Desperately seeking niches: Grassroots innovations and niche development in the community currency field

Gill Seyfang, Noel Longhurst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

177 Citations (Scopus)
19 Downloads (Pure)


The sustainability transitions literature seeks to explain the conditions under which technological innovations can diffuse and disrupt existing socio-technical systems through the successful scaling up of experimental ‘niches’; but recent research on ‘grassroots innovations’ argues that civil society is a promising but under-researched site of innovation for sustainability, albeit one with very different characteristics to the market-based innovation normally considered in the literature. This paper aims to address that research gap by exploring the relevance of niche development theories in a civil society context. To do this, we examine a growing grassroots innovation – the international field of community currencies – which comprises a range of new socio-technical configurations of systems of exchange which have emerged from civil society over the last 30 years, intended to provide more environmentally and socially sustainable forms of money and finance. We draw on new empirical research from an international study of these initiatives comprising primary and secondary data and documentary sources, elite interviews and participant observation in the field. We describe the global diffusion of community currencies, and then conduct a niche analysis to evaluate the utility of niche theories for explaining the development of the community currency movement. We find that some niche-building processes identified in the existing literature are relevant in a grassroots context: the importance of building networks, managing expectations and the significance of external ‘landscape’ pressures, particularly at the level of national-type. However, our findings suggest that existing theories do not fully capture the complexity of this type of innovation: we find a diverse field addressing a range of societal systems (money, welfare, education, health, consumerism), and showing increasing fragmentation (as opposed to consolidation and standardisation); furthermore, there is little evidence of formalised learning taking place but this has not hampered movement growth. We conclude that grassroots innovations develop and diffuse in quite different ways to conventional innovations, and that niche theories require adaptation to the civil society context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)881-891
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Issue number5
Early online date22 Mar 2013
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • Grassroots innovations
  • Innovation diffusion
  • Innovation niches
  • Social innovation
  • Complementary currencies
  • Community currencies

Cite this