September 2008

"The other driver of innovation is awareness of a gap between what there is and what there ought to be, between what people need and what they are offered by governments, private firms and NGOs--a gap which is constantly widened by the emergence of new technologies and new scientific knowledge."

Geoff Mulgan, et al

Learning and social innovation are linked. Adaptive co-management offers strategies that empower learners to take responsibility, collaborate and create. To improve our understanding of how social innovation is nurtured, we examine three projects that used the adaptive co-management approach to support learners working in autonomous groups to create social goods and fill perceived gaps. The student projects led to the following social innovations: i) an organic food market serving students; ii) an open source approach to design in a field where proprietary approaches are more common; and iii) a model that extends the impact of what first year university students learn well beyond the classroom.

Adaptive Co-Management

Social innovation embraces change as opportunity and proceeds by reflexive and creative processes. It also benefits from social and cultural diversity. If we strive for equitable, just and ecologically viable visions of our collective future, social innovation as a paradigm offers real hope. Our biggest challenge is to figure out how to support and make it happen.

Adaptive co-management is a paradigm of governance, learning and management that builds upon the principles of adaptive management. The Resiliance Alliance explains that the "Novelty of adaptive co-management comes from combining the iterative learning dimension of adaptive management and the linkage dimension of collaborative management in which rights and responsibilities are jointly shared. Complementarities among concepts of collaboration and adaptive management encourage an approach to governance that encompasses complexity and cross-scale linkages, and the process of dynamic learning. Adaptive co-management thus offers considerable appeal in light of the complex systems view. In this regard, adaptive co-management has been described as an emergent and self-organizing process facilitated by rules and incentives of higher levels, with the potential to foster more robust social-ecological systems." Adaptive co-management assumes that change is an inherent property of systems, whether the system being considered is social, cultural, ecological or a hybrid.

When referring to cross-scale linkages, scale is used in the sense provided by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in Lifecycle of Emergence: Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale: "As networks grow and transform into active, working communities of practice, we discover how Life truly changes, which is through emergence. When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn't that they were hidden; they simply don't exist until the system emerges."

In the context of social innovation, the adaptive co-manager role is about midwifery. The adaptive co-manager guides, supports, and encourages the process of emergence into the world of something new, whether it is an idea, a management arrangement, a decision or any other entity. The adaptive co-manager role enables the process of the actors engaged in engendering. The role may involve undertaking a wide range of activities from the relatively passive to the clearly active. Like a practicing midwife, the adaptive co-manager role provides a safe environment for innovation to emerge that might not survive unaided. However, this role does not pre-determine the content or the nature of that emergent form.

Frequently, the existing regulatory and administrative approaches to solving conflicts involves parties with diverse interests, rights, powers, concerns and agendas. The mechanisms available are often inadequate and inappropriate for these cross-scale situations. In order to bridge social and cultural divides, flexible, negotiated, multi-party strategies are needed. Adaptive co-management can create innovative outcomes under changing conditions because it spans an organisational continuum running from highly formal, rule-rich, goal-oriented governing behaviours to informal, process-focused, visioning creating behaviours. Needs for social innovation speak loudly where change is viewed as both inevitable and desirable.

Farmers' Market

Post-secondary students often aspire to make a difference that transcends the classroom, touching and changing our world. Adaptive co-management is used to understand links between learning and social innovation in the following three student projects.

In the first project, a team of students formed around a broad set of interests in food in response to a class group assignment. Group consensus as to topic and active participation by all in the team was required. Within two months, the students had developed and publically presented a strategy for creating a Carleton Farmers' Market in order to enhance student access to organic foods. This included forming a student club, setting up an email list, inviting producers to participate, offering choices to students, and negotiating with university administrators to meet their goals while respecting existing university contracts and public health regulations. The group became autonomous, operated as a formal Carleton student association club, and continued to develop their ideas through the following winter and summer.

