Reading “for difference” Social Innovation at the RGS-IBG Conference 2022

On the 31st of August 2022 I’m presenting my work with Paolo Giaccaria on rethinking social innovation at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2022. The abstract of our presentation is below:

Reading “for difference” Social Innovation. Dialogic practices of re-politicization in Urban Gardening.

Chiara Certomà and Paolo Giaccaria
Department of Economic, Social, Mathematical and Statistical Sciences – University of Turin

The paper contributes to the topical explorations of the polyvocal nature of Social Innovation in the urban context. We wonder whether the dualistic reading of Social Innovation initiatives, as neoliberal vs revolutionary, is appropriate and productive; or rather, we should accept their intrinsic ambiguity and boundary-transgressing nature. To answer this question, we explore the collaborative grey area where the confrontational stances turn into dialogical practices. Inspired by Gibson-Graham’s intuition that escaping dichotomies and blurring boundaries can produce creative possibilities, we dig deep into the character and agency of a broad urban gardening network called Zappata Romana in Rome, Italy. Our telling of exemplary gardening projects shows the inadequacy of a binary reading and sheds light on whether, how, and under what conditions the ambivalent character of SI offers grassroots agency a standpoint to gain acknowledgment and support; and what form of SI re-politicization these projects support. In doing so, we claim that the very polyvocal and contradictory nature of SI represents a generative terrain for socially emancipatory and creative practices.

Our presentation is hosted in the session New and critical geographies of innovation session by Helen Pallete

These sessions aim to establish and explore an incipient research agenda around new and critical geographies of innovation, bringing together diverse geographical research and practice which challenges conventional narratives of and approaches to innovation. We plan to run a split session around this agenda with an initial papers session (which can be either in-person or online depending on the availability of presenters) followed by a participant-led roundtable discussion supported by facilitators to flesh out this new research agenda. 

It is increasingly being recognised that the “move fast and break things” innovation model which characterises Silicon Valley and innovation more broadly has had damaging social and environmental consequences. This model reflects entrenched assumptions and dynamics in innovation processes and narratives which have long been criticised in geography and cognate disciplines. Such features include a predisposition towards favouring problem-oriented technofixes and novelty, often at the expense of addressing root causes, systemic injustices or recognising the complexity of the matter at hand (see issues of food security or low carbon energy). It has been shown that dominant models of state-, STEM- and entrepreneur-led innovation lack robust processes for foresight and anticipation of the potential consequences of innovations, often resulting in unexpected environmental damage or negative social impacts (see the internal combustion engine or the smart phone). Innovations produced through such processes are normally intended to be marketable products, often aimed at individuals rather than broader communities (see electric cars and pregnancy apps). A lack of deliberate inclusion of citizens and broader civil society in innovation processes has limited their scope and ambition – often reflecting business-as-usual imaginaries of the future being prepared for – and is cited as one of the reasons why new innovations so frequently reinscribe power relations of sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and more (see smart cities and smart home technologies). 

Emerging research in human geography challenges this failed and damaging approach to innovation, pointing to ways that we might rehabilitate innovation to more genuinely address societal problems and needs, or to how we might find workable alternatives. This work addresses but is not limited to:

  • Distributed, democratic and open innovation (e.g. Howells, 2012)
  • Frugal and low-tech innovations (e.g. Yu & Gibbs, 2018)
  • Social innovations (e.g. Wittmayer, 2022)
  • Disruptive innovations (e.g. Wilson, 2018)
  • Anti-innovation (e.g. Datta, 2020)
  • Responsible innovation (Macnaghten et al., 2014)

In response, scholars in critical geography and cognate fields have explored new ways to study and enact innovations, including engaged and participatory research (e.g. CLEAR lab; Chilvers et al., 2021; Schmidt, 2019), and a focus on failed innovations or forms of luddism (e.g. Mahony, 2019). 

If you would like to take part in the papers session please submit an abstract and title of up to 250 words to Helen Pallett ( by Tuesday 21st March. Please take inspiration from but do not be limited by the themes mentioned above. Please also get in touch with Helen and Martin Mahony ( if you have an interest in the session theme and are interested in helping to run the roundtable session or have suggestions for an alternative format. 


Chilvers, J., Bellamy, R., Pallett, H., & Hargreaves, T. (2021). A systemic approach to mapping participation with low-carbon energy transitions. Nature Energy, 6(3), 250–259. 

Ayona Datta (2020) The “Smart Safe City”: Gendered Time, Speed, and Violence in the Margins of India’s Urban Age, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110:5, 1318-1334.

Howells, J. (2012) The geography of knowledge: never so close but never so far apart, Journal of Economic Geography, 12(5): 1003–1020,

Martin Mahony (2019) Historical Geographies of the Future: Airships and the Making of Imperial Atmospheres, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109:4, 1279-1299.

Macnaghten, P., Owen, R., Stilgoe, J., Wynne, B., Azevedo, A., de Campos, A., Chilvers, J., Dagnino, R., Di Giulio, G., Frow, E. and Garvey, B., 2014. Responsible innovation across borders: tensions, paradoxes and possibilities. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 1(2), pp.191-199.

Schmidt, S. (2019) In the making: Open Creative Labs as an emerging topic in economic geography? Geography Compass. 13(9): e12463

Wilson, C. (2018) Disruptive low-carbon innovations. Energy Research & Social Science. 37 (March 2018): 216-223.

Wittmayer, J., Hielscher, S., Fraaije, M., Avelino, F., & Rogge, K. (2022) A typology for unpacking the diversity of social innovation in energy transitions. Energy Research & Social Science. 88, June 2022, 102513.

Yu, Z. & Gibbs, D. (2018) Social ties, homophily and heterophily in urban sustainability transitions: User practices and solar water heater diffusion in China. Energy Research & Social Science. 46 (December 2018): 236-244. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: