The influence of spatial and relational proximity and distance in the emergence of social innovations.

A comparative case study as a contribution to a spatially sensitive view of ecosystems of social innovations in the context of the debate on a socio-ecological transformation


Social innovations, understood as reconfigured and recombined social practices (Howaldt & Schwarz, 2010), are increasingly addressed as significant catalysts in the debate on a necessary societal transformation. Especially for a socio-ecological transformation their genesis and diffusion are fundamental conditions (Boddenberg, 2017). Since the circumstances of emergence and development of social innovations are still insufficiently penetrated (cf. among others Kleverbeck & Terstriep, 2018, Ruijsink et al., 2017), it will be the task of the project to generate further insights here. In doing so, it will focus primarily on one aspect that is still completely insufficiently addressed in the literature: the "geography" of such processes. The aim of the research work is thus to determine more precisely the significance of space in the formation of social innovations.

The project is based on a dynamic and relational understanding of space. Building on the idea that social innovations are the result of complex networking processes between humans but also non-human entities (Laux, 2019), the determination of the geography of their emergence is based on the spatial manifestation of the underlying relationships. Space is thereby accessed through the concepts of "proximity" and "distance", following economic geography studies. A large number of empirical studies demonstrate that the degree of proximity (and distance) between innovation actors plays a central role in the knowledge exchange, learning and experience formation processes that need to take place (see, among others, Ibert et al., 2014, Ibert & Kujath, 2011, Boschma, 2005). These show that spatial proximity often only has a supporting function, but the innovation process is strongly related to the expression of differences at the relationship level, i.e., relational proximity and distance dimensions. Unfortunately, studies on this topic have so far been limited to technological innovations in particular. This project therefore examines the extent to which geographical (spatial, temporal spatial and quasi-spatial) as well as relational (cognitive, organizational, institutional, social and personal) forms of proximity and distance offer a space-based approach to explaining the emergence process of social innovations.

Guiding research questions and methodology

The guiding research question is: What role do spatial and relational proximity and distance dimensions play in the emergence of social innovations? The broader research questions are:

Q1: How are relationships of proximity and distance shaped in the emergence of social innovations, and which spatial and which relational proximity/distance forms are recurrently revealed in the emergence process of individual social innovations?

Q2: What differences or similarities can be identified in the case studies of social innovations with regard to the relevance of spatial and relational proximity and distance?

Q3: What are the relationships between the respective forms of proximity and distance in the emergence of social innovations? Can complementary/substitutive facets of this interplay be identified?

Q4: What statements can be made about the significance of spatial proximity in relation to the emergence of social innovations?

Q5: What conclusions can be drawn from the findings for a spatially informed version of the ecosystem approach to social innovation?

To answer the research questions, a qualitative multi-case study is conducted. For this purpose, the stories of emergence of five social innovations in Germany are examined in more detail using the method of innovation biographies (Kleverbeck & Terstriep, 2017, Butzin, 2009, 2012). Innovation biographies are a qualitative approach to innovation research, based on the assumption that innovations "emerge[s] from interactive development processes in which different actors were involved" (cf. Asheim/Gertler 2005: 293 in Butzin, 2009: 189). Based on life biography research from the human sciences as well as the "follow the thing" research approach used in human geography studies (Cook & Harrison, 2007), innovation biographies enable the spatial-temporal tracking of innovation processes. The processes of emergence of the social innovations studied can thus be reconstructed, analyzed, presented and compared in their course. The genesis of the selected reconfigured social practices in the field of food, energy, health, online collaboration as well as the field of telecommunication & internet infrastructure will thus be traced with a view to the importance of the previously mentioned proximity and distance dimensions and will provide information on the overarching spatial pattern of formation of social innovations through a comparative study.


The aim is to make general statements about the importance of spatial and relational proximity and distance dimensions in the emergence of this independent type of innovation by comparing different social innovations.The work thus provides important starting points for a geography of innovation and transition processes and hopes to make a spatially informed contribution to the vision of a social-ecological transformation.

The Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development is jointly funded by the federal government and the federal states.

FS Sachsen

This measure is co-financed by tax funds on the basis of the budget approved by the Saxon State Parliament.