Paradoxes of Transformative Social Innovation: From Critical Awareness towards Strategies of Inquiry

How to move from critical awareness of paradoxes of transformative social innovation towards appropriate strategies of inquiry? In this blog, Bonno Pel highlights a DRIFT contribution, written together with Tom Bauler from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (BE), that received the ISIRC best paper award.
Between 2 and 4 September 2019, DRIFTers Julia Wittmayer, Flor Avelino and Bonno Pel attended the International Social Innovation research Conference (ISIRC) in Glasgow (UK). As described by Flor Avelino, the conference offered many inspiring insights and discussions on matters of innovation, societal transformation and transitions. This blog highlights a DRIFT contribution, written together with Tom Bauler from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (BE), that received the ‘best paper’ award of the conference. It builds on past and ongoing research projects such as TRANSIT, SONNET and PROSEU, and provides the early outlines of a book project. The book is aimed to bundle the theoretical reflections and methodological know-how of various leading scholars in matters of transformative innovation.   
Paradoxes of Transformative Social Innovation
Society is transforming through a whirlpool of technological innovations, social and institutional innovations. As studied in the PROSEU project on energy prosumerism, innovations in renewable energy technologies interact with and call for innovations in business models, public investment models, forms of associative democracy, and energy consumption. To what social relations the prosumerism transition is taking us, is yet to become clear in the coming years.
As researchers and practitioners are trying to make sense of transformative innovations, they run into various paradoxes: Despite being revolutionized or transformed, society remains all too familiar. Whilst being framed as something new and apparently breaking with the past, many innovations seem attempts to restore history. Various strands of research have documented such paradoxes of transformative innovation: social innovation research, sustainability transitions research, critical social theory, ‘diverse economies’ scholarship, social movement theory, and political sciences. Through these social-theoretical studies but also through work in innovation studies and Science and Technology Studies, these and other paradoxes have become widely acknowledged as an inherent dimension of transformative innovation phenomena. The question that remains is how to move from this critical awareness towards appropriate strategies of inquiry?

A lecture of Bonno Pel on the topic.
From Critical Awareness towards Strategies of Inquiry
We seek to develop comprehensive strategies of inquiry, i.e. coherent sets of considerations of ontology, epistemology and epistemology. Such strategies of inquiry bridge the divide between rigorous but sterile methodological know-how, and the critical-reflexive theorizing that so often lacks methodological concreteness. While advances in this direction have been made, they remain rather dispersed over the various pockets of critical scholarship on transformative innovation phenomena. Inspired by the theory-building strategies to handle social-theoretical paradoxes by Poole & van de Ven (1989), we formulate elements of paradox-acknowledging strategies of inquiry. Drawing on various case study experiences and mobilizing methodological advances from a range of disciplines, we seek to open up a critical methodological debate: How to study these paradoxical phenomena? Why such and not so?
Setting the stage for a book that should help students, scholars and practitioners to get a more firm grasp of transformation paradoxes, the paper draws some early conclusions: 

  • Paradoxes are inherent to transformative innovation research. Encountered in various strands of TI research and in various forms, they cannot be dismissed as anomalies.
  • There is a widely shared critical awareness on the TI paradoxes. The paper has identified various points of convergence between innovation theory, interpretive policy analysis, Science and Technology Studies, critical social theory, institutional theory, and transitions studies.
  • There is a persistent operationalization gap between critical awareness of TI paradoxes and the elaboration of corresponding methodologies.
  • TI paradoxes occur on different levels/aspects of inquiry; strategies of inquiry are generally not grasping all of those simultaneously.
  • TI paradoxes prove difficult to visualize; schemes and diagrams of TI processes tend to convey illusions of tractability & control.

Discussing these early insights with participants of the Critical Perspectives on Social Innovation stream, we have been greatly encouraged to continue our explorations!
For the presentation, click here.
For a copy of the paper, please send a mail to Bonno Pel  or Julia Wittmayer.
Further reading underlying this paper:

  • Publications TRANSIT project
  • Wittmayer, J., Pel, B., Bauler, T., Avelino, F. (2017). Editorial Synthesis: Methodological Challenges in Social Innovation Research. European Public & Social Innovation Review, 2(1), 1-16. Link
  • Avelino, F., J.M. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, M.S. Jørgensen, T. Bauler, S. Ruijsink, T. O’Riordan (2019), Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 145: 195-206. Link
  • Transformative Social Innovation Manifesto

October 1, 2019