SI Series 8: Personal Social Innovation – From the micro to the macro.

Social innovation has features of a spectrum from the micro to macro, moving from the individual to systemic (see Fig. 1). Tjornbo and Westley suggest it is a “whole systems and multi-scale approach that looks at the influence of micro-, meso-, and macrolevel drivers of transformation” (2012, p. 167 ). All social interactions are influenced by personal intra-actions, or the internal activity that individual beliefs and habitualized reactions create. The social composition of any society is defined by, and defines, an individual composition of values, reactivity, knowledge, belief and esteem. As such, social innovation as a systemic notion must range the spectrum from micro to macro, and include personal innovation, interpersonal innovation, organisational innovation and inter-organisational innovation.

graphic - personal to system innovation

Figure 1. Spectrum of micro to macro elements of social innovation. Based on Westley & Antadze’s “Systemic View of Innovation” (2010).

We as individuals must personally look to innovate within ourselves, our routines, beliefs and internal systems of meaning-making to reconsider our relationship to others and the natural environment. In doing so, we begin to activate the spectrum of social innovation; we move reciprocally between the internal to the external (personal to the social). As we make change within ourselves we make change with our communities around us; we instigate initiatives, create collaboratively, start social or eco-enterprises or design policies and support politics that seek to re-evaluate the social-environmental system. We engage internal and external development.

An example of this is the story of the Barefoot College (Westley, 2013; Savka, 2012). Being inspired by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy and a small group of concerned individuals were personally impacted from working in the poorest regions in India. With a vision to work with the poor to establish a ‘barefoot’ school, Roy worked with villages who began to teach themselves the necessary tools to clean and supply water to their communities and build their own homes. From there weather and environmental changes inspired them to take care of resources, build and produce solar panels, and preserve water usage. This was all done through the empowerment of the poorest of the poor: village women. The ‘college’ radically challenged the dominant Indian cultural norms of top-down education, development and innovation, and worked ground-up, implementing the personal changes that individuals felt in the social networks of communities to address systemic needs, such as innovations to impact their communities and the environment. Students weren’t passive recipients of the project, they had to overcome their own personal norms, biases and beliefs to participate fully, which they did. It was an incredible hurdle, but the benefits were immense.

So, when we say social innovation we’re not just talking about large “out-there” policy or political decisions to impact systems (although of course it includes this). It includes a multi-tiered level of innovation that is interlinked and interdependent. It includes external transformation as well as an internal one.

– Mike Unrau


Savka, N. & Slezic, L. (2012). Make light: The barefoot college. Sierra, 97(5), 32-57.

Tjornbo, O. & Westley, F. (2012). Game changers: The Big Green Challenge and the role of challenge grants in social innovation. Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, 3(2), 166-183. DOI: 10.1080/19420676.2012.726007

Westley, F. (2013). Social innovation and resilience: How one enhances the other. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 11(3), 6-8. Retrieved from

Westley, F. & Antadze, N. (2010). Making a difference: Strategies for scaling social innovation for greater impact. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 15(2), article 2. Retrieved from

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