Manifesto for Transformative Social Innovation.

An age of contradiction is upon us. People and nature are more globally interconnected than ever before, while also increasingly separated by old and new divisions. Scientific knowledge, technological innovation and legal structures have brought progress and previously unimaginable forms of comfort and entertainment. At the same time, there is severe poverty and inequality, ecological disasters, climate change, biodiversity loss and economic downfalls. The past years have been full of political turmoil over increasing divides in society, manifested in intercultural tensions, ‘post-truth’ media wars, and unprecedented protests and demonstrations. A series of raging wild fires and hottest days on earth in human history, followed by massive floods and storms, together with multiple political blasts and collisions, symbolise the conflagrations of our times. We recognize the struggles of humanity in addressing its challenges. Instead of being defeatist, however, this must bring a new wave of inspiration and vigour to encourage us to innovate how we see, interpret, and tackle the challenges that we face.

Let us begin by lauding how more and more people globally are taking their future and the planet’s into their own hands and developing ways to shape radically more sustainable, just and resilient societies. We are writing this manifesto as people who participate, study and support such movements. While they may seem invisible or marginal to many, these communities implement social change everywhere across the globe in neighbourhoods, cities, and rural areas. From community energy initiatives, basic income experiments, cooperative banks and participatory budgeting, to ecovillages, co-working spaces, digital fabrication workshops, sharing platforms, agriculture cooperatives, urban labs and many more (find more examples here). These social innovations are changing social relations, leading to new ways of doing, thinking and organizing, and aiming towards a world based on ecological and human values, nurturing the commons and treasuring basic human rights and democracy.  

Transformative Social Innovation

As top-down policies, technologies and large-scale solutions are unable to bring about social change at the level of everyday life, we need the efforts of local communities to engage and experiment with social innovations. However, local engagement and experimentation are also not enough. Societal challenges are interlinked and systemic. Piecemeal and superficial solutions, no matter how innovative, can easily have unintended side effects, reinforcing persistent societal challenges, or even creating new problems. Activism towards a better world is toothless if it fails to address existing power structures in the global economy and engage with people outside their own like-minded communities. This means that social innovation alone is not enough: we need transformative change to make a difference: to challenge, alter and replace the dominant institutions that are ingrained in society (e.g. individualism, hierarchy, competition). Such processes of challenging, altering and replacing our dominant ways of doing, thinking and organising, is what we call transformative social innovation.

We are in need of new stories to face the contradictions of our times and to imagine alternative futures. This Manifesto proposes transformative social innovation as a story of change towards a common future that is more sustainable, just and resilient. This story is inherently and deeply political. Politics is not just about voting or parliamentary debate: it also manifests as we build green houses, produce our own food and energy, envision alternative futures, reshape places or participate in decision-making.

Such acts in themselves can be acts of defiance in trying to change systems of power, institutionalized interests and deeply engrained practices and beliefs. For social innovation to be transformative, it has no choice but to engage in politics and to do so honestly and firmly. This requires a strong set of basic principles and values, to take a stance against hijacking of social innovations by incumbent political systems. To this end we commit ourselves to discover what transformative social innovation means in our own city, neighbourhood, village, initiative, sector, organisation and personal life, and to share and spread these experiences in a way that makes them accessible and applicable for more people. While each context comes with its own stories and principles, we also share a set of shared principles, claims and commitments that enable us to collaborate.

13 Principles of Transformative Social Innovation

We uphold and commit to the following 13 principles of transformative social innovation:

We claim the right to innovate and foster transformative social change

We build on a long history of movements aiming to make this world more sustainable, just and resilient. We fully endorse and support such efforts as manifested in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. What we want to add and highlight with this manifesto is that human beings also have a specific right to innovate, to construct alternatives and to co-create social change in their environment. We claim everyone’s right to:

  • Have a say in local, national and international research & development agendas and policies.
  • Influence how public funds are spent.
  • Gain access to labs, hubs, land & buildings in which to congregate, innovate & develop projects.
  • Use technologies and platforms that are hackable, open and repairable by everyone.
  • Be informed & educated in experimentation, innovation, transformative and critical thinking.

A commitment and a call to action

Claiming our right to innovate and foster change implies that we also commit to collaborative action. Achieving transformative change in society requires that we ourselves transform. We call upon ourselves and upon you as activists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, researchers, journalists and other critical intellectuals, or whatever role you play or position you have, to join us in making the following specific and general commitments. 

