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Katharine McGowan

In an inversion of what is usually presented as economic innovation, this case explores the social conditions that allowed the joint stock model to grow and flourish in the Northern Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fuelling the period known as the Dutch Golden Age, the joint stock model allowed for significant, revolutionary shifts in resource flows, and ultimately reinforced an actual Dutch revolution against Spanish colonial authorities. This case illustrates the cross-sectoral requirements for a social innovation to take hold and scale, and how these shifts ripple throughout a society, leaving little untouched.

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Frances Westley

This chapter summarizes the interesting patterns that characterize the evolution of social innovation over time. Social innovations that succeed in transforming intractable problem domains take time: these cases span from seventy to over two hundred years. They are ignited by new social philosophies in most cases, new products or technological inventions in others. Through the activities of a relay team of social and institutional entrepreneurs, those original ideas and initiatives combine and recombine over time with other “adjacent” streams of activity, often in an attempt to secure additional resources of power or capital. As a result most successful social innovations are a collection of elements, some of which are in tension with each other. It is these tensions that continue to drive the evolution of the innovations. This chapter concludes with identification of aspects of early stage social innovations that are key to identifying those with transformative potential.

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Erin Alexiuk

This chapter explores the emergence of the duty to consult and accommodate as a social innovation in Canada. Specifically, the evolution of authority over lands in Canada is traced through three major phases, beginning from the Seven Years War: (1) shared authority by multiple sovereign Aboriginal nations; (2) dominance by the Crown/Canadian government; and (3) recognition of Aboriginal title and the legal duty to consult and accommodate. This historical narrative is intended both to demonstrate the power of social phenomena around land and provide analysis of the Haida decision as a recent tipping point. Examples of both the adjacent possible and prophetic starting conditions emerged through the research as well as several related problem domains – including treaty negotiations, resource development and reconciliation – ripe for further social innovation.

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The Evolution of Social Innovation

Building Resilience Through Transitions

Edited by Frances Westley, Katherine McGowan and Ola Tjörnbo

In a time where governments and civil society organizations are putting ever-greater stock in social innovation as a route to transformation, understanding what characterizes social innovation with transformative potential is important. Exciting and promising ideas seem to die out as often as they take flight, and market mechanisms, which go a long way towards contributing to successful technical innovations, play an insignificant role in social innovations. The cases in this book explore the evolution of successful social innovation through time, from the ideas which catalysed social and system entrepreneurs to create new processes, platforms, projects and programs to fundamental social shifts in culture, economics, laws and policies which occurred as a result. In doing so, the authors shed light on how to recognize transformative potential in the early stage innovations we see today.
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Sean Geobey

The growth of the international market in financial derivatives over the past 40 years has radically changed the governance of the global economy, and this growth can be drawn directly from the development of the Black–Scholes options pricing model. The global derivatives market is an example of a social innovation with a global impact, raising a number of conceptual issues for theories of cross-scale interaction and elective affinity. The derivatives market demonstrated an ideological elective affinity with the deregulatory movement as it grew, was enabled by and provided funding to advances in computing, and was reinforced by the profitability of derivative trading. Governments shifted from being the key players in domestic financial regulation to competing with each other to attract actors in the derivatives industry, a change that raises questions about the nature of cross-scale interactions.

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Katharine McGowan, Frances Westley and Ola Tjörnbo

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Katharine McGowan

One of the greatest mistakes and legislative failures in Canadian history, categorizing residential schools – public/private partnerships that sought to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children – as a social innovation will challenge many observers. Yet the effort to integrate (assimilate) Indigenous children shares much with the language and focus of many social innovations. This is a cautionary tale of making decisions for a population, seeking assimilation but labelling it resilience, and reminding future social innovators of the risks of disempowering populations in the name of a common social good.

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Katharine McGowan

In a study of an innovation now seen as an example of social engineering, this case follows the emergent professional networks of psychologists and bureaucrats trying to reshape American society.  The test began as an idea of how intellectual capacity works and a tool to measure it, which fell into the existing debate over social problems of poverty, underachievement and education (mislabelled at the time as feeblemindedness). The opportunities presented when America joined the First World War, and needed to develop a professional citizen army quickly, provided a perfect proving ground for the test’s applicability (if not accuracy).  This is a cautionary tale of scientific measurement seeming to support social attitudes, and the power of networks to scale an idea into a policy.

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Ola Tjörnbo

This case looks at the development of the Internet, a social innovation which has transformed our relationship with communication and information in ways that touch all aspects of our lives. It traces its origins back to the invention of packet switching in both the US and UK, through the emergence of the earliest computer networks, and finally to the launch of the World Wide Web, which made the technology accessible to everyone with a home computer. Though this is a story of new technology, it is also an example of the way that social innovations can be deeply shaped by the convictions and choices of their founders. This case describes the early struggle over the identity of the Internet, how it was shaped by the sometimes utopian aspirations of its creators, and how early attempts to exert ownership and control of the technology largely failed, though the struggle is ongoing.

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Nino Antadze and Jaclyn Blacklock

This case considers the evolution of the constructed social phenomena surrounding the legality of birth control use and dissemination from the 1700s through to the present time. The case shows how social conditions and concerns, technological advances and legal rulings served to open up windows of opportunity for social entrepreneurs to pursue an adjacent possible – those new realities that are now, but were not previously, acceptable due to a change in present conditions. The rivalry between those who fought for the innovation and those who fought against is at the core of this case. The ability to capitalize on a window of opportunity is strongly associated with the strength of the coalition, the group’s organization, their financial and social resources and their relative power and reputation. Incremental attempts to pursue an adjacent possible most often succeeded when windows of opportunity were discovered and explored. Otherwise, no matter how organized, attempts to create change tended to be met with resistance, hostility and legal action.