description of the concept 'social-ecological innovation'.

They define social-ecological innovation as "social innovation, including new technology, strategies, concepts, ideas, institutions, and organizations that enhance the capacity of ecosystems to generate services and help steer away from multiple earth-system thresholds".

Move away from quick technological fixes
The chapter is part of a book edited by Alex Nicholls of the University of Oxford and Alex Murdock from London South Bank University. The book focuses on new innovations "that can grapple with the central real-world challenges of our time".

"We need to move away from quick technological fixes and foster new types of social-ecological innovation," argue Per Olsson and Victor Galaz.

"Many economic and technological solutions that address sustainability are ecologically illiterate and too linear and single-problem oriented. To solve the many complex and interconnected human-environment challenges of today we need a change of mindset.“

Innovation is not always for the better
Olsson and Galaz point out that there are numerous examples of major socio-technological advances that have improved human life. The flipside is that too many of them have degraded the life-supporting ecosystems on which human well-being ultimately depends.

Current large-scale transformations in areas like information technology, biotechnology and energy systems have huge potential to improve our lives in a sustainable way. However, this can only happen if we start working with, instead of against, nature.

"Too often our societies change without improving the capacity to learn from, respond to, and manage environmental feedbacks. For example, a systemic shift to biofuels might slow climate change but lead to destructive land-use change and biodiversity loss," Per Olsson explains.

Innovation for systemic change
Olsson and Galaz also warn about the tendency to apply single, technonogical solutions to complex problems.

"This enhances the self-reinforcing feedback that keeps us on unsustainable pathways. Social-ecological innovation focuses on the interactions among a multitude of innovations that together can break current lock-ins and lead to systemic change."

As a scientific approach, social-ecological innovation links research on social innovation and institutional entrepreneurship with resilience thinking and research on social-ecological systems.

Olsson and Galaz list a number of criteria for the kind of solutions they view as social-ecological innovations. In summary such innovations should:

- Integrate both social and ecological (and economic) aspects.

- Improve human life without degrading the life-supporting ecosystems (preferably even strengthening ecosystems) on which we ultimately depend.

- Deal with multiple social and environmental challenges simultaneously (be sensitive to the fact that solving one problem often creates new ones, there are no ultimate solutions).

- Work more directly for social justice, poverty alleviation, environmental sustain- ability and democracy than profits for individuals.

- Break and/or help avoid lock-ins and create social-ecological feedbacks that help us stay within the safe operating space for humanity as defined by the planetary boundaries.

- Include the creativity and ingenuity of users, workers, consumers, citizens, activists, farmers and businesses etc.

- Utilise the power of social networks and organizations nested across scales (from local to national to regional to global) to enable systemic change at larger scales.

A wind turbine in rapeseed field in southern Sweden: Both wind energy and bioenergy could be  social-ecological innovations, provided they increase both human well-being and enhance the capacity of ecosystems to produce services. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote
Published: 2012-04-13


Olsson, P., and V. Galaz (2012). Social-ecological innovation and transformation. In: Nicholls, A. and A. Murdoch (Editors). Social Innovation: Blurring Boundaries to Reconfigure Markets. Palgrave MacMillan.

Per Olsson's primary research interest is in linked social-ecological system dynamics and resilience. He has worked extensively in the field of ecosystems management and also has eight years of field work in Sweden, Belize and Australia.

Victor Galaz's research elaborates the major governance challenges posed by "double complexity": the fact that societies not only have to cope with the intriguing non-linear behaviour of multilevel complex systems such as social-ecological systems (SES) - but also that we need to achieve it with governance systems that themselves embed complexity.


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