SI Series 13: The Sixth Key Element of Social Innovation

Previously, in blog SI Series 11 (April 24’16), we looked at the five elements of what makes up social innovation: novelty, implementation, need, effectiveness, and enhancement, as described by The Young Foundation (Caulier-Grice, Davies, Patrick & Norman, 2012).

Another key element of social innovation, that The Young Foundation suggests is part of enhancement, but I’d like to separate to give it individualized focus, is resilience. Resilience is the ability of social innovation to adapt to the stressors and dynamic shifts in order to sustain or increase function, structure and identity (Hopkins, 2010, p. 54). Moore & Westley point out three main characteristics: “the capacity of the system to experience a disturbance or change and still retain its basic function, structure, and identity; the ability to self-organize; and the ability to increase its capacity to learn and adapt” (2011, p. 2). Resilience theory was initially derived for the dynamics of ecological systems; however, more recently has been applied to the complexities of human systems (Moore & Westley, 2011). Building resilience depends on increasing different parts of the innovation, in new and unique combinations, with allowance for the separate parts to associate with each other through cross-domain interaction, and a high emphasis on experimentation (Westley, 2013). It also emphasises a whole systems approach, is deeply interdisciplinary, and links global intellectual communities that offer unique pragmatic examples of local successes that have cross-contextual application. Resilience is about the adaptation within the cyclic nature of the system. It focuses on the “balance between continuity and change, a continuous (or infinite) cycle of release, reorganization, growth, and consolidation that characterizes all resilient living systems” (Westley, 2013, p. 6).

An example: a small and cute town with light transient tourism on the coast of British Columbia thrives under its main forestry industry dependant on a single company in the heart of town. A shift in environmental conditions, perhaps caused by climate change, force the company to shut down its downtown plant. The community, reeling in the loss of economic and social impacts, is now left with significant unemployment and a massive empty building that dominates the town’s central horizon. A serious loss of system resilience lies in the cycle of change getting stuck in one place; i.e., the town in its loss comes to a productive and social halt. However, a short while after the loss, a group of concerned citizens comes forward and starts a series of planning sessions that incorporates social innovation strategies they’ve learned from other urban examples. The town turns the empty building into a hub of social and eco-enterprises that draw on the rich regions environment and local tourism possibilities (for an illustration of this is, see Gibson Public Market, 2015).

System resilience lies “in the continuous movement through the cycle, causing the system to adapt or transform in the process” (Westley, 2013, p. 7). Ultimately, resilience is a major component of social innovation, and as new innovations are designed and implemented, should be considered for long term sustainability.

– Mike Unrau



Caulier-Grice, J.; Davies, A.; Patrick, R. & Norman, W. (The Young Foundation). (2012). Defining social innovation. Social Innovation Overview: A deliverable of the project “The theoretical, empirical and policy foundations for building social innovation in Europe,” (TEPSIE), European Commission – 7th Framework Programme, Brussels: European Commission, DG Research.

Gibsons Public Market (2015). Gibsons public market strategic business plan: May 2015. Prepared by Gibsons Community Building Society. Retrieved from

Hopkins, R. (2010). Localisation and resilience at the local level: The case of Transition Town Totnes (Devon, UK) (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from


Hopkins, R. (2015, November 2). The Transition story: Time to stop talking about climate change? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Moore, M. L. & Westley, F. (2011). Surmountable chasms: Networks and social innovation for resilient systems. Ecology and Society, 16(1): 5. Retrieved from

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


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