Accelerating transformative urban change through eco-social innovations


  • Astrid Krisch University of Oxford


Transformative change, Social Innovation, planetary boundaries, social justice, Well-being




Local communities worldwide are facing multiple crises, spanning cost-of-living challenges, climate change impacts, political instability, health disparities, and spatial inequalities. In response to these multifaceted challenges, the imperative of cultivating a 'wellbeing economy' emphasises that reshaping growth to prioritise human and planetary wellbeing through the integration of environmental, economic, and social sustainability is essential for navigating the complexities of the contemporary urban landscape (Hayden and Dasilva, 2022).

Social innovations for urban sustainability transformations have the potential to leapfrog incremental change and lead to transformative local development. Eco-social innovations offer promising tools to enable on-the-ground action while linking them to democratic decision-making and policy design. However, limited insight into the characterisation and impact of these types of innovations necessitates multi-dimensional learning and extensive social networks (Mason and Büchs, 2023). Understanding how decision-making arrangements (governance) influence the emergence and success of social innovations, that is purposeful social change through deliberate alteration of society and social processes (Moulaert et al., 2023) for realising urban transformations (Suitner and Krisch, 2023) towards a wellbeing economy is thus imperative.

This paper presents two case studies to unravel the intricate dynamics that underpin the relationship between social innovations, governance, and urban sustainability. The research compares urban interventions in large (Vienna, AT) and small (Oxford, UK) cities, representing contrasting welfare models, planning cultures and local political ideologies. The transnational impact of the climate emergency necessitates looking beyond national contexts to share learnings between large and small cities, the latter having often been neglected in urban geography and planning studies (Lamb et al. 2019).

Based on a scoping review systematising eco-social innovations in the cross-disciplinary literatures on urban social innovations and eco-social policy, the paper presents the outcomes of a comprehensive screening process of databases on local and national scales to identify and characterise social innovations for urban sustainability transformations in both cities. The innovations identified encompass community engagement, urban regeneration, and alternative economic development initiatives across various policy domains (e.g., energy, mobility, land-use, social affairs, economy, politics & governance), contributing to both individual and collective welfare.

The results uncover how social innovations can instigate conceptual, process, product, or organisational changes conducive to urban sustainability transformations depending on their respective political-institutional and spatial contextualisation. The research offers a holistic exploration of the potentials of social innovations and governance arrangements in steering urban communities toward a wellbeing economy. By addressing the complex challenges posed by climate change, political instability, and societal inequities, the paper contributes valuable insights to the discourse on sustainability and resilience planning in the face of a rapidly evolving environmental landscape.


Hayden, A., and Dasilva, C. (2022) ‘The wellbeing economy: Possibilities and limits in bringing sufficiency from the margins into the mainstream’, Frontiers in Sustainability, vol. 3.

Lamb, W. F., Creutzig, F., Callaghan, M. W. and Minx, J. C. (2019) ‘Learning about urban climate solutions from case studies’, Nature Climate Change, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 279–287.

Mason, N. and Büchs, M. (2023) ‘Barriers to adopting wellbeing-economy narratives: comparing the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Wellbeing Economy Governments’, 15487733, vol. 19, no. 1.

Moulaert, F., Jessop, B., Swyngedouw, E., Simmons, L. and van Broeck, P. den (2022) Political change through social innovation: A debate, Cheltenham UK, Northampton MA, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Suitner, J. and Krisch, A. (2023) ‘Navigating context in experiments: The “real,” the roots, the rationale’, European Urban and Regional Studies.