Social Innovation – Exploring the space in between

Jenn Bruce, a student in the Graduate Diploma program reflects on her evolving understanding of social innovation, conceptualized as “the space in between.”


At the beginning of the course, my understanding of social innovation was one dimensional and framed around finding new and innovative solutions to social problems. However, as the course progressed, and as we unpacked the seemingly simplest of statements, it became clear that there is a lot of complexity in the space of social innovation and how we define it. As I have seen through various examples, not everything leads to the same end-point and social innovation is not solely a means to an end. Throughout my reflection, I will link the various theories and perspectives that have come to shape my understanding of social innovation. I will unpack what is meant by social innovation, the different processes of social innovation and the tactics that lead to social transformation.

Social innovation is a broad term that encompasses many different facets and underlying principles. The definition used in class by McGowan et. al (2017) was a helpful starting point. They described social innovation as:

“a new program, policy, procedure, product, process and/ or design that seeks to address a social problem and to ultimately shift resources and authority flows, social routines and cultural values of the social system that created the problem in the first place… Unlike many of the term’s (historical (and even contemporary) uses, here “social” is not merely a qualifier of a novel invention (differentiating it from the technological or the material), but a descriptor of process and of ultimate goal: to transform social institutions at all scales (micro to macro)”

The complexity of this statement alone needs unpacking but it also allows for further exploration in the diversity of social innovation. As the definition describes, social innovation can be new but that is not the only qualifier. It speaks to process and outcome and transformation at all scales. This leaves ample room for different approaches, processes and perspectives. Throughout this reflection paper I will explore this complexity and draw on the analogy of the space in between as the site where some of the dynamic tensions surface for social innovation as well as how I’ve begun to bridge theory into my emerging practice.

Understanding social innovation:

As a starting point for understanding and working towards social change, many have argued that there is a need to dig below the surface to understand the social issues that social innovation is seeking to address. As social innovation has evolved, there have been many strategies or practices that address the symptoms of an issue and rather than the underlying causes. In my current field, sport is often used as a tool to address social issues, to enhance social outcomes in areas such as health and education or to help build stronger communities. This area has been termed ‘sport for development’ and while this practice has many benefits for individuals, sometimes the positive social outcomes are considered an inherent part of participating in sport or that sport alone can address some of these social needs. Without the process of digging below the surface and understanding some of the root causes for a social issue, sport for development programs, as an example, risk only addressing symptoms.

The first area that is helpful in unpacking root social causes is the concept of neoliberalism and how it has become recognized as a dominant, institutionalized paradigm. Neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s and brought with it ideals of competitiveness, individualism and free markets (Peck and Tickell, 2002). This shift has arguably led to moves away from the ideals around social solidarity, which have had impacts on how policy is made and how citizens are consulted and engaged, as well as growing economic disparity. As we discussed in class, it isn’t just seen in our political systems but rather as a paradigm with that continues to contribute to growing disparities in wealth, changes in community structures and the way our government is run (Peck and Tickell, 2002). In class, we discussed whether social innovation is a response to neoliberalism. In many cases, it is very easy to argue that it is, however what seems more useful is to understand the philosophy underneath neoliberalism and how this has impacted the construction of our social structures both from a historical perspective as well as in current contexts.

The second area that is helpful in digging below the surface is social justice. Having worked in sport with a focus on advancing access and inclusion for the last 5 years, I had never had a holistic view on social justice. Understanding the different approaches and politics (redistribution, recognition, representation) described by Fraser in week 4 allowed me to have a deeper level of analysis on how some of our systems and social structures relate to issues of equity, access and inclusion. Social justice is presented in two concepts: redistribution refers to inequities in wealth and the disparities in our economic system while recognition considers the relationship between individuals and groups in society. Fraser argues that social justice requires both ‘politics’ of redistribution and recognition and advocates for an approach that doesn’t separate the two. From my perspective, this becomes the space in between and a launching point from which to understand how issues surrounding disparities in our economic system are very closely linked to how different groups in society are more adversely affected by this (and vice versa). How you bring about social justice perspectives depends on the context and the angle you are viewing the issue from as well as the change you are seeking.

As I apply a social justice perspective to my practice in social innovation, Struther’s article comparing social innovation and social justice allowed me to recognize the strength in approaches taken from the spaces in between. Social innovation and social justice are complimentary to each other and as I begin my practice, understanding both and how and when to apply each approach and perspective has the potential to open new space. In my current practices, my work in diversity and inclusion stems from a social justice approach in recognition, whereby I’m working to influence a system that changes some of the cultural beliefs associated with disability (through an intersectional lens). However, a social innovation perspective could be applied as I design and think about different tactics whether it be through communities of practice, the use of technology or storytelling.

My perspectives on intersectionality have also grown throughout the semester. As I began to understand social justice issues and interconnectedness between redistribution and recognition, intersectionality also emerged as an important role in my practice. Intersectionality refers to a holistic view of the different social systems and layers of oppression that apply to an individual or group. As Withers describes it, intersectionality is “a multi-lane highway with numerous roads meeting and crossing” (p.100). In my reading reflection in week 6, I questioned whether the term intersectionality had lost its relevancy in social innovation, due to its overuse. However, I still believe that it is an important part of the process and this type of analysis requires us to think about the different systems of oppression and resulting barriers that might be present for an individual or group. It is a key component in the design of any social innovation. However, his comments at the close of his paper are also well taken in that an intersectional approach should focus on revaluing people, looking at what access means for everyone and creating accessible spaces and communities that serve everyone. This prefigurative approach will influence how I practice social innovation within my current filed of disability sport. Social movements and social organizations have historically tended to separate which has in some cases, as noted by bell hooks (2015), resulted in further marginalization. While my current practices in social innovation focus on (dis)ability, my perspectives have broadened view inclusion from perspectives that consider how individuals are impacted by different systems and may identify differently.

Social innovation processes:

There are two key processes that have been influential in shaping my views on social innovation practices. The first process stems from Gorz‘s(1968) writings on the balance between revolution and reform. From my perspective, the space in between became a key attribute for how these theories might be taken into practice. Revolution and reform have been conceptualized as dichotomous (by Luxembourg). Revolution is the transformation of the existing social order, while reform focuses on improvements to conditions within the existing social order. However, Gorz argues is that a different approach is possible: non-reformist reforms. Non-reformist reforms are strategies that slowly build and mobilize action but are linked to the broader vision for social transformation. The practice becomes a dynamic process and if I draw from some of the literature on social transformation, a complex dance that is prefigurative in nature.

The second key process that has been influential is the notion of prefiguration. How prefiguration is practiced becomes a dance and about the balance of inside and outside practices depending on any given situation. Whether prefiguration is present in relationships with the state or other actors, I understand it as an effort to bring desired futures actively into being in the present (Siltanen et al, 2014). It promotes valuing the quality of everyday experience, and the processes of achieving change, as central to the doing of politics. Prefiguration also has cross over and compliment to power relationships – how we understand expressions of power such as the language and discourses being presented. By understanding who has authority, who is on the inside and who is on the outside of decision making and policy making, building prefigurative relationships with the state or other actors becomes more feasible and reliable and can be applied across different levels. Being able to work across these dimensions and creating space for the ‘complex dance’ might open previously closed spaces. These comments are helping to shape not only how I, as individual, may hold relationships and actions within the state, but also how and when an organization chooses to strategically engage with the state.

Tactics of social innovation:  

The final area I will briefly explore is the tactics deployed in social innovation. I have a much deeper appreciation for the fact that there is no one way; the tactics you use depends on the social context as well as the problem you are looking to address. The external factors (the broader sociopolitical environment) and the internal factors (resources available within the organization or movement) also play a role in how and when tactics are deployed. It is also shaped by history and geography and will change and shape over time. With the emergence of technology, it has become a growing tactic in social innovations which would have not been considered decades ago.

