Social Innovation and Resilience: How One Enhances the Other

By Frances Westley


In 1972 Bunker Roy and a small group
of colleagues set up the Barefoot College
in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India. Their
vision was an interesting and catalytic
one, joining old and new, traditional
and radical. Informed by the teachings and
philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi—giving
the poor and the dispossessed the means to
produce their own necessities—the Barefoot
College trained the poor to build their
own homes, to become teachers in their own
schools, and to produce, install, and operate
solar panels in their villages. Roy and his colleagues
also emphasized empowering women
in general and grandmothers in particular.
As a result, “professional” expertise was
placed in the hands of the poorest of the poor
and the weakest of the weak: village women.

In one way, ’s innovations
were deeply radical—challenging the
conventions of village life, professional associations,
and traditional culture. In another
way they were classic bricolage, a term drawn
from the junk collectors in France and defined
as “making creative and resourceful use
of whatever materials are at hand (regardless
of their original purpose).” In this case
the juxtaposition of elements not normally
combined addressed a cluster of intractable
problems including the health needs, gender
inequalities, energy needs, and educational
needs of the developing South.

Barefoot College is clearly a ,
and a successful one, that has spread
across the developing world: Women from
African villages have traveled to India to
learn about its ideas and practices, and
graduate students from North America are
applying the concepts to aboriginal communities
in the North.1

By juxtaposing the old and the new, the
technological and the social, and the political
and the economic, social innovations
build a resilient social-ecological system.
With the earth and its ecological systems
pushed close to planetary boundaries, we
need innovative solutions that take into account
the complexity of the problems and
then foster solutions that permit our systems
to learn, adapt, and occasionally transform
without collapsing. More important,
we need to build the capacity to find such
solutions over and over again.

Part of building resilience in complex
systems is strengthening cultures of innovation.
These are cultures that value diversity,
because as any bricoleur knows, the more
(and more different) the parts, the greater
the possibility of new and radical combinations.
But these cultures also need to encourage
the kind of communication and engagement
that allows disparate elements to meet
and mingle, and that allows for experimentation
and support rather than blame. Such
cultures support social innovation, and social
innovation in turn builds resilience.

is becoming more
popular as a lens to focus on linked socialecological
systems at all scales, from the
individual, to the organization, to the community,
to the region, and to the globe. As
a theory, it is deeply interdisciplinary, representing
the intersection of psychology,
ecology, organization theory, community
studies, and economics.2 It is similar to sustainability
science in that it is a whole system
approach that posits inextricable links
between the North and the South and between
the economy and the environment.
But it differs in that it focuses on the balance
between continuity and change, a continuous
(or infinite) cycle of release, reorganization,
growth, and consolidation that characterizes
all resilient living systems.3

In the release and reorganization phases,
new elements may be combined in new ways.
In the growth and consolidation phases,
these new combinations attract resources
and capital and deliver returns in energy,
biomass, or productivity on which the system
depends and thrives. To understand this concept,
think about a mature forest, with energy
and physical capital stored up in biomass.
A forest fire triggers a release of energy and
resources. New life forms spring up in the fertile
ground, absorbing the nutrients quickly.
Some of these forms are species that have
lived in that forest before; others are new. Not
all can survive, so a pattern of dominance results
in some species dying out and others accumulating
biomass to grow to a mature forest.
Resilience theory suggests that a serious loss of system resilience happens only when
the system gets trapped at some point in the
cycle: System resilience lies in the continuous
movement through the cycle, causing the
system to adapt or transform in the process.

Now consider this cycle applied to innovation,
either technical or social. As Joseph
Schumpeter outlined in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, entrepreneurs come up
with new ideas, using the resources available.
Some ideas fail, but others take wing and become
new products, programs, processes, or
designs that attract resources and become
part of the established system. Here too we
see a similar pattern: the association of old
and new ideas in the idea generation stage; a
shakeout of competing ideas and organizations
in favor of those able to attract the most
resources; a pattern of dominance and consolidation
of successful ideas and organizations;
and the institutionalization of the innovations
so that they become business as usual.

The similarity between the cycle of innovation
and the cycle of the release and renewal
of resilient ecosystems is striking. But
resilience theory suggests that for the broader
system (the organization, the community,
or the broader society) to be resilient, it is not
enough to innovate. Society needs to build
the capacity for repetition—over and over
again, forever. Moreover, although many
innovations allow for adaptation (such as
portable homes for the homeless that allow
the homeless to live more successfully in
extreme temperatures),4 other innovations,
more disruptive and radical, have the potential
to transform the system. This was the
case of the Barefoot College.

