What is Open Social Innovation and why we need free/libre recipes

In this article I describe Open social innovation, a new intellectual framework to facilitate the sharing of social practices.

Although the concept described here has been proposed by a network of french social innovators, there are many many groups around the world who are already thinking along the same line. These groups don’t recognize each other because the lack a common framework and vocabulary. This article hopes to propose such a framework and open the discussion.

Note: although this article it is fairly advanced, I still see it as a draft, so take it as is.

Open Social Innovation: open-sourcing social innovation to promote sharing of sustainable social practices.

V0.3: added Transition Network to state of the art

V0.4: added unMonastery to state of the art

The world is at a cross point. On one hand our societies are shaken by multiple crisis: financial, environmental and social crisis. On the other hand, social innovation is abundant and there are numerous creative citizen initiatives worldwide.

Increasingly, we see individuals and communities experimenting innovative sustainable practices, pioneering new ways to communicate, think, work, live together.

In that context the question arise as to how the best practices could be transferred across communities.

Free/Libre Open Source Culture has demonstrated its efficiency and the power of sharing.

Whether it’s software (Linux, Firefox, WordPress…) knowledge (Wikipedia, Open Street Map…) or increasingly hardware (Arduino, Wikispeed, …) open practices have shown how mutualization and networked innovation can outsmart large well-funded corporations.

Recently a network of people and organizations have proposed the concept of Open social Innovation as a new intellectual framework to promote and facilitate sharing of innovative social practices in the spirit of the open source movement.

Inspired by the four freedoms of free software, Open Social Innovation aims to document social innovation practices as “free/libre recipes” to make these practices visible, usable, copyable, and improvable by anyone.

In this article I introduce and discuss the concept of Open Social Innovation.

Social Innovation is abundant

Social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — that extend and strengthen civil society.

Around the world creative citizens are constantly innovating. “Scratching their own itch”, they  sometimes end up changing the world (1). Fueled by the development of the web and social networks, open collaborative communities aim at tackling global issues and invent new models (2).

Social entrepreneurship is rising, however, as Wikipedia states ‘Although the terms are relatively new, social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship can be found throughout history. A list of a few historically noteworthy people whose work exemplifies classic “social entrepreneurship” might include Florence Nightingale, founder of the first nursing school and developer of modern nursing practices; Robert Owen, founder of the cooperative movement; and Vinoba Bhave, founder of India’s Land Gift Movement. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the most successful social entrepreneurs effectively straddled the civic, governmental, and business worlds – promoting ideas that were taken up by mainstream public services in welfare, schools, and health care” (3).

Interestingly it has been recently suggested the Occupy/15M movements can be seen as a social innovation network prototyping and sharing micro-utopias (4).

Overall, it is increasingly recognized social innovation is abundant. However this abundance is not readily visible. Even similar initiatives located closely are often not aware of each other and risk “reinventing the wheel” despite the fact that their problem might have been already solved elsewhere.

Lore and the difficulty of transferring implicit knowledge

A lot of our knowledge is implicit: Accumulated facts, traditions, or beliefs about a particular subject. This knowledge acquired through education or experience is called Lore (as in folklore).

Noam Chomsky defines Lore as “accumulated, unarticulated knowledge”  (5). Lore represents all the facts and traditions about a particular subject that have been accumulated over time through education or experience (6) .

Although Lore represents a wealth of knowledge, it is hard to manipulate and to share.

Lore is essentially linked to an existing local culture which makes it difficult to transfer to another culture. Because it is unarticulated,  it can only be transferred by direct contact which limits the possibilities of transfer. Moreover some of it might be so implicit in the culture that the community might not even be aware of it.

Reification: the process of objectifying lore to make implicit knowledge explicit

In that context, the concept of “Reification” (7) is helpful. To reify is to consider or make (an abstract idea or concept) real or concrete. Reification is synonymous to Objectification and Thingification. Objectification is the fact or process of making something (such as an abstract idea) possible to be perceived by the senses while Thingification is the fact or process of turning something into a thing.

In order to be able to transfer lore across communities we need to be able to reify it, ie find a way to turn it from abstract, diffuse, implicit knowledge into an explicit concrete object that can be shared and manipulated with others.

Although the best way to do this can be debated, the first step in that direction is to document the knowledge about the practices to make it explicit and visible.

Recipes as a tool to encapsulate and share social practices

Documenting knowledge and practices in the form of recipes has been one of the earlier way to transfer transfer them.

A recipe (8) is a set of instructions that describes how to prepare or make something, especially a culinary dish.

Earlier culinary recipes often included little amount of information and served more as a reminder of ingredients and proportions for someone who already knew how to prepare the dish, but modern recipes normally consist of several components that facilitate the transfer of knowledge:

  • The name (and often the locale or provenance) of the dish
  • How much time it will take to prepare the dish
  • The required ingredients along with their quantities or proportions
  • Necessary equipment and environment needed to prepare the dish
  • An ordered list of preparation steps and techniques
  • The number of servings that the recipe will provide (the “yield”)
  • The texture and flavor
  • A photograph of the finished dish
  • A list variations of a traditional dish

Recipes have been successfully used to transmit culinary knowledge very early on and their use has exploded since the invention of the printing press.

Although recipes have been used mainly for culinary purpose, the format can be use to document any kind of social practices.

The current state of practices sharing on the web.

Since the invention of the web, sharing of knowledge has dramatically increased. From personal blogs to “youtubers” channels, amateurs (ie often unpaid passionate experts) share knowledge in various forms of articles or tutorials (using text, image, audio, video, …).

Clearly, there is an increasing willingness to share one’s practices. If some of this sharing is done for commercial purpose, most of it comes purely from a will to share one’s knowledge/passion, help others and be part of a community of practice.

This is particularly true in the sustainability/resilience movements where individuals and groups are sharing best practices for sustainable living and appropriate use of technology.

Interestingly is seems the web has really mature in the last few years, with previously dispersed community of practices now becoming more aware of each others. For example it seems  that Google+ communities didn’t start from scratch but aggregated individuals from  communities previously existing on Facebook, Twitter, or other specialized sites (personal observation).

In parallel, in every field of knowledge, specialized resources/websites have emerged as thought-leaders.

So overall it seems there is a better integration and improved knowledge-sharing between individuals and communities who have the same interests.

However when looking closely it appears that this mutualization of knowledge and best practices could grow more and that there are two major non-technological barriers preventing this to scale:

lack of information regarding content reuse.
lack of interoperability

Obstacle to sharing #1: Lack of information regarding content reuse

In most cases when individuals post content online there is a willingness to share. Although in the past so-called “intellectual property” was important in most people’s mind, nowadays individuals increasingly want to share with each other without any intent to control or monetize their content.

Increasingly, groups and individuals are willing to share their practices and write documents/tutorials which they make freely available. However they rarely provide licensing information for these “intellectual commons” (9).

Even though their intent might be to spread their knowledge and practices, most of these sharers don’t know or don’t use free licenses.

The lack of clear information regarding content reuse is a big impediment to sharing and remix of content. Even though content creators might be willing to give permission when asked about content reuse, the need to ask for a permission is already putting a barrier to the spontaneous reuse of content.

This might seem benign, but in an environment of information over abundance, immediacy and attention scarcity, this creates a critical/unbearable friction.

This is further enhance by the fact that, fairly often, the content creator is not clearly identified and/or there’s no a clear/obvious way to contact the author.

Although free licenses have been there for some time, there are still not widely used outside of the software world. Copyright being the default legal system, most of these shared “intellectual commons” remain labeled as “intellectual property”.

In addition, although free licenses essential provide a framework for content reuse, I would argue that, in addition to giving a legal permission, the use of free licenses, also provides a “moral permission” to copy and reuse.

In fact the choice of the content creator to use a free license can be seen as an encouragement, a call to copy, share, improve, effectively acting a stigmergic signal for open cooperation (10).

In a global online environment, choosing to use a free license is like writing a message in red that says “copy me and improve me”.

Obstacle to sharing #2: redundancy and lack of interoperability

When looking at social innovation around the world we see that more often than not, people “reinvent the wheel” (11), rediscovering or rebuilding something that already been discovered or done elsewhere.

In nature redundancy is not a bad thing. Living systems, whether single cells or ecosystems, use redundancy as a way to prevent critical failure and be resilient.

When one critical function is missing the possibility to have duplication of critical components or functions of a system allow it to cope or even thrive with change.

Therefore redundancy in itself can be seen as a good thing. Actually having a diversity of components allows a better degree of adaptation to various situations instead of a “one size fits all”.

In the context of social innovation, the problem is that, although there is redundancy and diversity, there is a lack of integration between the various elements, therefore nullifying the potential benefits of redundancy.

One reason for this lack of integration is the over abundance of content available online and the lack of standards for sharing it.

Content is posted in a variety of formats (web pages, PDF, images, videos, presentations, …) and in a variety of locations (personal web pages, social networking sites and other sharing platforms such as Youtube or Facebook)

Again this diversity of content and locations is not a bad thing in itself.