This example illustrates one of the driving forces of social innovation: students identified un-met and emerging needs and then sought new arrangements to address them. They created a new market and exploited new opportunities in the process. Potential for continuing social entrepreneurship appears to be high.

The Carleton Farmers' Market can be thought of as a social innovation that has benefited from application of strategies of adaptive co-management in the classroom, including enhanced autonomy, cross-scale interaction, shared responsibility, inclusion of diverse interests and a flexible learning orientation. Collateral benefits are possible. In this instance, the pleasure of eating organic food had social justice as a collateral benefit.

Open Source Architectural Design

Edward G. Solodukhin positions his architecture project in the world of open source: "The project is an exploration carried out to challenge my architectural master's thesis, which deals with the open source phenomenon and ways in which it could inform today's architectural practice. You are invited to partake in this investigation and explore new ways of exchanging ideas, designing, discussing, building, and transforming the architectural zeitgeist altogether."

This is a student-defined project that applies the open source approach to the field of architectural design. As both a process and product of open source development, this project lends support to an argument for viewing open source conceptually and concretely as a source of social innovation in learning environments. It illustrates that open source is a powerful force capable of creating social innovation in fields other than the software development domain.

Breaking the Ice Symposium

In the third example, first year university students organized the Breaking the Ice Symposium held February 29, 2007 as a class assignment. This Symposium involved 29 students, one teaching assistant, one instructor, one co-instructor, and the Office of the Assistant Dean for First Year. Participants agreed to three themes (International Polar Year, Biodiversity, and Sustainability), identified tasks, and developed working groups around all aspects of the Symposium. The Office of the Assistant Dean provided some staff support, and it was agreed that the undergraduate teaching assistant would be the link between the student groups and the staff support. The instructor adopted a mentoring and facilitative role, offering suggestions when asked, but only intervening if specifically requested to do so. This stance created a space for learning analogous to the space created by the open source architecture wiki: learners were free to contribute, to share resources and to find needed resources.

Freedom came with responsibility to contribute to the Symposium and ultimately to the process of evaluation as a whole. Each student prepared a presentation and sub-groups organised donations of organic food and drink, exhibits, logistics, donations and speakers. During the process building to the Symposium, the students struggled, debated, engaged and solved problems. Collectively they mentored each other and learned about each other's concerns. They became organisers, hosts, managers, and leaders. Most importantly, they continued to pursue learning that began in class well beyond the boundaries of the campus.

In January 2008, former members of the class participated in a panel at the Women's Health Matters Forum in Toronto. For most, it was the second public speaking engagement of their academic careers. Since then, one of the presenters has become a speaker on a northern tourism voyage. A second participant who raised the issue of sovereignty and the environmental impacts of shipping has been employed as a result and sees future opportunities here. These individuals are experiencing a third iteration of their ideas.

Lessons Learned

Lessons learned about creating conditions supportive of successful social innovation drawn from these experiences include: i) engaging the learners in identifying the gaps that matter to them as well as the responses; ii) providing unstructured opportunities, few rules and maximum freedom for the learners and their processes; iii) demonstrating active appreciation for diversity and initiative; and iv) structuring format and maintaining clear and inclusive communication strategies.

If we wish to support social innovation in a learning context, we must be prepared to enable learning as a social activity. This means we must structure learning as a social process, allow time in class for social learning processes, encourage open ended questions and support frustration and failure.

Learners own the learning processes that lead to social innovation. They need to define problems as well as develop solutions. As an instructor, respect difference, promote tolerance, keep an open mind, and stay out of the way of social innovation as much as possible. After all, social innovation is about outcomes that are different from our past. As Einstein said: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."


When a gap like that described in the introductory quote by Mulgan et al. is identified, choice is possible. If change is the goal, an important strategy is to relinquish authoritarian control and adopt a collaborative alternative. For instructors in learning environments, this may mean a shift from process governor to co-creator, enabler, or midwife. Narrow outcome based approaches can be broadened to accommodate commitment to processes of developmental change. Investments can be made in learning and self-directed learners. Trust is nurtured. Power and responsibility are shared.

