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Citizens Transforming Society: Tools For Change

Posted on by Gerd Kortuem

Innovation is essential for addressing climate change, yet where does innovation come from? Is it a one-way process from technology vendors to consumers or can we as citizens play an important role as innovators?

A recent study of consumer innovation in the UK by von Hippel et al [1] indicates that consumer or user-led innovation dwarfs traditional company-driven innovation in that consumers spend twice as much as companies in their own product development and adaptation efforts. Similarly, Bergman et al [2] suggest that bottom-up, social innovation - defined as behaviour and lifestyle changes, energy saving through new forms of business and governance, and users employing new technical solutions - is a powerful yet under-utilised tool for addressing climate change. 

Catalyst ("Citizens Transforming Society: Tools for Change") is a £1.9M project funded by the EPSRC which brings together academics from social science, computing, design and management science to carry out research on the theme of citizen-led social innovation. Catalyst explores how citizens can use a bottom-up process to create community-driven solutions to major societal problems such as climate change, environmental degradation and energy poverty. (I am one of the co-investigators of Catalyst.)

Change-hungry citizens have turned to mobile digital communications during key world events from the London riots and the subsequent ‘clean up the streets’ campaign to the so called ‘Twitter revolutions’ in Tunisia and Egypt. But do social networking technologies really make it easier for communities to change the world? Or do they merely promote weak links between people rather than the strong links that are needed for real social revolution? And how should we design future digital technologies – technologies with built in grassroots democracy?

Catalyst uses an unique bottom-up community-driven research methodology to investigate citizen-led innovation. Rather than letting academic researchers alone drive the research agenda, Catalyst is using a Launchpad mechanisms to engage in collaborative research with communities. Launchpads are community-led activities aimed at helping community groups find out how the sorts of problems they are facing might be helped through digital technology.

There are currently two Launched projects in Catalyst: 

  • 'Local Trade' aims to create a loyalty trading system which records trades and tracks the trading patterns within the system to reward sustainable and locally beneficial trading behaviour in Lancaster. Following the global economic decline, Local Trade aims to ‘re-boot’ collaborative endeavours through stimulating altruistic behaviours and rewarding local creativity and innovation. 
  • 'Activism and Social Media' aims to provide an online platform to bring together existing research on social media use in activism, and the experiences and views of activists themselves. This will involve both a collaborative online environment (e.g. a wiki) and real-time analysis of activist social media use. 

As a community group or community member, you have a unique opportunity to drive the research. Catalyst is actively looking for community groups to collaborate on problems that could be developed into a Catalyst sub-project. The idea does not need to be fully formed; we are looking for a committed group of people, a context of genuine citizen engagement, a problem or challenge which can be clearly identified, in short a setting where Catalyst can make a positive and useful contribution. For more details see http://www.catalystproject.org.uk/content/participate

[1] Von Hippel, Eric A., De Jong, Jeroen and Flowers, Steven (2010) Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the UK (September 27, 2010). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1683503 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1683503
[2] Bergman, N., Markusson, N., Connor, P., Middlemiss, L. and Ricci, M. (2010) Bottom-up, social innovation for addressing climate change. In: Energy transitions in an interdependent world: what and where are the future social science research agendas, 25-26 February 2010, Sussex.