Reconfiguring democracy through socially innovative initiatives

Analysing the effects of the Great Recession in Barcelona and New York, we have seen how the global hegemony of neoliberalism unfolds in a variety of ways at local level, producing context-dependent effects and responses. The recession had enormous consequences in both cities that, along with other patterns of social, political and technological change, leave contemporary communities facing new threats and challenges. At the same time, however, new opportunities for collective action are also opening up. In this context, as we have shown throughout the book, citizens are self-organizing through socially innovative responses that are growing up from below. While some of these responses are not entirely new, the majority of them provide counter-hegemonic imaginaries and alternative solutions to dominant political views, thus opening up space for new possibilities.

In the context of increasing marketization and retrenchment of the state, these bottom-up ways circumvent the unfairness of the market and the insufficiency of state capacity. Further, as we have seen in the empirical chapters, the repeated call for new forms of democracy – for a ‘real democracy’ – and the use of democratic leadership practices means that the initiatives considered here go beyond a micro problem-solving approach. In linking practice-oriented social innovation initiatives to social change analysis, this book makes a step toward the unification of ‘old’ social change analysis with more recent studies of social innovation.

Challenging fundamental assumptions about the role of the market and the state, the socially innovative initiatives analysed here prompt the need for a redefinition of democracy in contemporary society (Flesher Fominaya 2015). In the current context, activists in some initiatives studied here, especially those operating in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods, see no alternative to the state and continue to make demands for significant state intervention to protect them from social injustices created by the market. On the other hand, other initiatives take a more instrumental view of the state, demonstrating an emancipatory model that makes a claim for increased community autonomy beyond the state and the market. The tensions between marketization, redistribution and emancipation constitute a ‘triple movement’ (Fraser 2013) that is reconfiguring democracy in the contemporary period. Socially innovative initiatives could play a significant role in that process.


Collective action and leadership practices

The societal unrest that unfolded worldwide in 2011 and the new forms of urban activism that followed it (Walliser 2013; Gualini et al. 2016) have brought democratic leadership practices to prominence as a significant characteristic of collective action. Through analysing the experiences and practices considered in this book, we have learned much about how these new forms of collective action are engaged in processes of social innovation.

The first insight to be highlighted is that, despite the fact that many of the initiatives emerged in a post-recession scenario, all of them originate from older struggles, mobilisations or social organizations. Many also merge old and new forms of activism and old and new activists; they take advantage of the knowledge gleaned from previous activities and add to them new practices and approaches that emerged during the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street movements. In this sense, the collective memory of a neighbourhood, the path-dependency of a social movement and the capacity of a community to link new and old forms of activism all become key factors for understanding how these new forms of collective action develop in a way highly influenced by context.

A second significant point is that empowerment emerges as a very important goal for most of the initiatives considered here. Putting citizens at the centre of the political action, and, in doing so, augmenting their power by releasing their human energy, represented widespread leadership work throughout the initiatives analysed. In these new forms of collective action, citizens want to actively be part of the solution, while governments are usually seen as part of the problem. At the same time, the target population of these initiatives is clearly broader than was the case in previous, self-referential social movements. Most of the initiatives studied here no longer exhibit a self-consumption approach, but rather an ambitious emancipatory approach directed toward the whole community.

The third point to be emphasised is that networking is a highly significant practice in many of these initiatives. We have observed several different forms of networking throughout our case studies. In some cases, it has taken the form of linking several organizations and individuals around a common initiative. In other cases, networking involves bridging differences between social groups (for example, longstanding residents and newcomers, activists and affected population, and middle and lower classes). In our case studies, networking was used as a strategy for scaling out, in order to engage more people, be more inclusive or to address on a broader scale the problem an initiative set out to address. However, we also saw examples of networking beyond the immediate community, with the aim of scaling up through contacts, cooperation or strategies to transfer the produced knowledge. In this context, in many of the socially innovative initiatives studied here, the Internet and social networks are being widely used as a means of improving communication, outreach and networking.

Finally, we have also seen how some initiatives are reframing discourses in a highly political way, making a claim for systemic change. At the same time, however, the majority of them are also very pragmatic in their approaches and activities. The combination of calling for systemic social change while offering pragmatic solutions (thus sometimes also combining reactive and proactive approaches) was evident in many of the initiatives we examined.


Social Innovation as a driver of social change

One aim of this book was to investigate how social innovation initiatives could become drivers of social change. Our assumption was that to become a real driver of social change, social innovation must necessarily be effective and scalable. Focusing on eight initiatives spread throughout four different neighbourhoods, we have documented how contextual neighbourhood features and agential leadership practices are useful variables for predicting the extent to which social innovation initiatives are more or less effective and scalable. The two variables exist in a highly interconnected and dialectical relationship. Leadership practices can, thus, modify the effects of the historical and geographical features of neighbourhoods (such as civic capacity). At the same time, those same neighbourhood features constrain or enable the way social innovation is carried out.

To be effective and scalable, social innovation should be carried out in a context with the necessary features to make that innovation successful. Civic capacity is one such characteristic, but not the only one. Consequently, to make social innovation a feasible alternative that might foster systemic social change, community capacity building should be engaged, especially in those communities lacking capacity. Rather than focusing on specific socially innovative initiatives, we therefore suggest that policy processes should be developed at a community level to build capacity where it is lacking. This way, social innovation could emerge and be effective and scalable in any place, rather than only in those neighbourhoods with greater existing capacity.

At the same time, unleashing human energy, bridging difference and reframing discourse have, in the course of this study, emerged as three types of democratic leadership practices that can help make social innovation effective and scalable even in those neighbourhoods with lesser capacity. Moreover, democratic leadership practices not only make social change happen, but also democratize it. Those initiatives aiming to become drivers of democratic social change should, therefore, pay attention to all three of these leadership practices.

As we have argued above, purely institutional approaches seem insufficient for facing the collective problems prominent in the post-recession context of austerity. Yet localized and purely grassroots initiatives do not seem to have either enough potency to trigger systemic social change. There is evidence that strategies for solving contemporary social problems need to be multi-scalar; supra-local structures and agents must be accounted for, because social innovation at the local scale depends on resources that are both local and extra-local, endogenous and exogenous (Oosterlynck et al. 2013). In this context, as existing studies have stressed (Eizaguirre et al. 2012), a bottom-linked perspective appears to hold promise. This approach recognises ‘the centrality of initiatives taken by those immediately concerned, but stresses the necessity of institutions that would enable, gear or sustain such initiatives through sound, regulated and lasting practices and clearer citizen rights guaranteed by a democratic state-functioning’ (Moulaert et al. 2010: 9). That is to say, a bottom-linked perspective stresses the importance of initiatives that combine both social and institutional innovation; initiatives that emerge at a community level, from below, but are linked to higher-level public institutions that enable them to be effective and scalable.

In short, a multi-scalar and comprehensive combination of these three strategies – community capacity building, the development of democratic leadership practices and bottom-linked socially innovative initiatives – seems to be required for social innovation to become a real driver of social change.


Approaches, challenges and suggestions for further research

Bringing together disruptive theories of social innovation and constructionist theories of relational leadership implies addressing significant challenges in conceiving of and implementing a new way of doing research. These challenges include considering what kinds of question should be asked and what kinds of research design are appropriate. We have addressed such issues during the course of our research and see merit in reviewing them to guide new studies interested in understanding the role of agency and structure in social innovation as a disruptive process.

The first consideration is that social innovation may be understood, and may be empirically manifest, in very different ways. It may also be associated with very different goals and approaches. These different forms and practices of social innovation ought to be illuminated, and the debates that surround these alternatives should be deepened to empirically address the challenges they pose. Research should be carried out to address questions such as: what kind of social change is desired, and through what socially innovative initiatives? What is the empowerment effect of these different initiatives? What are the values behind them? How are these initiatives transforming power relationships, if they are?

Second, relationships are a key aspect of the contemporary social context. Analysis of social change must look beyond social and political organizations, taking into account new forms of relationships and connectedness among citizens. Analysis must also be contextualized to take account of changed relations between public, private and community actors. Thus, research should focus on: a) how (new) relationships between individual and collective actors do or do not produce social change through (new) forms of collective action, institutionalization and leadership; b) how socially innovative initiatives establish (new) relationships with the state with the purpose of meeting social needs[i]; and, c) how these socially innovative initiatives interact with the market in the management of the commons.

A third consideration is that the production of social change through social innovation depends on a variety of factors. These include the nature of the actors involved in that innovation, the relationships and norms that exist among them, the objectives that motivate their activity, and how these initiatives have been geographically and historically embedded in the communities in which they take place. A new, integrative approach should, therefore, highlight those socio-ecological processes that enable or constrain social innovation and its effects. It should also combine the analysis of the contextual features that shape, constrain or enable social change with an analysis of collective and community actors that foster this social change.

Fourth, while it is true that practices of social innovation emerge and are established at the local level, social change cannot be understood only through the lens of localism. To do so would mean ignoring the multi-scalar relationships between global crisis, local effects and social responses. As such, research should explore the effectiveness of, and capacity for, the scaling up and scaling out of social innovation.

Fifth, and finally, although many socially innovative initiatives have an empowering effect, not all people have the opportunity or ability to become part of such processes. In fact, the empowerment of disadvantaged groups through social innovation may often involve the leadership of middle classes and other cultural agents. Without public intervention, therefore, there is a clear risk of leaving behind those people who do not have the opportunity to meet their social needs either through the market or through socially innovative initiatives. Accordingly, further attention must be paid to the factors that explain where and why social innovation emerges, how it is sustained, and to new forms of bottom-linked governance. The state is still needed, but new governance modes should be set up. A hierarchical mode of governance is not able to protect citizens amidst scarcity. At the same time, citizens and social organizations claim to be active protagonists in public affairs. Indeed, in the context of this new tension between protection and emancipation, social innovation becomes an important alternative providing solutions to social problems while the role of the state is being reconfigured.

[i] Public service delivery, public guardianship of civil rights, coordination and collaboration with public institutions, contestation, self-organization, etc.



Eizaguirre, S. et al., 2012. Multilevel Governance and Social Cohesion: Bringing Back Conflict in Citizenship Practices. Urban Studies, 49(9), pp.1999–2016.

Flesher Fominaya, C., 2015. Redefining the Crisis/Redefining Democracy: Mobilising for the Right to Housing in Spain’s PAH Movement. South European Society and Politics, 20(4), pp.465–485.

Fraser, N., 2013. ¿Triple movimiento? New Left Review, 81, pp.125–136.

Gualini, E., Mourato, J.M. & Allegra, M., 2016. Conflict in the City Contested Urban Spaces and Local Democracy, Berlin: Jovis.

Moulaert, F. et al., 2010. Can Neighbourhoods Save the City?, New York: Routledge.

Oosterlynck, S. et al., 2013. The butterfly and the elephant : local social innovation , the welfare state and new poverty dynamics,

Walliser, A., 2013. New urban activisms in Spain: reclaiming public space in the face of crises. Policy & Politics, 41(3), pp.329–350.