3S WP 2014-25 Seyfang and Longhurst – Understanding the diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability

Community action for sustainability is an often-overlooked, yet potentially promising site of socio-technical innovation. In this paper we test the applicability of co-evolutionary niche theories of innovation diffusion (specifically Strategic Niche Management, SNM) to this novel context of ‘grassroots innovations’. We present new empirical findings from an international study of 12 community currency niches (such as LETS, time banks, local currencies). These are parallel systems of exchange, designed to operate alongside mainstream money, meeting additional sustainability needs. We analyse across the set of cases to identify which types of niche activities, contextual factors, and socio-technological characteristics of the innovation itself, are most strongly associated with successful diffusion. Our findings confirm SNM predictions that niche-level activity correlates with diffusion success, and we problematise these factors to reveal a more nuanced interpretation. We highlight where niche theory successfully explains the patterns of diffusion evident, and where additional or confounding factors appear to be at play. We reflect on how well the niche literature accommodates the realities of regime-crossing, social movement-based initiatives, and how niche theories might be adapted to better fit civil-society innovations. In so doing, we develop a model of grassroots innovation niche diffusion which builds on existing work and tailors it to this specific context. The paper concludes with a series of theoretically-informed recommendations for practitioners and policymakers to support the development and potential of grassroots innovations.

Seyfang, Gill, and Noel Longhurst. Understanding the diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability: An international study of community currency niches. 3S Working Paper 2014-25 Norwich, UK: Science, Society and Sustainability Research Group,

3S WP 2014-25