Taylor and Van Dyke (2004) argue that tactics need to be intentionally planned and organized, have a collective identity and have contestation. My toolkit is growing in terms of the knowledge and resources I can access to continue to build upon and bring to my current work and organization. I also have a deeper appreciation for the fact that even the slightest shifts in the socio-political environment can shift the tactics that are used in any given situation.


As I’ve argued above, the complexity of social innovation requires a holistic perspective from which to look at a problem and the context around it. The approaches and processes applied cannot operate in a silo and this will change overtime as the internal and external environments shift. Coming into the class, I had a slight notion of some of the unintended consequences of how indoctrination of theories, concepts or approaches assigned in various contexts can cause a social movement, change process or innovation to stall. However, I have more comfort in operating in the spaces in between that I highlighted above. In addition, what has emerged now is a practice of thought that will enable me to have a critical view and deeper analysis of the various contexts that I operate in.

I continue to grapple with and have larger questions around sustainable systemic change and whether true transformation needs to focus on changing beliefs and culture (or hearts and minds). Drawing from our readings, Tayler and Van Dyke have argued that there is more research to be done in looking at tactical repertoires that result in changes in belief systems, identities, and cultural practices rather than changes in political and policy outcomes. Much of the current literature on social movements have looked at changes the political and policy outcomes. However, they believe that shifts in belief systems and cultural practices might be the most powerful consequence of public performances in social movements. As was noted by Cajabaa-Santana, social innovation can be both agentic and structuralist; it considers changes in the relationships or the way social agents act but also the changes in the social systems in which they operate. Although this perspective in social innovation may be helpful as I continue to consider these larger questions, shifting belief systems and cultural practices is a complex process.

Furthermore, work led by the McConnell foundation and led by Riddell and Moore looked at how organizations scale (up, deep or out). Their perspectives are quite aligned with Tayler and Van Dyke wherein they believe large scale change involves changes to rules, resource flows, cultural beliefs and relationships in a social system at multiple spatial or institutional scales. They also believe lasting or durable change is achieved when people’s hearts and minds, their values and cultural practices, and the quality of relationships have transformed. However, as they note, from an organizational perspective, this work is challenging and taxing on organizations working in this space. My previous work in social innovation had not considered the role that relationships and individuals (agentic perspectives) play in social innovation. However, with these new perspectives, the introduction of different processes (whether it is through meeting structures or how we relate to others) is becoming an important aspect of my social innovation practice.

As I bridge the perspectives from social movements and organizational development, it still creates tension for me to consider how organizations or social movements work to shift cultures and belief systems in practice and how they draw on different strategies to influence change. I also have tensions around how influential organizations can be in the space of influencing cultural practices and values compared to a broader social movement protest and what the tactics might look like for each.

While I still have questions and tensions, the perspectives and reflections on how I understand social innovation, the processes of social innovation and the tactics that lead towards social transformation, have provided a strong foundational start. My practices moving forward will consider how I individually as well as the organizations I work for can work prefiguratively to advance access and inclusion, which requires a critical look inward first and foremost. As I continue to work in this space, paying attention to the current belief structures (mental models) is a first place to start when identifying how I might start to address some of my larger questions around larger systemic change. With these perspectives, questions and depth in theory to draw on, the space in between has is becoming smaller for my practice in social innovation.

About the author

Jenn Bruce is pursuing a Graduate Diploma in Social Organization Development with the School of Social Innovation. She is the Senior Coordinator of the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Pathways department where she leads key portfolios such as sport granting and provincial development work. Jenn previously worked in parasport at the provincial level.



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Riddell, Darcy and Moore, Michele-Lee (2015). “Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep: Advancing Systemic Social Innovation and the Learning Processes to Support it”, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

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Withers, A.J. Chapter 6: Looking Back but Moving Forward. Disability Politics and Theory. Pp. 98-119.