Calling on activists and social entrepreneurs to commit with us to:

We commit to collaborate and explore synergies within and across initiatives, both locally and globally. We welcome unlikely allies. Supporters can come in different roles and from different backgrounds. Whenever we can, we tell the story of our initiatives and listen to people’s responses.

Be practical, but stay radical.
Sometimes we might play by the rules to change them. But while interacting with mainstream institutions, we remember to maintain our radical core and take time to keep that original fire burning.

Be reflexive.
We actively reflect on the potentially negative impacts and unintended consequences of our social innovation work and how to address them.

We organize our own lobbying activities to trace, challenge and/or support laws and rules that will inevitably have an effect on (the outcomes) of our work.

Be constructively critical towards public institutions.
We work with public institutions where necessary, and challenge them to improve where possible. We recognize that bureaucracies are also (at least partly) the result of collective democratic processes and attempts towards safeguarding equity, safety, and health.

Calling on policy-makers and politicians to commit with us to:

To allow, support and do social innovation.
We commit to create and support spaces for experimentation and learning. We support and do social innovation ourselves, and also allow for experimentation by others.

Not reinvent unnecessary wheels.
When developing ‘hubs’ or ‘networks’ to connect people and ideas, we work with existing networks and initiatives instead of creating unnecessary new versions.

Be flexible.
We take into account that rules, regulations and assessments can contradict the flexible processes that social innovation initiatives might need. We commit to reconsider the rules and adapt them to changing societal demands, engaging social innovators in that process.

Uphold a proactive public sector.
We commit to defend, nurture and improve necessary public institutions and to promote calls for supporting social innovation from the policy side, with funds, grants, and specific policies, in an interactive, inclusive, and responsible way. A sound, transparent and reliable public sector that provides basic infrastructure and services and safeguards public interest is a prerequisite for meaningful social change.

Be inclusive.
We are wary of initiatives that are entirely self-enhancing, for-profit and not willing to share assets, benefits, and power (e.g. Uber). We support initiatives in creating and governing alternative platforms offering similar services in a more inclusive manner.

Calling on critical intellectuals (e.g. researchers, journalists, writers) to commit with us to:

Be socially engaged.
We make our work meaningful for society. We carefully frame our research with the people we are working with and think about the social outcomes. We are meaningful collaborators for those we are working with, be it through temporary reciprocal engagement or a long-term intellectual commitment.

Be honest about normativity.
We are aware of how our work influences the people and things we write and speak about. We are transparent about our own normative standpoints, and acknowledge how our own frameworks may limit our understanding. We dare to explicitly reflect on the interests underlying our work.

Be constructively critical.
We strike a balance between being inquisitive and supportive. We recognise the hopes and aspirations, as well as the concerns and fears, of the people we observe. We use participatory methods that allow others to express their experiences and ideas.

Be accessible.
We do not hide ourselves in ivory towers or our writings behind pay-walls. We are approachable and make our writings accessible to those who have provided their input.

Look beyond the obvious.
Transformative social innovation exists not only in new, exciting projects, but also in less spectacular activities of lobbying, maintenance, improvisation and recovery. We develop a balanced account of the multiple origins of innovation and change. While we use the notion of transformative social innovation, we acknowledge that there are multiple other relevant notions on social change. We commit to bridging to other concepts and to remain critical of the limitations and pitfalls of ‘innovation’ and ‘transformation’ discourses.

Calling on everyone, whoever and wherever you are, to commit with us to:

Value diversity and explore synergies.
We value different approaches to social change across all initiatives, as long as the abovementioned 13 principles of transformative social innovation can be upheld. We accept the diversity of practices, solutions and visions that each in their right contribute towards alternative futures. We acknowledge the different roles, capacities and values that every individual can bring.

Be open-minded.
We are open towards alternative movements. We remember that many things that we consider normal or even indispensable today were not always so and often seemed impossible or outrageous at the time. Voting rights, organic food, solar panels, sex before marriage, the abolition of slavery – there were times when these things were only promoted or accepted by a small group of people who were considered crazy idealists (and there are places where this is still the case).

We choose what role we ourselves can play in contributing to social change. We seek to know which initiatives and networks for social change are present in our own environments. Whether we become an active member, give a donation, buy a product, or share something on social media… we commit to supporting them.

Embrace participatory decision-making.
Collective intelligence is often full of common sense.

Be appreciative, curious, and passionate.
We seek to understand the underlying values and motivations of others and to engage with one another in a critical yet constructive way. Passion is recognized globally and breaks down institutional barriers: by showing interest and finding out about each other’s passions, we create space to express our own.


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