What Resilience Brings to Social Innovation

Resilience theory has many lessons to
teach people involved in social innovation.
The most important is the need to look at a
problem systemically. Western culture has
a long history of introducing solutions (particularly
technical ones) designed to solve a
specific problem, without considering the
broader system impacts the solution might
have. Consider the race to develop biofuels.
The current preoccupation with finding energy
sources to replace fossil fuels and petroleum-based products threatens to neglect
the multiple system impacts that the production
of biofuel has on the environment
and society. For example, because biofuels
can be grown on poor land (a plus from the point of view of producers), they are likely to
absorb land currently used for subsistence
agriculture in the developing world, making
food security even more precarious.5

Another example of negative unintended
consequences on the larger system is the
development of ecotourism in the Galapagos
Islands. The islands offer unparalleled
biodiversity. To maintain this diversity and
to stimulate the local Ecuadorian economy,
ecotourism companies compete to bring
small groups of tourists to the islands. The
government controls how many people
can disembark on an island, but there is
less control over the number of boats that
can sail or motor close to an island. As a result,
the increasing numbers of boats have
caused drastic erosion of the coral reefs.
What may seem like a panacea can turn out,
when viewed from the point of view of the
larger system, to be an illusion.

A historical example of an innovation
gone wrong was the residential school system
for aboriginal Canadians. Proponents
believed that the best way to “help” aboriginal
people was to assimilate them by teaching
them European culture, language, religion,
and economic practices. To accomplish
this, the government removed hundreds of
children from their homes and put them into
residential schools, forbidding them to use
their native language. At the time most white
Canadians saw the practice as an innovative
solution to the problems of First Nations
people. But even in the light of the social philosophy
of the time, it was an intervention
that took no account of the systemic nature
of the problem. The intervention deeply undermined
the general resilience of aboriginal
communities, greatly exacerbating the problems
that the initiative tried to resolve. It destroyed
communal ties and lineage lines and
left a whole generation not only poorly assimilated,
but stripped of its cultural identity.
It is an extreme example of failing to consider
the systemic nature of a social problem when
attempting an innovative intervention.

Understanding resilience can also help
social innovators balance top-down and bottom-up approaches to crafting solutions. For
example, relief agencies were concerned that
the trauma of displacement would cause Eritrean
women living in refugee camps to suffer
post-traumatic stress. But it turned out
that as long as the women were able to create
coherent accounts or stories and share them
with others, their stress was manageable. Similarly, when efforts were made to provide
people with their traditional foods (such as
“famine foods”), communities were much
more resilient in the face of famine. Because
of experiences such as these, international
relief organizations are increasingly working
closely with local people (by listening and
learning) rather than immediately responding
with top-down solutions.6

Governments strongly influence setting
the parameters and creating the opportunities
for innovation to occur at local levels.
One of the best examples was the Brazilian
government’s response to the escalating
cases of HIV-AIDS. In 1990 the World Bank
found that Brazil was one of the worst hit
countries, with almost twice as many people
infected as South Africa. The World Bank
predicted that both Brazil and South Africa
would see astronomical increases by the year
2000. The World Bank recommended that
Brazil abandon efforts to treat people with
HIV-AIDS and instead focus on prevention.
But the Brazilian government ignored the
advice and decided to unleash local creativity
and innovation. The parameters were
that no person—regardless of how poor, insignificant,
or illiterate he or she was—would
be written off as beyond cure. They lobbied
the World Health Organization to reduce
the costs of anti-viral drugs and launched an
effective communication strategy to make
the use of condoms sexy. They then gave
enormous discretion to community leaders,
including priests and nuns in local parishes,
to figure out how to reach every infected person.
Health care clinicians worked alongside
NGOs to provide the full range of services
needed, including testing, education, and delivering
and supervising medication.

Despite its high illiteracy rate, Brazil
achieved the same compliance rate across
all communities as the United States. By
2000 the infection rate had dropped to 1 in
160, a far cry from the 1 in 4 predicted by the
World Bank. This is an example of resilience
theory at work—looking at the problem and
solution systemically, across scales and subsystems,
and taking account of the roles that
local knowledge and government policy can
play in crafting a solution.7

What Social Innovation Brings to Resilience

One of the most important attributes that
a social innovation approach offers is that
it helps people understand the process by
8 Innovation for a Complex World
which social systems adapt or are transformed.
In particular, the approach shines
a light on the various actors (such as social
entrepreneurs and system entrepreneurs)
who help these processes happen.

