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How game changers catalyzed, disrupted, and incentivized social innovation: three historical cases of nature conservation, assimilation, and women’s rights

Frances R. Westley, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, University of Waterloo; School for Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo
Katharine A. McGowan, Bissett School of Business, Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta
Nino Antadze, Department of Environmental Studies, Bucknell University
Jaclyn Blacklock, University of Waterloo
Ola Tjornbo, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, University of Waterloo


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We explore the impact of “game changers” on the dynamics of innovation over time in three problem domains, that of wilderness protection, women’s rights, and assimilation of indigenous children in Canada. Taking a specifically historical and cross-scale approach, we look at one social innovation in each problem domain. We explore the origins and history of the development of the National Parks in the USA, the legalization of contraception in the USA and Canada, and the residential school system in Canada. Based on a comparison of these cases, we identify three kinds of game changers, those that catalyze social innovation, which we define as “seminal,” those that disrupt the continuity of social innovation, which we label exogenous shocks, and those that provide opportunities for novel combinations and recombinations, which we label as endogamous game changers.

Key words

complexity; game changers; innovation; North America; social innovation; transformative change

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087