Guest editorial: Complexity as a model for social innovation and social entrepreneurship: is there order in the chaos? | French et al (2022)

Guest editorial: Complexity as a model for social innovation and social entrepreneurship: is there order in the chaos?

Guest editorial: Complexity as a model for social innovation and social entrepreneurship: is there order in the chaos? | Emerald Insight

Introduction: social innovation, social entrepreneurship and complexity: exploring the linkages

Whether describing a looming social problem or a proposed innovative solution, it is increasingly commonplace to find the word “complex” affixed as a descriptor. Complexity is a particularly malleable term, denoting inter alia that something is poorly understood, politically contested or difficult to accomplish. Complexity can be adopted in this sense as a framework for approaching issues constructively or less helpfully, as a management gloss or an excuse for inaction. However, as the articles in this special issue demonstrate, the concepts, theories and methodologies of the complexity sciences can offer both constructive theoretical advancements and practical insights to help better address contemporary societal challenges.

As nation-states confront intractable social problems and adapt to system-changing shocks like financial crises, climate emergencies and the COVID-19 pandemic, social innovation and social entrepreneurship are often invoked as routes to needed systemic change (Ashoka, 2020Avelino et al., 2019Domanski et al., 2020Westley and Antadze, 2010). Social innovation and social entrepreneurship charge practitioners with the development of novel ideas for increasingly unknown futures. For Goldstein et al. (2010, p. 102), this brings forth a paradox: “if the novelty generation inherent in social innovation cannot be planned, how can social entrepreneurs bring about social innovation?”. In grappling with this question, the interrelated social innovation and social entrepreneurship literatures shifted focus from localised problems to “systemic and structural issues” (Nicholls et al., 2015), from individual “heroic” entrepreneurs to self-organising actors within ecosystems (Moore and Westley, 2011) and from a deterministic theory of change approach to a dynamic and non-linear process of scaling, spreading and impact (Corner and Ho, 2010). By dint of the questions that now drive its inquiry, social innovation and social entrepreneurship might be considered innately complex concepts.

Complexity science – as a multidisciplinary and indeed multitheoretical philosophical field (Castellani and Hafferty, 2009) – are as Mulgan (2012, p. 28) noted, “instinctively at home” with social innovation and social enterprises involving “organic development, trial and error, [and] dispersed power”. Complexity theorists have explored the unprecedented, the unpredictable, and the non-deductible” nature of both social innovation (Goldstein et al., 2010Grimm et al., 2013Matei and Antonie, 2015Mulgan, 2012bTaylor and Arundel, 2019Westley and Antadze, 2010) and social entrepreneurship (Rhodes and Donnelly-Cox, 2008Swanson and Zhang, 2011Tapsell and Woods, 2010), and for developing novel means of promoting both processes (Geobey et al., 2012Hervieux and Voltan, 2019Zivkovic, 2018). This has involved complexity-derived concepts like emergence (Wheatley and Frieze, 2006), the adaptive cycle (Moore and Westley, 2011Westley and Antadze, 2010), self-organisation (McCarthy, 2017Tapsell and Woods, 2010), fitness landscapes (Rhodes and Dowling, 2018) and attractor states (Goldstein et al., 2010), while complexity-related concepts like disequilibrium, non-linearity, feedback and feedforward and path dependency feature regularly, if more colloquially, in the literature.

Beyond academia, complexity theory and systems-informed approaches now feature much more strongly in the policy landscape and related grey literature. International organisations such as the OECD and the UN have explored systems theory as a development trajectory in recent years while leading foundations like Ashoka, Schwab and Skoll have all explored elements of complexity in their research programmes. Yet, as more people look to systems thinking and complexity theory to provide insights and practical guidance for the development, management and sponsorship of social innovation and entrepreneurship, there is a pressing need for complexity-informed scholarship to move beyond providing just a “menu of metaphors” (Mulgan, 2012, p. 29) and speak directly to a developing practice.

Complicating this drive for practical utility, however, is the reality that the complexity sciences are not a singular perspective but rather an extended and quarrelsome family of theories. Research traditions which have developed from von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory, Forrester’s System Dynamics, Cybernetics and the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Adaptive Systems approach focus primarily on modelling, predicting and ultimately influencing the behaviour of complex systems. Other traditions deriving from Cilliers’ postmodernism (Cilliers, 2002), Byrne and Callaghan’s (2013) complex realism and critical systems thinking (Jackson, 2016) consider the challenges of complexity more fundamental and irreducible, demanding rapid adaptation rather than merely better-informed attempts at prediction. The breadth of inquiry and incommensurability of worldviews operant within the complexity sciences is often glossed over in the literature and researchers (including those working within social innovation and social entrepreneurship) often adopt a “pick and mix” approach, drawing from the complexity science’s vast conceptual library with little attention paid to philosophical consistency or practical complementarity.

In many academic disciplines, complexity is also often subsumed into an oppositional rhetoric, framing insight into problems more than solutions. For Mulgan (2015, p. 14), this is “the constant challenge with systems thinking – how to see the interconnections between things without becoming intellectually overwhelmed, and trapped by them into a fatalism which presumes that change is impossible”. Conversely, while complexity’s constructive potential is foregrounded in policy discourse by consultants and think tanks as a toolkit to unlock systems change, it can be positioned as a high-concept cure-all lacking analytical depth and criticality. It, therefore, seems particularly important now for academics to explore with consistency and scrutiny how the complexity sciences might inform a burgeoning policy interest while also offering constructive inroads to the disciplinary mainstream. Notable academic events like the International Conference on Social Entrepreneurship, Systems Thinking and Complexity at Adelphi University, which led to a 2008 special issue of the Journal Emergence: Complexity and Organization contributed groundwork for this agenda. More recently, complexity thinking in social innovation has been carried forward through conference streams at the International Research Society for Public Management Conference and the International Social Innovation Research Conference, from which this special issue emerged. The articles in this special issue from (Abraham and Geobey, 2021Lythberg et al., 2021Rhodes et al., 2021McGowan and Geobey, 2022) build on this body of work and further demonstrate the value of the complexity sciences as a theoretical tradition and empirical lens in social innovation and social entrepreneurship scholarship.

This review article opens this special issue. We survey the adoption and application of complexity science-related ideas in the social innovation and social entrepreneurship literatures to consider the former’s contributions and implications for the latter’s practice and theory, and we reflect on the contributions which this special issue makes to this area of research. In the following sections, we focus our discussion on the fields of social innovation and entrepreneurship while also acknowledging contributions from closely related fields like social finance. We also draw from pertinent literature from cognate disciplines of public administration, public policy, socialecological systems and operations management, where subject matter overlaps with social innovation and social entrepreneurship topics. Drawing from the papers in this volume as well as wider literature review, we address two central questions:


How have the complexity sciences been applied to the fields of social innovation and social entrepreneurship? and


How can complexity contribute to improved theoretical understanding and practical insight in these two fields?