Certain formats are more convenient to share certain kinds of knowledge and having several locations prevents centralization and the issues associated with it (single point of failure, monopoly, “one true version”…)

However the fact there is no standard means it can be hard to reuse and combine data from several sources.

From an engineer point of view that could be viewed as a lack of interoperability. However we are not talking here about fitting parts of a machine, but of social practices which, by essence, are dynamic, living, changing.

In spite of this, the analogy with proprietary software where the code/blueprint is hidden/not available or with pre-Internet computer networks is interesting.

Applying the open source model to social innovation

Generally, open source refers to a computer program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design.

In production and development, open source as a development model promotes a) universal access via free license to a product’s design or blueprint, and b) universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone.  Opening the source code enabled a self-enhancing diversity of production models, communication paths, and interactive communities.

After been successfully applied to software development, the open source approach is now increasingly used in object and machine development, with the emergence of Open Source Hardware (12) and Open Design (13) movements.

To facilitate the spreading of the best sustainable practices, the concept of “source code of a project” was proposed (14) as a way to apply the open source model to social innovation.

In computer science, a source code is a collection of written instructions that can be executed by a computer to run a software. By analogy, the source code of a social practice/project is a set of instructions that can be executed by a user in order to implement this practice/project. Typically, this is the principle of a cooking recipes where a set of instructions is given in order to facilitate the replication of a cooked dish.

From that initial idea a network of organizations and individuals from France (15) has been working on networking and scaling social innovations using the concept of open source as an intellectual framework.

Although the debate is still going on, recent discussions proposed to change the concept of “source code” of a project into “recette libre” (free/libre recipe) of a project, as a name that can be more explicit and easy to understand outside the open source/free knowledge community.

Free/Libre Recipes as a source code of social practices

As explained previously, the idea of free/libre recipes is to document innovative social practices to replicate, disseminate and improve them. By documenting the practices, we try to make implicit knowledge explicit to help sharing it.

In practice, just like a cooking recipe, a project free/libre recipe is a set of instructions that can be executed by a user in order to implement this practice/project.

Richard Stallman defined 4 principles for a free software (16):

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

In the spirit of the free/libre open source software philosophy, four principles for free/libre recipes have been proposed (17):

  • show/make visible: no fabrication secret, the recipe is made to be read by as many people as possible
  • allow and facilitate reuse: tips and tricks, difficulties are documented to facilitate reuse
  • allow and facilitate copy: the recipe is published under free/libre license (such as CC-BY-SA, public domain or equivalent)
  • improve the recipe: like software anyone can create their own version and adapt/improve the recipe

Open Social Innovation Projects: a state of the art

Inspired by the Open Social Innovation philosophy, several complementary projects have started in France. Although independent, these projects have a loose on going collaboration happening and feed from each other’s ideas.

Bretagne Creative:

Bretagne Creative is local territorial network from western france that documents social innovations to make them visible and shareable. Bretagne Creative already mapped 60 social innovations in a open format (how to use Arduino devices to measure humidity in houses, how to create an online local participative magazine, how to promote and build up digital commons …)

See (in french): http://www.bretagne-creative.net/

Imagination for people:

Imagination for people is a platform and a community of imaginative citizens that aims to detect and develop socially innovative projects. Since its launch in 2011 it has mapped and documented over 2000 projects and host several workgroups and communities focused on various topics  (animation of cooperative networks, third places, innovation in Africa…)

See: http://imaginationforpeople.org/en/


MoviLab is a network, a participative site and a methodology to scientifically document innovative projects for sustainable living in various domains ( health, culture, education, industry, farming, live together…). MoviLab builds upon a network of open source third space to detect, incubate and deploy the best social innovations.

See (in french): http://movilab.org/

Outils Réseaux / MousTIC / Archipel:

Outils-Reseaux has been a pioneer in sharing free/libre tutorials and teaching materials to set up cooperative tools and implement cooperative practices. As a core organizer of mousTIC, a participative event on open cooperation and social innovation, Outils-Reseaux and its network of partners produced a source-code free/libre recipe of the event to allow others to copy and reproduce it.

See (in french): http://moustic.info/intranet/wakka.php?wiki=CodeSource
and in english: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/155RgVkatL_UDooZuYbYAIn1KTaHD2EJBWb_mwDndFAI/edit#slide=id.p

Co-Creative Recipes.cc

Inspired by the source code of mousTIC and the potential of events as tool for transformation and culture hacking, Co-creative recipes is free/libre library of co-creative events. The library is part of a larger open research project that aims to map a variety of events formats, tools and ingredients in order to extract underlying design patterns.

See: http://co-creative-recipes.cc/

In addition to the projects cited and directly inspired by the concept of Open Social Innovation, there are several others projects around the world are thinking along the same lines and already producing free/libre recipes even though they don’t call it that way.

Here are a few that have been identified so far:

One Community

One Community is open source project blueprinting and free-sharing everything needed to simultaneously address all the challenges currently facing humanity. This includes 7 complete and different sustainable village prototypes, all related living infrastructure, and a Highest Good society model for global transformation.

See: http://www.onecommunityglobal.org/open-source/

Pixelache Network

This European network has been questioning the sharing of practices in an open source manner and is planning to share its process for organizing events and other on going processes:
See: http://www.pixelache.ac/blog/2014/open-sourcing-festivals/


Appeared fairly recently, Shareable has become one of the most visible and respected voice of the sharing economy. Although its format is more of a magazine publishing news, Shareable is increasingly publishing recipes for social innovation practices under a free license.

See: http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-plan-a-festival-the-open-source-way


Appropedia is participative wiki website for collaborative solutions in sustainability, appropriate technology and poverty reduction. Although it is mostly focused on hardware/technology, it does list several social practices and processes (for example green living).

See: http://appropedia.org/


As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia has entries about wide variety of topics including social practices, methods, … and therefore also has free/libre recipes that fits the same criteria.

See: https://wikipedia.org/

These are only a few of many projects who already work on documenting and sharing beneficial social practices in a free/open way.In the future it will be interesting to reach out to these projects about the concept of open social innovation.

Transition Network

Seems like the transition network has similar thoughts. In their latest strategic plan, they talk about “Holding the Transition ‘source code’, ie Maintaining an up-to-date description of the Transition story – the what, why, how and where of Transition.

unMonastery in a box

unMonastery a third place hosting social innovation project in Matera, Italy, embraces an open source approach to its development, through consistent prototyping it iterates rather than copies, and with each repetition it is intended that the model improve and develop in response to a place’s conditions. The basic objective is to produce a portable box/open source construction kit with the necessary knowledge base and tools required to convert any empty property into an iteration of the unMonastery. This approach is very complementary to Movilab project described above.

See context: http://matera.unmonastery.org/en/projects/in-a-box and ongoing discussions: https://edgeryders.eu/unmonastery-in-a-box/getting-started-wiki


Free/libre recipes / project source code: towards a standard documentation template ?


Again the question arise as to how to mutualize all the knowledge from these projects and avoid reinventing the wheel. On the other hand it is important to keep a variety of views as many of these social innovation are very dependent on the social context and therefore there can be no “one true version”.

Therefore one challenge is the one of inter-operability. Can there be a way to facilitate reuse and combination of various recipes ?

The french open social innovation network has started working on a standard way of documenting recipes.

As mentioned before although initially named “project source code” by analogy with software source code, latest discussion tend to favor the name of “recette libres” (free/libre recipes) to describe the documentation of a project/social practice in a standard shareable format.

Additionally a list of essential items to mention in a free/libre recipe has been proposed:

  • 1 Presentation of the project
    • 1.1 title + one line description + keywords
    • 1.2 Summary (quick description, project managers, partners, public…)
    • 1.3 Why start this project ? (what is the interest, what is at stake , what does it produce, what is its impact ?)
    • 1.4 What is important to know before starting ? (difficulty -1 to 5 stars, required time and means, costs)
  • 2 How to do it ?
    • 2.1 (possibly) the recipe for those in a hurry
    • 2.2 To do before (conditions to meet, juridical context, economic model of the project and project owners if they are volunteers, the choices to do before
    • 2.3 To do during (steps, how the players coordinate themselves)
    • 2.4 To do after (what are we getting back, how to share and spread it ?  evaluation)
  • 3 Understand the project better
    • 3.1 Origin and history of the project
    • 3.2 Milestones, turning point and evolution of the initial project
    • 3.3 Impediments, unsolved problems, challenges
    • 3.4 Facilitating elements
    • 3.5 Conditions of reuse
    • 3.6 Concrete examples (testimonials and portraits of project holders, players, users :  what was predicted, what ended up happening finally, why ?, « if it had to be done again »,– using text, using video…)
  • 4 Resources to go further
    • 4.1 Bibliography : books, places, websites to explore further
    • 4.2 Other people: people who have experience and are ready to share it, is there a network around the project ?
    • 4.3 Practical resources: standard documents animation tools,
    • 4.4 Testimonials from people who tested the recipe (not only the project but the recipe explaining it) and suggestions for improvements.
    • 4.5 How to scale it ? Are there other complementary projects ?

It’s worth mentioning others groups around the world have also been thinking about standardizing the way to document a project in order to make it open source and come up with a template. This is one example that was found but it is likely that there might be others :


The particularities and difficulties of applying the open source model to social innovation and other challenges ahead

Having this standard template to produce recipes and facilitate sharing has been useful and some recipes have already been written using this new format. However this also pose several challenges:

The challenge of documenting a project/practice

Documenting to such a high degree of detail is useful but it is very heavy work. This is particularly critical as people who are driving such projects (and usually know the most about it) are often entirely absorbed by the work to do and have very little time left for anything else.

The challenge of absorbing the documentation

The proposed documentation format is mostly text based. Although that’s useful in order to manipulate the data and have a high degree of granularity, in the case of complex projects this can make it heavy to be absorbed/taken up by others. Image, audio or video summaries might be helpful to facilitate absorption of the data and transfer of the knowledge.

Granularity and interoperability of components

One key idea of open source innovation is to make data granular so that sub-components of a project could be reused by other projects. Here a again there is a challenge in documenting to such a high degree and in a way that is easy to transfer across various fields. Another challenge is to link a component to other compatible components.

The challenge of cultural context and subjectivity

Although sharing recipes is useful, just like you can’t apply the principles of opens source software directly to hardware, transferring new practices in a different social context has its own challenges. In practice implementing free/libre recipes is not as simple as executing the source code of a software.

A social practice by definition has some subjectivity attached to it. Cultural context, differences of language, habits are make it difficult to simply copy and paste.

These questions will have to be seriously addressed for Open Social Innovation to be successful.

The challenge of networking: platform vs protocol

As mentioned before in addition to interoperability, another challenge is the one of visibility of social innovation practices. Having a central repository platform such as wikipedia would greatly increase the visibility of social innovations.

However there are several issues with having one central location (single point of failure, monopoly, “one true version”, “one size fits all”)

So one thing might be think in term of a protocol that can link various distributed platforms rather than having one central repository.

In a sense, the current state of open social innovation also share analogy with the pre-Internet networks, lacking a standard of interoperability. By providing a shared common language, the IP protocol enabled a network of networks to operate. In the future, it might be interesting to look at how the principles that made this architecture successful could be applied in the field of open social innovation.


Although sharing of social practices is already occurring widely online and offline, the concept Open Social Innovation provide a new intellectual framework to promote and facilitate the sharing and improvement of the best sustainable social social practices on a larger scale.

There are several challenges ahead, but the success of open source philosophy in software development and more recently in hardware suggest that Open Social Innovation by providing a mean to integrate various social initiatives under a common inter operable language and intent could trigger sharing and improvement of sustainable practices at an unprecedented level.



  1.  The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, Banks, K. 2013. http://www.reluctantinnovation.com/
  2. Examples of such communities include Transition Town Movement, Edgeryders, MakeSense, Ouishare
  3.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_entrepreneurship
  4. Spain’s Micro-Utopias: The 15M Movement and its Prototypes http://guerrillatranslation.com/2013/05/16/spains-micro-utopias-the-15m-movement-and-its-prototypes/
  5.  Definition given in “Is the man who is tall happy ?” Michel Gondry, 2013
  6.  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lore
  7.  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/reification
  8.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recipes
  9.  See for example http://www.co-intelligence.org/AI-PowerfulQuestions.doc
  10.  Stigmergy is a mechanism for large group cooperation using indirect coordination via a trace/signal left in the environment. See http://georgiebc.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/stigmergy-2/
  11.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinventing_the_wheel
  12.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-source_hardware
  13.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_design
  14.  http://www.thanh-nghiem.fr/tiki-index.php?page=code+source
  15.  This “french open innovation network”  is an informal group including Outils Réseaux, Imagination for People, Collporterre, La Péniche, Tiriad, Zoomacom and others unlabeled individuals .
  16.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_software#Definition
  17. See in french:  http://wiki.a-brest.net/index.php/Code_source_de_nos_innovations_sociales
  18.  Translated from: http://www.a-brest.net/article13125.html
  19.  It’s worth remembering that stories are another powerful tool for transfering knowledge in various cultural contexts. As Don Norman said in Things That Make Us Smart: “Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.” Tom Atlee also says “Story, as a pattern, is a powerful way of organizing and sharing individual experience and exploring and co-creating shared realites. “ read more on the power of stories: http://www.co-intelligence.org/I-powerofstory.html
  20.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Protocol


As an experiment I’m also releasing this text in Github a webtool that facilitate distributed collaboration. Unlike wikis that can only have “one true version”, Github allow multiple authors and parallel versions to feed from each others. Using Github, I hope to get suggestions to improve the article and/or translations.

So this article is an exploration of the concept of open social innovation as well as an open research experiment.

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