Grassroots Innovations for Sustainable Development – A DT Dialogue with Johan Schot and Adrian Smith

According to Smith and Seyfang (2007), the term ‘grassroots innovations’ describes networks of activists and organisations that generate novel bottom–up solutions for sustainable development –solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved. This differs from more mainstream greening practices in the sense that grassroots initiatives operate in civil society arenas and involve committed activists experimenting with social innovations as well as using greener technologies.

Examples of grassroot innovations range from furniture-recycling social enterprises to organic gardening cooperatives, low-impact housing developments, farmers’ markets and community composting schemes. Whilst community-led solutions like these offer a wide diversity of promising new ideas and practices, they frequently struggle to scale up and spread beyond small niches. Indeed, conventional ideas about scaling-up and rolling-out innovations that are central to a lot of our science and technology institutions can be seen as problematic and missing the point by some grassroots initiatives, especially when grassroots goals are more about circulating and democratising innovation capabilities amongst more communities. Too often institutional criteria for success, set by incumbent market- and state-agendas, are not the best measures by which grassroots innovation wishes to, or can, prove its social value.

In contrast, Deep Transition analysis looks to rules, and so inclines it towards looking at broad institutional changes: analysing shifts in rules tends to look for radical transformations in institutions. Perhaps the real action is going on elsewhere, including grassroots movements? The Deep Transitions framework can to some extent be seen as a framework about the ‘winners’ as it researches so-called surges – dominant meta regimes that gained a lot of traction and shaped society as we know it today. The Deep Transition research project has for instance explored how fossil fuels came to dominate the energy system, how the car turned into the dominant means of transport and how mass consumption became a leading practice.

And yet, attentive and appropriate institution-building could greatly enhance the power of grassroots innovation. What is the relationship between Deep Transitions and grassroots innovations? And is it even accurate to refer to grassroots innovations as fringes that happen outside of the mainstream? What is their potential to contribute to a new type of normal and to play a significant role in sustainable development?

In this #DTdialogue, Johan Schot and Adrian Smith address these questions as they dive into a discussion about contestations between different ways of conceiving and doing innovation as well as why and how a shift from marginalized rules to deeper norms takes place.

Interview Guide

This guide provides an indication of the topics addressed in the interview.

01:00 – 09:00 Framing grassroots innovations and their power to reform in different contexts  

09:00 – 18:00 Conditions for grassroots innovations to become dominant practices

18:00 – 24:00 Rethinking STI institutions (change agents) from a grassroots innovations perspective

24:00 – 30:00 When is the shift between marginalized and mainstream taking place and can this be enforced?

30:00 – 34:00 Grassroots innovations as everlasting contender and examples of them becoming the norm

35:00 – 38:00 The co-existence of mainstream and alternative practices

List of References

Smith, A., Fressoli, M., Abrol, D., Arond, E., & Ely, A. (2017). Grassroots innovation movements. Taylor & Francis.

Seyfang, G., & Smith, A. (2007). Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environmental politics, 16(4), 584-603.

Smith, A., & Stirling, A. (2018). Innovation, sustainability and democracy: an analysis of grassroots contributions. Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics, 6(1), 64–97.  

Arvidsson, A. (2020). Capitalism and the Commons. Theory, Culture & Society, 37(2), 3-30.

Schot, J. (2003). The Contested Rise of a Modernist Technology Politics, in: Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey and Arie Rip (eds.), Modernity and Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 257-278. Retrieved from: