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Are social innovations changing the game?

Flor Avelino & Julia Wittmayer, DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam

What are the #gamechangers of our times? How do economic trends, #climate change, technological revolutions and other such macro-developments relate to #socialchange and #socialinnovation?

In 2014, the TRANSIT project  gathered a total of 25 scholars from across the world to discuss the role of #gamechangers in transformative #socialinnovation processes, from the perspective of various disciplines, theoretical traditions, and world regions. Based on this exchange a special issue with nine contributions was published in Ecology & Society.

This special issue unpacks the notion of #gamechangers, both theoretically and empirically. The contributions identify a diversity of game-changers (in temporal, geographical and functional terms), such as weather #storm, the economic crisis or the #Anthropocene, next to #narrative and policy interventions. Game-changers are thus not necessarily confined to a specific level, such as only being ‘macro developments’. Typologies of game changers include single events vs. long term developments or the distinction between seminal, exogenous and endogamous game-changers.

The game metaphor, i.e. a game as consisting of rules, a field and players, helps to unpack a diversity of empirical and conceptual game-changers and assists in exploring the interplay of different empirical phenomena across time and scales. However, it also is a blurry notion that defies clear definitions and indicators. To quote the editorial synthesis: “Moreover, as this game metaphor emphasizes, the need for changing the rules, i.e., structural transformative change, one could argue that it invokes a way of thinking, e.g., in terms of winners and losers, beginning and end, and competition, that could reproduce those very structures that some transformative social innovation endeavors aim to challenge.”. This special issue thus reminds us to remain critical of the metaphors we use.

All articles in the special issue are open access and free to download.


Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J.M., Kemp, R. and A. Haxeltine (2017) Game changers and Transformative Social Innovation. Ecology & Society, 22(4): 41

Campos, I., Alves, F., Dinis, J., Truninger, M., Vizinho, A. and Penha-Lopes, G. (2016). Climate Adaptation, Transitions, and Socially Innovative Action-Research Approaches. Ecology and

Society, 21(1):13.

Cipolla, C., Afonso, R., Pel, B., Bartholo, R., Silva, É. R. and Proença Júnior, D. (2017). Coproduced Game-Changing in Transformative Social Innovation: Reconnecting the “Broken City” of Rio de Janeiro. Ecology and Society, 22(3):3.

Gordon, A., Becerra, L., & Fressoli, M. (2017). Potentialities and Constraints in the Relation between Social Innovation and Public Policies: Some Lessons from South America. Ecology and Society, 22(4):2.

Loorbach, D., Avelino, F., Haxeltine, A., Wittmayer, J.M., O'Riordan, T., Weaver, P. and Kemp, R. (2016). The Economic Crisis as a Game Changer? Exploring the Role of Social Construction in Sustainability Transitions. Ecology and Society 21(4):15.

Olsson, P., Moore, M. L., Westley, F. and McCarthy, D. (2017). The Concept of the Anthropocene as a Game-changer: A New Context for Social Innovation and Transformations to Sustainability. Ecology and Society, 22(2):31.

Pel, B., Wallenborn, G., & Bauler, T. (2016). Emergent Transformation Games: Exploring Social Innovation Agency and Activation through the Case of the Belgian Electricity Blackout Threat. Ecology and Society, 21(2):17.

Prasad, S. (2016). Innovating at the Margins: the System of Rice Intensification in India and Transformative Social Innovation. Ecology and Society, 21(4):7.

Swilling, M. (2016). Africa’s Game Changers and the Catalysts of Social and System Innovation. Ecology and Society, 21(1):37.

Westley, F., McGowan, K., Antadze, N., Blacklock, J. and Tjornbo, O. (2016). How Game Changers Catalyzed, Disrupted, and Incentivized Social Innovation: Three Historical Cases of Nature Conservation, Assimilation, and Women’s Rights. Ecology and Society, 21(4):13.