The diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability

(This project builds on the FaST-In project)


Grassroots movements can be important agents of change in a transition to sustainability. While current models of development have proven to be flawed, grassroots movements are often considered laboratories of innovative practices and alternative cultural models that can prefigure and help activate pathways to sustainable futures (Seyfang, 2008; Peters et al., 2010).

There is evidence that the geography of social movements matters (Nicholls, 2007), and issues of place, space and scale have been central in the discussion of grassroots innovations and alternative economies (e.g. Pickerill and Maxey, 2009; North, 2010; Wilson, 2012; Feola and Nunes, 2014).

However, while it is apparent that the geography of grassroots innovations matters, little research has been focussed on their spatial diffusion. The tradition of social movement diffusion studies has mostly focussed on the the social mechanisms of diffusion (e.g. Strang 1998; Shawki 2013; Walsh-Russo 2014) rather than on the spatial structure of diffusion processes. Thus, ”we still know relatively little about exactly how social movements diffuse, as there has been little systematic research about diffusion processes” Shawki (2013:132). Furthermore, comparative studies of social movement diffusion are lacking (Strang 1998), and as argued by Coenen et al. (2012), this may be one of the reasons why the geographical dimension of transition has been generally overlooked.

More recently a growing body of literature has applied transition theory to understand the dynamics of change generated by such grassroots networks generating bottom-up innovation for sustainability (Seyfang and Smith 2007; Smith and Seyfang 2013). Yet, transition theory has traditionally had blindspots on the geographical dimension of transition. Only recently some scholars have stressed the importance to understand sustainability transition as geographical processes, and have started to introduce a new vocabulary in transition theory, e.g. location, landscape, territoriality, uneven development, scaling, and embeddedness (Coenen et al. 2012; Markland et al. 2012; Raven et al. 2012; Truffer and Coenen 2012; Bridge et al. 2013; Caprotti and Bailey 2014). While this cross fertilization of transition studies and geographical traditions has generated some promising developments, research has focussed on particular socio-technical systems (e.g. Newton and Newman 2013), or the so called green economy (Gibbs and O’Neill 2014), and has instead largely overlooked grassroots innovations and alternative economies. Such narrow focus is constraining, in that it reduces the space for alternative imagination of the future and tends to align with key tenets and mainstream discursive strands which construct the green economy as a socio-economic and techno-environmental project that is inevitably and unquestioningly based on same concepts of growth, production, and consumerism that characterized the old economies of neoliberal capitalism (Capriotti and Bailey 2014).


This project explores and compares the spatial diffusion of two networks of grassroots innovations in Great Britain and Italy. Thus, it aims to advance our understanding of the geographical dimension of sustainability transition processes that originate from the grassroots, and particularly to uncover patterns of their diffusion in space and over time. This paper contributes to the literature on social movements, grassroots innovations, and sustainability transitions, and can inform future geographical analysis of the emergence and diffusion of alternatives to unsustainable economies of neoliberal capitalism.

Organizational structure

This study is led by Dr. Giuseppe Feola and carried out with the support of Anisa Butt and Mina Rose Him (student research assistants)


University of Reading UROP Scheme; School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science Research Fund.


Feola, G., Him, M.R., 2016. The diffusion of the Transition Network in four European countries. Environment and Planning A, 48(11), 2112-2115. [Open access here]

Feola, G., Butt, A. 2017. The diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability in Italy and Great Britain: an exploratory spatial data analysis. Geographical Journal, 183(1), 16-33. [Open access here]

References from the FaST-In project

Feola, G., 2014. Narratives of grassroots innovations: A comparison of Voluntary Simplicity and the Transition Movement in Italy. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development 8(3), 250-269. [Open access here]

Feola, G., Nunes, J.R., 2014. Success and failure of Grassroots Innovations for addressing climate change: the case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change 24, 232-250. [Open access here]