From niche to society: social innovations for sustainable consumption

Photo: shutterstock.com / S.Bachstroem


Numerous initiatives – such as repair cafés – show how our society can use fewer resources and thus operate more sustainably. Or projects within community-supported agriculture or the sharing economy. Initiatives such as these can set an example, offering people alternative modes of consumption and triggering changes in behaviour. But these initiatives remain, predominantly, niche-based. If they are to contribute significantly to reducing resource use – and the transformation so urgently needed in current patterns of production and consumption – they must be long-lived and of broad impact.

Ways of achieving this are examined by the research project “From niche to society: social innovations for sustainable consumption”, which asks:

  • what steps towards professionalization can foster long-term survival of such initiatives?
  • what factors or processes inhibit or help social innovations connect to other initiatives promoting sufficient behaviour; and
  • based on these factors/processes, how can third parties or the public sector support such initiatives?

Developing viable solutions

In addition to filling a research gap, the project aims to identify ways for such initiatives to take root. To this end, we are also investigating:

  • How should such initiatives be structured (i.e. what should be their business model) to succeed past the start-up and experimental phase and become established in society in the long term?
  • How can learning processes within the niche be improved?
  • What factors can strengthen the joint representation of the initiatives’ interests?
  • How – and by whom – can current initiatives be supported to enable them to take root and, eventually, become a large part of the supply landscape in Switzerland?

Strengthening the innovation pool

The project is based on an understanding of "diffusion", which differs from "scaling up" or merely increasing the number of users of an initiative. It assumes that social impulses are created mainly when initiatives multiply (replication) or when the original ideas are further developed and transferred to other fields (translation) – strengthening and expanding the innovation pool.

Pilot project planned

With its twofold objective, the project operates at the interface of research and practice. This makes its methodology strongly transdisciplinary: the researchers work with the relevant target groups to develop possible solutions. The methodologies they employ are diverse and include workshops, literature reviews, and qualitative interviews. Ultimately, this process is intended to lead to the start of a pilot project, whose impact will be scientifically evaluated.