A large amount of research on social entrepreneurs
has been undertaken. Less research
has been done, however, on the system
entrepreneurs who are responsible for finding
the opportunities to leverage innovative
ideas for much greater system impact. The
skills of the are quite different
from, but complementary to, those of
the social entrepreneur.

The system entrepreneur plays different
roles at different points in the innovation
cycle, but all of these roles are geared
toward finding opportunities to connect an
alternative approach to the resources of the
dominant system. Opportunities occur most
frequently when there has been some release
of resources through political turnover, economic
crisis, or cultural shift. In the Great
Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia (BC),
Canada, a political and economic crisis was
provoked by the success of aboriginal land
claims in the BC courts and the success of
Greenpeace International’s marketing campaign.
This crisis created an opportunity for
system entrepreneurs (a coalition of several
NGOs) to convene a series of meetings and
facilitate a process that allowed stakeholders
who had been vehemently opposed to one another
(aboriginal groups, logging companies,
logging communities, the BC government,
and environmental NGOs) to put aside their
differences and begin to create solutions.

As these solutions multiplied, the system
entrepreneurs moved into a new role:
that of broker. They created bundles of financial,
social, and technical solutions that
offered a real alternative to the status quo.
Once workable coalitions of actors and ideas
had been forged, system entrepreneurs assumed
yet another role—selling these ideas
to those able to support the alternative with
resources, policies, and media support.
When policies were made to formalize new
protection policies, financial support packages,
and cultural promotion, the system
entrepreneurs changed roles yet again by
going back to the beginning of the cycle and
reframing and challenging the status quo. In
the process, the capacity of the social system
as a whole to manage such transformations
and adaptations had been strengthened.
The same process is being used in a modified form in current negotiations around
the boreal forest.8

In many instances, this kind of transformation
takes many years. It requires a long
period of preparation in which an innovative
alternative is developed and then scaled
up when a window of opportunity opens.
In Chile, the window of opportunity for the
introduction of community fisheries came
with the intersection of an environmental
crisis (the crash of the local fishery because
of overfishing) and a political crisis (the coup
that unseated President Augusto Pinochet’s
regime). System entrepreneurs had been
preparing for such an opportunity for many
years by creating experimental sites in a few
communities, creating a shadow network of
international and national scientists, and
maintaining good relationships with politicians
and bureaucrats expected to survive Pinochet.
Because of that preparation, within a
few years of the coup a new fisheries law was
passed, enshrining community-based fisheries
and environment-based management.9

Of course, “managing for emergence” is
easier in some cultures than others. Some
cultures allow ideas to move freely and
quickly, combining with other ideas in the
kind of bricolage necessary for innovation.
Studies of resilience at the community, organizational,
and individual levels suggest that
these same qualities characterize organizations
and communities that are resilient to
crisis and collapse. The characteristics that
these organizations and communities share
are low hierarchy, adequate diversity, an
emphasis on learning over blame, room for
experimentation, and mutual respect. These
are all qualities that support general resilience.
If they are attended to, the capacity for
social innovation will also increase, creating
a virtuous cycle that in turn builds the resilience
of the entire society.10

Final Thoughts

People involved in social innovation and
people involved in creating a resilient society
can learn much from one another. Resilience
theory suggests that the processes
of adaptation and transformation are dynamic,
cyclical, and infinite. Social innovation
is not a fixed solution either; it is part
of a process that builds social resilience and
allows complex systems to change while
maintaining the continuity we rely on for
our personal, organizational, and community
integrity and identity.

To create a resilient society, it is important
not to rely solely on the social entrepreneurs
who come up with innovative ideas.
Neither should one rely solely on government
to create innovative opportunities. Instead,
we should watch for those moments
when crisis, disaster, or strategic vision
opens a window for securing resources for
the most promising alternatives.

Last, it is important to focus on a new
kind of entrepreneur who complements the
social entrepreneur: the system entrepreneur.
The system entrepreneur identifies
the promising alternatives to the dominant
approach and then works with networks of
others to stimulate and take advantage of opportunities
for scaling up those innovations.
Working at the level of the whole system, system
entrepreneurs develop the alternatives,
attract the resources, and work toward the
moment when the system tips.

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