Key Theme—

Realising Transformative Potential

Adaptation to climate change is transformative: it involves significant changes to practices that are, in mainstream discourse, considered ‘normal’.  At the local scale, this often includes consumption practices – making the choice to consume less, or consume differently, in recognition that we may not be able to rely on such a steady supply of energy, water, goods and services in the future.  It also includes production and trade practices, for instance when people develop local networks for producing, preparing and exchanging food and/or other goods and services.  

But such new practices are not just economic; they are more broadly social. They are built on, and create, relationships between people – communities defined by shared interests, trust and solidarity.  Indeed, without the support of such enabling relationships, many innovative ideas turn out to be pretty short lived, or limited to small pockets of local activity.  As such, we see the transformative potential of adaptive innovation – even those that are facilitated by new technologies – as necessarily situated in the social realm.1

A second crucial aspect of successful adaptive practices is empowerment, which we understand as a process through which people gain the capacity to make change happen.  This is both a precondition of socially-driven change (for obvious reasons), and an important outcome of it, as participants in change-making practices gain collective resources – knowledge, social networks, infrastructures, etc. – which can be further mobilised to institutionalise, disseminate, and/or deepen the impact of new practices.  

The interaction of these two processes – relationship building and empowerment – can thus be remarkably powerful, leading to social, economic and political change beyond the ambit of the initial action.  Ultimately, as new practices and relations become embedded across time/space and scale (the ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ dimensions described in ‘making and breaking connections’), they have potential to become the ‘new normal’.

We are not alone in believing that to adapt to climate change – a global, profound and (in human terms) potentially permanent crisis – we need new normals, not just in pockets of local practice, but in society’s institutions and structures.  We need such fundamental changes because adaptation is going to include really hard stuff – dealing with the loss of settled coastlines, desolation of agricultural land, severe disruptions to industry, climate refugees, fossil fuel dependence, and unprecedented threats to biodiversity (to name a few).  Our existing mainstream institutions are ill-equipped to deal with such challenges, not least because they support and are sustained by a competitive model of economic performance which requires that the economic utility of land and other natural resources be uninterrupted.  

Therefore, we have paid attention to the potential of local initiatives to expand their reach: to transform practices and social relations and empower actors more widely (‘scaling out’), more formally (‘scaling up’), and/or more profoundly (‘scaling deep’) than their original scope and scale.2

As the stories linked to this theme show, there are lots of different ways that these different kinds of scaling can happen. Networking activities through which knowledge and practices can be exchanged and built (see ‘building and bridging the knowledge base) are important for scaling out, and it was clear that the more diverse these activities are, the better.  Different types of actors come into contact through different types of technologies, using different systems and modes of communication, and responding to opportunities that resonate with their different concerns and daily practices (see ‘working together differently’).  Also important to scaling out are various modes of influence, which allow actors not associated with the original actions to adapt and replicate them in other places.  Such modes can be direct and formal (teaching, training, consultancy, publication, etc.) or informal and less direct (modelling by example, engaging in diverse forms of public discourse, etc.). 

Important as such opportunities for transfer and replication are, we do not believe that they are sufficient for realising the transformative potential of local initiatives.  Indeed, simple replication often fails because local initiatives are fundamentally shaped by their environmental, social and (especially) political contexts.  This is why we also looked at the processes of ‘scaling up’, meaning the higher-level institutionalisation of innovation by way of new or reinterpreted policy and public governance arrangements – that is, changes to the political context in ways that allow local experiments to sustain themselves and to flourish.  Scaling up involves new kinds of cooperation between local and State actors in which policy and practice are neither ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom up’, but emerge from the cooperation itself – some academics have dubbed this ‘bottom-linked governance’.3 There are several aspects to this.  One, which many of the people we spoke to alluded to, is finding a way of talking about climate change and climate action that is hopeful rather than despairing, that resonates with the concerns and priorities of both parties, and that helps shift entrenched ways of thinking about what is, and isn’t, possible.4  Another is that the cooperation, and the infrastructure that facilitates it, need to empower both parties, opening new possibilities for achieving change together – we can see this at work in the stories.    

We might understand these features of bottom-linked governance as a capacity to find and deliver ‘win-win’ actions. ‘Win-win’ can be a bit of a double-edged sword, especially for government agencies working within a broader policy framework which, in general, does not support actions that seriously challenge or undermine the principles of growth capitalism.5  But sometimes something else can happen: new practices change not just organisations, but people too.  This is what we are calling (after that Canadian woman) ‘scaling deep’ – having a profound effect on the lives and minds of the people who participate in an initiative.  Scaling deep matters.  It means that innovative practices can become embedded as a way of life – a new normal.  And  new normals generate new communities of interest, which can (as the case of Darebin shows) become political forces with potential to challenge the ‘win-win’ trap.

1 Moulaert, F., MacCallum, D., Mehmood, A and Hamdouch, A. (eds) (2013) International Handbook on Social Innovation, Elgar, Cheltenham.

2 Frances Westley and Nino Antadze describe the difference between scaling ‘up’ and ‘out’ in Westley, F.R. and Antadze, N. (2010), ‘Making a Difference: Strategies for Scaling Social Innovation for Greater Impact’, The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal 15 (2) <>.  The idea of ‘scaling deep’ was considered an important addition, challenging the need to be bigger, by feminist scholar Michele-Lee Moore and colleagues – Moore, M., Riddell, D. and Vocisano, D. (2015), ‘Scaling our, scaling up, scaling deep. Social Innovation 58: 67-84.

3 This term was coined by Marisol Garcia and colleagues at the University of Barcelona (including Santiago Eizaguerre and Marc Pradel).  It has become common parlance in work about social innovation in local and regional development.

4 ‘Reframing the discourse’, a characteristic of democratic leadership  – see Parés, M., Ospina, S.M. and Subirats, J. (2017), Social Innovation and Democratic Leadership: Communities and Social Change from Below, Elgar, Cheltenham.

5 This insight has led some scholars to talk about a ‘post-political’ era – see for instance Wilson, J. and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) (2015) The Post-Political and its Discontents: Spaces of Depoliticisation; Spectres of Radical Politics,Edinburgh University Press.



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