Grassroots innovation

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In the sustainable transitions research field a growing number of studies have been focussing on the role of civil society as an important site for the emergence and diffusion of sociopolitical,institutional, socioeconomic, technological and socio-ecological innovations. The term ‘grassroots innovations’ refers to “networks of activists and organisations generating novel bottom-up solutions for sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved. In contrast to mainstream business greening, grassroots initiatives operate in civil society arenas and involve committed activists experimenting with social innovations as well as using greener technologies." (p.587)[1].

Grassroots innovation studies are intrinsically linked to the conceptual frameworks developed by the sustainable transitions research field. The Multi-level Perspective [2]- one of the most relevant contributes for sustainable transitions studies -, identifies three analytical levels for understanding the dynamics of transitions, namely: the socio-technical regimes (which are 'locked in' and relatively stable dominant system states), the exogenous socio-technical landscape (external contextual factors), and niches (the locus for radical innovations). [3]. Transitions are long-term processes of radical change, leading to regimes shifts that "occur through the multidimensional alignments of processes within and between these three levels."(p.8)[4]. Grassroots innovations are ‘niches’ – which can be defined as "protected space where suboptimally performing experiments can develop away from regime selection pressures."(p. 383) [5]. Yet, compared to mainstream market innovation, grassroots innovations (which may be social, technical or ecological), face different challenges for their effective diffusion, replication and upscaling processes.

Most grassroots innovations struggle to emerge and persist, according to Seyfang and Haxeltine (2012), these initiatives face "issues around securing funding, which in turn affects possibilities for institutionalisation and consolidating learning, managing organisational change, making effective links and networks with other societal actors, and diffusing oppositional ideas into wider society." (p.384) [5].Recent research has focussed particularly in the study of community or complementary currencies and community energy initiatives to explore how niche development theories provide a conceptual framework to understand the processes through which these innovations emerge, diffuse and can be upscaled or replicable [6].

Grassroots innovations often replicate through global networks (e.g. the case of the Transition Towns movement), with some local initiatives being well established, while others struggle to persist. Some authors have referred to a ‘grassroots globalisation'[7] as local initiatives spread and scale out globally. Research on European case studies has shown, Grassroots innovation networks are caracterized by a great diversity (e.g. in the number of beneficiaries, in the activities and initiatives developed, in the domain of their action, and in the capacity to persist and replicate). Such diversity may be the greatest source of resilience for these innovations. The term 'grassroots globalisations' points to this collective resilience and global fabric of locally rooted, yet globally connected initiatives.


  1. Seyfang, G., Smith, A., 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environ. Polit. 16, 584–603. . doi:10.1080/09644010701419121
  2. Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8), 1257-1274.
  3. Geels, F.W., 2011. The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 1, 24–40. doi:10.1016/j.eist.2011.02.002
  4. Geels, F. "The role of cities in technological transitions: analytical clarifications and historical examples"IN: Bulkeley, H., Broto, V. C., Hodson, M., & Marvin, S. (Eds.). (2011). Cities and low carbon transitions. Routledge.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Seyfang, G., Haxeltine, A., 2012. Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions. Environ. Plan. C Gov. Policy 30, 381–400 . doi:10.1068/c10222
  6. Seyfang, G., Longhurst, N., 2013. Desperately seeking niches: Grassroots innovations and niche development in the community currency field. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 881–891. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.02.007
  7. Van de Grift, E., Vervoort, J., Cuppen, E., 2017. Transition Initiatives as Light Intentional Communities: Uncovering Liminality and Friction. Sustainability 9, 448. doi:10.3390/su9030448