Belda-Miquel, Sergio; Pellicer-Sifres, Victoria (2017). 'Using the capability approach as a normative framework to address transition process led by grassroots innovation initiatives' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Grassroots social innovation is attracting increasingly attention in academic, activist and policy debate. There is a growing interest in how civil society, an often overlooked field of innovation, has the potential to contribute, or to even lead, the transition to a more sustainable and just society. Grassroots innovations can be defined as networks of activists and organisations generating novel bottom-up solutions for sustainable development, and they have been studied for their role in the development of sustainable practices across a wide range of areas, from energy and agriculture to housing.

A number of discussions and analysis on the contributions of grassroots innovation initiatives to the transformation of existing systems to more sustainable and just ones have been developed using the socio-technical transitions framework. From this perspective, there exist a dominant socio-technical configuration in a given system (for example, energy or food system), which can be called the regime. This configuration consists of a combination of values, relations, institutions, policies, knowledge and technologies. Moreover, a number of niches­ exist in a given system, spaces in which alternative, less visible practices exist, where different ideas, models, configurations and ways of doing try to survive and develop. These alternatives can eventually influence or even substitute the regime, if it is pressed or de-stabilized by external factors or processes (as climate change, demographic growth, intense social mobilization, etc.). Grassroots innovation initiatives can be considered as part of niches where, through community and citizen action, new ideas and models for the supply of goods and services – alternative socio-technical configurations – are imagined, developed and tested. These community-led initiatives challenge the regime, and may try to influence and eventually substitute it.

The use of socio-technical transitions framework has been proven to be useful to conceptualise and understand the different dimensions, the potential, limitations and strategies of grassroots innovations to achieve social change in a given regime. However, there is no normative discussion on the literature of what is the idea of sustainability in the existing regimes or in a given niche, or if niches are building or propose “better” systems than existing regimes, in terms of equality or justice. That is, existing literature on grassroots innovation essentially focuses in how systems are and may change, but does not offer a discussion on whether the changes are really desirable and for whom they are desirable. Moreover, this literature does not look at the differing and conflicting perspectives on justice and sustainability that are always in place in processes of change.

For this reason the aim of the paper is to propose, test and discuss a framework from which to explore and assess, from a normative perspective, the ideas on sustainability and social justice that lead the alternative models promoted by grassroots innovations, in contrast with the dominant models – those of existing regimes. In other words, the aim is to propose and test a framework from which to reveal, understand and assess the ideas on justice embedded in existing socio-technical configurations and in the alternative configurations build and desired by community-led innovations.

To this end, we draw in the capability approach, as it has been proven to be very robust in different domains, discussions and for different purposes, when providing a framework from which to evaluate justice in terms of freedom and human wellbeing in processes of social change. Capability approach has the potential to provide insights to build a framework to normatively understand and assess transition processes towards new models, desired and/or promoted by grassroots innovation initiatives.

In our paper, we first we build a framework that connects elements from socio-technical transition literature with elements from the capability approach. Elements of socio-technical transitions framework help to describe the different dimensions of the socio-technical configurations of existing regimes, as well as the alternative models proposed by grassroots innovations. They are combined with elements from capability approach (essentially, the concepts of capabilities, functioning and conversion factors), which can be used to define a certain evaluative space, based on the assessment of the real opportunities that people may have in an existing or desired configuration. Furthermore, discussions on capability approach provide elements for a second-order normative discussion to assess these opportunities according to certain key values, namely: sustainability, diversity, equity and participation.

Secondly, we will address two specific cases using the proposed framework, in order to apply and discuss the validity, scope, relevance, limits and potential of this framework. These are cases of two grassroots innovation initiatives operating in Spain, in niches in two different systems: an energy cooperative and a food purchasing group. These are initiatives with similar overall objectives of transformation, but they are very different in their strategies and forms, and operate in different socio-technical systems.

We use a purely qualitative research methodology. We draw on secondary information (as documents produced by the cases themselves, as websites, internal documents or public statements); on participant observation (the authors have participated in meetings and assemblies of both initiatives for at least two years); and individual interviews (9 interviews form people of the food group and 9 interviews with people of the energy cooperative). For the qualitative analysis of information, we initially drew on predefined categories derived from our analytical framework, which were refined and complemented with additional categories, dimensions and issues of interest for the discussion.

The discussions on the cases show that CA may provide interesting elements for normatively establishing an evaluative space for assessing socio-technical configurations. However, we also find some limitations and ambiguities, regarding the potential of CA for a second-order normative analysis of the elements on this evaluative space. However, more than a limitation, this opens the way for connecting socio-technical transitions and capability approach frameworks with other concepts and ideas that may help in the construction of a clear theory of justice, relevant for addressing and assessing grassroots innovations.

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