Beyond Growth 2023 Conference – Why is transformative social innovation so important?

This article is part of a series that highlights why The Beyond Growth 2023 Conference aligns with several of the ten theses of ECOLISE

The concept of economic growth has been at the forefront of policy-making for decades, with governments and organizations striving to increase GDP and improve economic performance. However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition that economic growth alone cannot address the challenges of social inequality, environmental degradation, and resource depletion. This is where the concept of “Beyond Growth” comes in.

The Beyond Growth Conference, to be held at the European Parliament from May 15-17, is a multi-stakeholder event that aims to promote sustainable prosperity policies that go beyond the traditional focus on economic growth. The conference is focused on building a post-growth future-fit EU that balances economic development, social well-being, and planetary boundaries. The aim is to challenge conventional policy-making and shift towards beyond-growth indicators that are more in line with long-term sustainable development goals. This approach is increasingly gaining traction, particularly in the context of the urgent need to address the planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other forms of environmental degradation.


One of the key themes of the conference is transformative social innovation, which is vital for addressing the planetary crisis that is a result of broken feedback loops between human systems and the biosphere. The disconnection between people and nature has led to a lack of visibility of the social and ecological impacts of production and consumption. To reconnect feedback loops and redefine innovation to emphasize its socio-ecological aspects, there is a need for collective initiatives that start with pilot experiments led by dedicated individuals and niche groups.

Transformative social innovation (TSI) was highlighted in the findings of the EU-funded TRANSIT research project as a potential solution to this challenge. TSI involves changing social relations and involving new ways of knowing, doing, organizing, and framing to challenge, alter, or replace dominant institutions in a specific context. The focus of current policies and markets on technological innovations that promote efficiency gains is not enough to solve the planetary crisis. TSI proposes that innovation needs to be understood holistically as socio-ecological innovation, which includes technology but does not prioritize it.

ECOLISE, the European network of community-led initiatives for sustainability and climate action, argues that innovation processes undertaken by community-led initiatives (CLIs) are ongoing processes of action learning. CLIs can be seen as laboratories of socio-ecological experimentation, dedicated to nurturing nature-human connections. They challenge dominant policy narratives that frame innovation as a means to further economic growth and reinforce the root causes of the current crisis. Through ongoing education and research programs, CLIs are able to develop co-creative partnerships and define common research agendas and goals.

Social innovation is highly dependent on “soft skills” such as communication and inner transition, and socio-ecological innovation must include skills such as non-violent communication and tending to one’s “inner landscape” as a prerequisite for outward action. Social-practice-oriented innovations such as the sharing of little-used objects, collective action in energy cooperatives, repair cafes, and mutual aid make a more collective and less individualistic life desirable and feasible.

ECOLISE calls for: 

  • Public support for the creation and mainstreaming of niches for experimentation for socio-ecological innovation in the form of CLIs, e.g. in funding programmes such as Horizon Europe as well as in initiatives such as the  smart village concept and the Rural Action Plan.
  • EGD policies to acknowledge the need for continuous learning, re- and up-skilling of all age groups, including new forms of blended transformative learning in line with article 6 of the UNFCC Action for Climate Empowerment.  The right to learn and exchange (green skills, education, transformative learning etc.) to apply to all age groups, stressing the relevance of integrating local and experiential knowledge (e.g. in regenerative agriculture and permaculture), alongside academic knowledge. 
  • Innovation programmes such as the EU’s Eco-innovation or the smart village concept to prioritise socio-ecological innovation over “tech” innovation. Digitalisation and technology should work in service of human-nature relationships, and technology should be human-scale (e.g. ethical tech, the right to an analogue lifestyle, frugal innovation, nature-based solutions etc.).
  • integrate and mainstream a funding and policy focus on socio-ecological innovation as learning, researching and innovating with nature (e.g. nature-based solutions, permaculture etc.).

The link to the European Green Deal 

Innovation is an integral part of the European Green Deal, as the European innovation ecosystem shows. Examples include the European Institute for Innovation and its Knowledge and Innovation Community on Climate (EIT Climate KIC), which brings together education, business and politics. Another example is the EU’s extensive funding for research and innovation within the funding programme Horizon Europe – which includes so-called “missions” on EGD-relevant topics such as adaptation to climate change, soil health and food, and climate-neutral cities.

Although there is a growing awareness that technological solutions are only one piece of the puzzle, they are still prioritised, with social, cultural and socio-ecological innovations generally underfunded and undervalued. A new cluster on “Culture and Creativity” within Horizon Europe is a first start to take cultural innovation more into account, yet social innovation is not yet a focus. 

The Eco-innovation initiative is connected to the Circular Economy Action Plan, offering potentially transformative solutions, yet does not take into account social innovation. It includes a focus on green skills, acknowledging the need for the massive reskilling of people. The smart village concept implies the participation of local people in improving their economic, social or environmental conditions, as well as cooperation with other communities, social innovation and the development of smart village strategies. This concept is part of the Rural Action Plan and includes a strong focus on technology and digitalisation (e.g. 5G) and a much smaller focus on social innovation.

Beyond growth and towards Social Innovation

Community-led initiatives and their ongoing processes of action learning are key to nurturing nature-human connections and developing co-creative partnerships that redefine innovation as socio-ecological. Soft skills such as communication and inner transition are vital for socio-ecological innovation, which must prioritize a collective and less individualistic approach to life. The Beyond Growth 2023 Conference is an innovative approach to policy-making that challenges conventional policy-making and will highlight the importance of transformative social innovation to address the planetary crisis.

This article is part of a series that highlights why the The Beyond Growth 2023 Conference aligns with several of the ten theses of ECOLISE


The Beyond Growth Conference, taking place from May 15-17, 2023, is set to bring together experts, activists, and practitioners from around the world to discuss the urgent need for transformative change in our societies.

The conference has several mutually reinforcing goals, including:

  • discussing the significance of economic growth as a policy goal
  • shifting the discourse towards future-oriented economic policymaking
  • shaping the EU’s path to a more resilient economic agenda
  • creating real policy impact with new proposals to establish a new social, economic, and environmental contract, and creating new and unusual alliances between a great diversity of stakeholders
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