The world moves fast. Earth’s exploding global population has exasperated economic development, accompanied by wealth inequality, water and food insecurity, climate change, increased pollution, resource depletion, and loss of biodiversity as human encroachment on natural ecosystems continues. These events have all led to unparalleled economic, social, and environmental challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic as the latest deadly example. And although the pace of change may feed fear—creating a sense of powerlessness and insecurity about our shared future—these developments do not need to cause despair.

Based on scientific insights, public debate, democracy, and collective action, humankind is the only species on Earth that can deliberately change its behaviour. Our societies have enormous potential for adaptability, technological and societal innovation, and social justice. However, enacting fundamental changes will require shifting our thinking from anthropocentric social contracts and mainstream economic growth models to an ecocentric and regenerative social contract and more inclusive and deliberative approaches founded on good governance principles. This book explores these opportunities to improve the way humans live and interact with our social and natural environments.

The core philosophy of a social contract, as articulated by Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Kant, Rawls, and other political philosophers, emphasizes an implicit arrangement between citizenry, their respective societies, and legitimate government to create a healthier and safer society together. Social Contract theory states that legitimate, collective governance arrangements should be informed by the consent of the people (Weale 2004), and this theory, therefore, informs our modern concepts of democracy. The question remains, however, if current social contracts can adequately respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century. This question is more urgent when considering the current social contract focused on individualism, materialism, short-terminism, and the free market. This mindset on economic growth pays little attention to social and ecological values, as we have witnessed in the past decades. The fact that ecological vulnerability translates into social and economic vulnerability, and a complex set of security and justice challenges (Sect. 2.3), is an important omission in Social Contract theory. As Albert Einstein said: ’we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. Looking ahead, our societies will need to rethink how we inhabit and cultivate our planet and keep it healthy for future generations. Making these changes involve profound, long-term, and systemic changes in society’s common practices, policies, and philosophies that will rely on new knowledge and skills.

The nature of the social, environmental, and economic problems we face today requires a new social contract, a Natural Social Contract. A Natural Social Contract does justice to a human being’s natural state (human life is group life) and to the natural position of humankind and society within a larger ecosystem, that of planet Earth. The Natural Social Contract regards society as a social-ecological system, focusing on people as members of a community and as part of a natural ecosystem. It emphasizes long-term sustainability and general welfare by combining human and nature, and recalibrating our unfettered approach to unlimited economic growth, overconsumption, and over-individualization. The end result, I argue, is for the benefit of ourselves, our planet, and future generations.

‘Towards a Natural Social Contract’ poses several thought-provoking questions about human nature, our relation to social and natural environments, and how we humans have shaped and organized our societies.

How would Mother Nature judge humankind? Would she be proud or concerned? Would she agree with Friedrich Nietzsche saying, ‘Our planet is sick, and the disease is called Man’? Or would she view us as children or adolescents who seek thrills and take risks? They have to, she might say, because they learn from it. But perhaps Mother Earth thinks it’s time for us to mature, clean up our mess, and take responsibility.

This brings me to a fundamental question of Political Philosophy. Is current society a reflection of true human nature, or did we somehow along the way lose sight of our true nature? Is current society really the best we can think of? In this book I argue that the divide between humans and nature that arose during the Enlightenment, and the capitalist economic logic and related economic structures that were put in place after the Second World War, have blurred or ignored several important core values. These include social and environmental stewardship, planetary health, environmental security and justice, intergenerational justice and equity, and the Rights of Nature. Hence, do we prefer to consider ourselves a ‘Homo Economicus’, namely a species that places more value on individualism, self-interest, material wealth, privatization, short-term gains, and a free-market economy focused on profit and economic growth that erodes social and ecological values? Or do we prefer to consider ourselves as a ‘Homo Ecologicus’? A species that puts more value on unity, solidarity and connectivity, sustainable co-management of the Commons, social and environmental stewardship, human security, planetary health, environmental protection, and achieving justice, human rights, and the Rights of Nature?

I argue for an approach that draws out the best in people and our societies. An approach that facilitates a transition from ego-awareness to eco-awareness and considers humans as a ‘Homo Ecologicus’ rather than ‘Homo Economicus’. This approach will help us restore our balance with our own nature and with planet Earth. An approach where Nature serves as our guide, teacher, companion, and inspiration, and not as our enemy or obstacle to be dominated or controlled by humans to serve the exclusive needs of humanity.

A Natural Social Contract as proposed in this book (Sects. 3.7 and 3.8) is an open and broad theoretical framework across multiple dimensions (i.e. social, ecological, economic, and institutional), which serves to start a dialogue about ways to improve the current social contract, targeting a more sustainable, regenerative, healthy and just society. It can help policymakers, administrators, and decision makers, concerned citizens and professionals to make better decisions about how to organize our twenty-first-century society.