For product developers, adaptive co-management may mean a shift from traditional supplier-driven development models to co-creation with customers, intermediaries, complementors and suppliers. Product developers enable change, but do not control it. Strong trust relationships are built, power is shared and responsibility for suitable outcomes is shared.

Whether adaptive co-management occurs in classrooms, small communities, or product development organizations, the basic elements are the same: willingness to share power and responsibility, take risks, and build strong trust relationships. Trust is not uninformed, naive or blind. Trust recognises that all stakeholders are co-creators of their own collective future. The way ahead can be charted with awareness and intention informed by broader considerations, or it can be left to chance.

The establishment of an organic food market serving students, the use of an open source architectural design process and a model for first-year student learning that conveys both the learners and their knowledge well beyond the classroom are interesting social innovations that resulted from adaptive co-management strategies. All projects met some of the key adaptive co-management criteria. For example, participants in the Carleton Farmers' Market defined the issues and shared responsibility for decisions and actions. The social innovation resulted from key factors: a willingness to work for change, the collaboration of a large and diverse group of students, and a multi-modal approach to generating and sharing knowledge.

The architecture project is an example of social innovation across scales. First, in the larger context, it is an initiative to collaboratively re-design an alternative to the White House. Second, at the level of the individual, it is a graduate project by Edward Solodukhin who embraced this different form of architecture represented in the larger context, and acted autonomously.His reflexive and creative response is to leverage the opportunity for public design by adopting open source as a model for his architectural design project.

Elements of social innovation are also evident in the Breaking the Ice Symposium. The learners were given minimal rules, allowing participants to define their contributions. Autonomy dominated the power balance as the participants took ownership. Having the freedom to call on their personal networks empowered them as individuals and diversified the sources of knowledge available.

The three projects share some key elements that contribute to social innovation. All three are learner-defined, identify unmet needs and are constrained by minimal rules. All assume that change is both possible and desirable. All are inclusive of diversity. In the case of the market and the symposium projects, the diversity of the founding groups themselves ensures debate. In the architecture design project, open source positions it as a receptor open to many diverse interactions. All three projects represent open systems contingent upon engagement with a wider world for success. In all three, unique configurations of people, ideas, resources and outcomes exist. The processes involved have the potential for multiple iterations and for valuable contributions at more than one scale.

There are also key differences. The participants in the farmers' market project were fourth year university students, while the symposium participants were in first year and thus less familiar with the resources and opportunities offered by the university. Consensus may be more difficult to achieve in the market and symposium examples while solitary individuals may have fewer resources to draw upon as in the open source architecture example. Participants in the market and symposium examples were drawn mainly from environmental studies, while the architecture project owed its inspiration in part to computer science.


Adaptive co-management is a paradigm for negotiated, multi-party management that can be used to inspire the learning that leads to social innovation. It can enable innovative learning outcomes in the face of changing conditions and support a range of learning activities. The operating premise embedded in the design of learning activities for social innovation is that change is possible and can be nurtured in a learning environment.

From the perspective of instructors interested in applying adaptive co-management to learning, there is evidence that the application of minimal rules coupled with shared responsibility for decision-making and emphasis on collaborative learning have the potential to nurture social innovation in the form of entrepreneurship in a world increasingly affected by open source assets and processes.

By learning to operate across a range of scales and to share knowledge and responsibility, participants in an adaptive co-management framework collaborate to create a commons for learning that in turn has the potential to create spinoffs. Each participant learns to deal with uncertainty and has the opportunity to acquire the capacity to mentor, to lead, and perhaps, to midwife the process of social innovation. Developing adaptive co-management capability is timely as a new world is waiting to be born.

Recommended Resources

Adaptive Co-Management: Collaboration, Learning, and Multi-Level Governance

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Resilience for Sustainable Development: Building Adaptive Capacity in a World of Transformations

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