SI Series #15: Urban Innovation in Climate Change

Urban centres are the greatest contributors to climate change. Worldwide, cities account for 78% of carbon emissions from human activities (Burch, Schroeder, Rayner & Wilson, 2013; Stern, 2007) and as the increase in population of people living in cities in developing counties is estimated to rise 13% from 2005 to 2030 (Stern, 2007), the effect will increase. In urban centres temperatures could rise greater than 4˚C by 2025 compared to pre-industrial levels, and in peak season, temperatures could be even as high as 6˚C to 8˚C (IPCC, 2014). The number of hot days could increase the urban heat island effect, which is an increase of temperature in cities compared to surrounding regions due to concentration of built structures, smog and other human activity. Climate change thus poses risks for humans in cities (and elsewhere). Increasing temperatures impose health risks, flooding can damage property and infrastructure, drought and water scarcity can increase water shortages and related diseases, and food security may be compromised (IPCC, 2014). Every sector of human life may be effected.

Mark Unrau

(Copyright Mark Unrau)

Indeed, climate change is a problem that cannot be neatly bound within one sector; all social systems have their impacts and will be impacted. Organisation of social structures in a large metropolitan area, like waste management for example, determine which standards are to be followed, which in turn influences how emissions from waste impact climate change. Decisions in urban centres are compartmentalized despite having a rather singular effect (GHG emissions). Thus, as Burch et al. points out, cities are “thus a multidimensional—multisector, multiactor, and multilevel—phenomenon” (2013, p. 824), which are unified by the complex social problem that all cities face.

As the UN report on Climate Change and Urbanization suggests (Satterthwaite, 2008), there needs to be development and adaptation in urban centres, in conjunction. As cities develop, development goals need to include climate change mitigation strategies, via sustainable and whole systems thinking. When this occurs, local governments will be more apt to be adaptive to the continuing implications of climate change, before the impacts create imposing repercussions. National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and community-based adaptation creates initial starting points for policy and action oriented programming. However, just these two approaches “leaves out the key role of local government (although some community-based adaptation has involved local governments). There need to be local LAPAs and city CAPAs to underpin and drive innovations in NAPAs” (Satterhwaite, 2008, p. 17).

Thus, local governments in concert with community, provincial and federal efforts can create spaces for a diversity of social innovations that can be then enacted by local governments and non-profit organisations. The adaptive capacity of urban centres needs to happen as a concert effort, i.e., an effort of all actors in the system, with a focus on social innovations of development strategies. This may mean that all sectors need to reconsider the relationship that social structures have with the cityscape. In other words: how can we individually and collectively grow our cities adaptively, considering climate change?

– Mike Unrau


Burch, S.; Schroeder, H.; Rayner, S. & Wilson, J. (2013). Novel multisector networks and entrepreneurship: The role of small business in the multilevel governance of climate change. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 31, 822-840.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report, summary for policymakers. Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from

Satterthwaite, D. & the United Nations Expert Group Meeting On Population Distribution, Urbanization, Internal Migration and Development (2008). Climate change and urbanization: Effects and implications for urban governance. United Nations Secretariat, New York, United States. Retrieved from

Stern, N. H., & Great Britain. (2007). The economics of climate change: The Stern review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

SI Series #14: The Transition Example

Previously, in blog # 12 (May 8), we gave an introductory post about the Transition initiative. I’d like here, to apply it to the five elements of what makes up social innovation: novelty, implementation, need, effectiveness, and enhancement (Caulier-Grice, Davies, Patrick & Norman, 2012). In the effectiveness section, I’ll include some data and statistics of the initiative’s success.

Transition is a good example of a social innovation that addresses the causes of climate change in multiple ways. Its novelty is not in the new practices it espouses, such as local organic food production (like backyard farming), resource skill development (like canning, home brewing or knitting, i.e., the ‘great reskilling’ (Hopkins, 2010)), or local economic practices (like complementary currencies or social enterprise), but rather the city-wide collective action of all efforts towards reducing oil dependency and the causes of climate change. In this way, it affects complex social systems through the interfaces between multiple different sub-problems rather than only by the sub-problems individually. Transition’s implementation is broad and durable in the sense that its concepts are accessible, practical and interweave connections between the pragmatic projects environmentally conscious people are already implementing in communities around the world. Ideally, the initiative blends communal grassroots action with local governance, with civic governments taking on the principles of the initiative as actions towards change. The broadness of the initiative, as well as its capacity to get society to act (enhancement) is evident in the sheer number of initiatives that are currently running across the planet (initiatives have been running for an average of about 4 years (Feola & Nunes, 2014), and as of November 2014, there were 1196 initiatives across 39 countries (WEB transition network) with approximately 226,000 members (Feola & Nunes, 2014). The number of people impacted by members’ work is a multiple of this, but is unreported).[1] A growing number of people are aware of the need to alter the cause of climate change, which is one main goal of this social innovation, as is evident of the thousands of organisations and initiatives dedicated to environmental education (the worldwide database indicates 20,548 registered with them, in countries across the world),[2] and as evident in the scientific consensus on global climate change (an analysis indicates “that 97-98% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field supported the scientific consensus on global warming as outline by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (Njoroge, 2011, p. 32)). In terms of Transition’s effectiveness, Feola & Nunes (2014) have reported of the Transition projects surveyed (276), that 75.7% are either very successful or fairly successful, compared to 24.3% of those that are not very successful or not successful at all, based on four factors: human (volunteerism and involvement), organisation (ability to achieve goals), resources (funding) and external (outside elements determining success, such as support from local governments). Another report (Ward, Porter & Popham, 2011) suggests that in a study of 468 Transition households that did a survey project to reduce their energy consumption, each household saved 1.3 tonnes of CO2 per year, and only used 14% of the average household’s usage of kWh per year, decreasing costs dramatically.

Thus, the Transition initiative, as a city-wide initiative with a goal of affecting climate change, demonstrates itself as a strong candidate for a social innovation example.


– 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.

Feola, G. & Nunes, R. (2014). Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change, 24, 232-250.

Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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


Njoroge, R. (2011). Examining why people accept (or reject) the scientific consensus on global warming: The role of demographics, ideology, and cultural cognition (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from


Scott-Cato, M. & Hillier, J. (2010). How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns. Environmental Politics, 19(6), 869-887. DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2010.518677

Ward, F.; Porter, A. & Popham, M. (2011, September 27). Transition Streets: Final project report, September 2011. Prepared for Transition Town Totnes. Retrieved from



[1] The number of initiatives and countries come from the website and it is unclear of the reliability of the numbers or what counts as an ‘initiative;’ ie, were the initiatives formalized or ad hoc (Feola & Nunes (2014) suggest 64% of transition initiatives were constituted in a legal form, based on a sampling of 276 initiatives). The only peer-reviewed article indicating numbers is older (Scott-Cato & Hillier, 2010), and thus, these are the most recent numbers I could find. The number of members comes from Feola & Nunes (2014) suggesting a mean 189 members per initiative of 276 sampled; the number 226,000 comes from multiplying the mean number by the number of initiatives as a working estimate.

[2] Hawken (2007) in his book estimates up to 10 million non-profits dedicated to social justice and environmental organisations across 243 countries, and writes of a website database listing active known organisations at; however, this site has been closed since 2014. Other web reports indicate Hawken’s site had about 500,000 organisations listed, and the site listed here,, is a recent database that may not be fully-up-to-date or well-known enough to create an accurate estimate, and thus, is used as a working example.

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