Social Innovation & Complexity

Stream #17

Chairs: Katharine Mcgowan (Mount Royal University), Sean Geobey (University of Waterloo)

Social innovation is fundamentally intertwined with managing complexity (Westley et al, 2011), social innovators must grapple with and navigate the unpredictable landscape of complex adaptive systems (Moore et al, 2018).  The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed power dynamics and unstable elements in a variety of problem domains, placing social innovation thinking at or near the center of post-pandemic resilience planning far beyond public health.  While this is a once-in-a century pandemic, recent historically-informed studies have underlined the importance of major world events as system disruptors and drivers of social innovation (Geobey & McGowan, 2019; Westley, McGowan & Tjornbo, 2017; McGowan & Westley, 2015). Even after the pandemic has been brought under control the social, ecological and economic consequences of this shock will continue to be felt in multiple domains.

These shocks open a unique opportunity to explore the intersection between social innovation and complexity theory.  Generally the analysis of innovation, including social innovation, focuses on the exploration and exploitation of opportunities in a system, what is often referred to as the “front loop” of adaptive cycle (Holling & Gunderson, 2002). Alongside this understanding, tools and processes to help navigate this part of the adaptive cycle have been developed such as incubators for social enterprise, social financing strategies to scale impact, and innovation labs to ideate and scale solutions.  

As the world grapples with the challenges of life in and post COVID-19, it is clear we need to adjust to living in and responding to the challenges of life in the “back loop” of release and reorganization through system collapse.  Previous studies of complexity have acknowledged the importance of the back loop, but largely as something to be prepared for and endured (Geobey & McGowan, 2019), rather than as the landscape from which deep generative innovations can arise. Exploring the back loop across the community of social innovation – methodology and pedagogy, research and practice – can reveal deeper understanding about the language and logic of social innovation.  We need, as a collective, to  move back loop thinking beyond the conceptual and into the here and now. 

In this call for papers, we invite papers that explore this moment of living in the back loop, challenges and opportunities it provides.  Particular interest will be given to papers that explore the following topics .

1) Methodological and procedural experimentation in a range of contexts, including: 

  • social innovation labs
  • social innovation education
  • social innovation-related policy making

2) Community-driven social enterprise and social movements  

3) Case studies, particularly ones that embrace the failures and emergence associated with complexity, will be welcome as critical data of life in the back loop.