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Warren Nilsson

Social innovation can be seen as an emergent social movement, the goal of which is to radically increase everyday systemic agency. This goal challenges social innovators to move beyond specific responses to current grand challenges, and toward the development of more inclusive and sustained system capacities for reflexivity and collaborative reinvention. Such a distributed mode of agency, however, cannot be brought about exclusively through the ideologically coordinated praxis of previous social movements. The social innovation movement presupposes a more diffuse approach that leaves local innovators free to define and experiment with not only means but ends. It requires a kind of fractal agency – a liberated awareness by innovators of the ways in which their micro practices express or disrupt macro-institutional patterns. Institutional work scholarship can help develop social innovation theory and praxis in this direction. Institutional work research uses a practice lens to explore the performative structures of institutions. It reveals the potential agentic power in all institutional subject positions and platforms while also illuminating the complexities, bafflements, and dangers inherent in any attempt to bring intentionality to bear on institutional fields. This chapter draws on institutional work scholarship to offer a heuristic for researchers and practitioners interested in looking more closely at the systemic depth of social innovations. The author defines and illustrates five performative dimensions of institutions that can be used to interrogate whether and how a given innovation is disrupting the underlying system dynamics of its context. These dimensions are roles, social identities, resource flows, authority processes, and meanings. The author suggests that broadly, many social innovations work to increase overall system reflexivity and agency by valorizing previously underrepresented people, resources, relationships patterns, or modes of knowledge and by increasing the structural flexibility of institutional fields, making their linkages less rigid and their boundaries more plastic.