This book explains how Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (TSEI) plays a central role in the sustainability transition and humankind’s search for a Natural Social Contract. Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation is defined as ‘systemic changes in established patterns of action and in structure, including formal and informal institutions and economies, that contribute to sustainability, health and justice in all social-ecological systems’ (definition by author). Creating a sustainable and healthy future for societies will require institutional change as well as multiple parties, multiple sectors, and multiple levels of government to act and collaborate effectively. TSEI is based on processes of collective learning and co-creation in which different but interdependent parties learn to develop new knowledge and solutions in a transdisciplinary approach.

From an economic perspective, the most fundamental systemic change required for realizing a Natural Social Contract is a transition from our current linear economic system (i.e. produce, use and dispose) towards circular and regenerative economies and cultures. The promise of a circular and regenerative economy is to organise sustainability, circularity and social justice at different scales, preferably as an integrated economic and social endeavour, which involves technological, social, organisational and institutional innovation. In practice, this will require a radical change from linear to circular business models characterized by collective and shared value creation. Innovative and hybrid forms of financing, such as revolving energy and sustainability funds, will also be a part of this development. Likewise, the joint management of commons (instead of private ownership) and a sharing economy improving access to goods and services would offer important systemic changes toward a Natural Social Contract and in turn boost efficiency, sustainability, and community values.

In Part 2 of this book, I introduce and define the concept of Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (TSEI) (Sect. 4.1) and apply its use in the complex multi-actor and multi-level context of the sustainability transition. Based on a literature review, I have highlighted key theories and concepts that add substance to the workings of TSEI. This includes transition studies (Sect. 4.2), institutional change and the structure-agency debate (Sect. 3.9), resilience theory and social-ecological systems (Sect. 3.8), institutional design principles for governing the commons (Sect. 4.3), design principles from nature (Sect. 4.4), complex adaptive systems (Sect. 4.5), adaptive, reflexive, and deliberative approaches to governance, management, and planning (Sect. 4.6), social learning, policy learning, and transformational learning (Sect. 4.7), shared value, multiple value creation, and mutual gains approach (Sect. 4.8), effective cooperation (Sect. 4.9), quintuple helix innovation model (Sect. 3.9), transdisciplinary cooperation, living labs, and citizen science (Sect. 4.10), and finally, a section on the art of co-creation: approaches, principles, and pitfalls (Sect. 4.11).

Drawing on the insights from this literature, I argue that studying Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation should involve both structure and agency, in particular a focus at decisive moments where both structure and agency intersect (i.e. in action situations). This also includes outputs, outcomes, and impacts. I identify a critical need to focus on the fundamentally political character of TSEI and the need for multiple value creation for parties to identify shared values, mutual gains, and common interest.

These findings from literature have been brought together in a conceptual framework (Sect. 3.9) and an analytical framework (Sect. 5.1) for Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (TSEI). The TSEI-framework is proposed as an open framework. In that sense, TSEI accounts for additional predictors and moderators if they have a documented effect. The framework can also be used for institutional and political-economic analyses, with a special focus on the power dynamics at play (Sect. 5.2). Power dynamics can be studied by looking at series or clusters of closely related action situations in which the initiation, format, content, and output of each action situation are analysed. To further support the practical applicability of the TSEI-framework, an analytical framework for different levels of collective learning has been operationalized (Sect. 5.3).

In Part 3, I present a Research and Innovation Agenda with various analytical instruments (Chap. 5) and an overview of relevant and ongoing research and educational activities, including Transition to a sustainable and healthy agri-food system (Chap. 6), and Governance of urban sustainability transitions (Chap. 7).

The Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (TSEI) framework offers new ideas for unpacking and understanding institutional change across sectors and disciplines and at different levels of governance. To this end, it identifies intervention and leverage points and helps to formulate sustainable solutions that can include different perspectives, as well as changing and competing needs. Overall, a new Natural Social Contract and the concept of TSEI encourage public officials, business leaders, and the greater public to consider how society can concretely improve humankind’s response to our greatest challenges.

If you are concerned about our society and our planet, and keeping both healthy for future generations, then this book is written for you. And if you have an interest in the systemic changes required to fundamentally shift our social, economic, ecological, and institutional perspectives, this book is for you too. Together, we can promote a sustainable, healthy, and just society and achieve change on the ground. This book offers a way forward.

1 Reader’s Guide

This book is intended for academics and broader audiences alike. Policymakers, civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and the public will find practical insights and philosophies along with more in-depth theoretical discussions summarized in outline.

The book will also appeal most to individuals engaged in multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary research on Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation, and reflective practitioners involved in transformative change projects. A wide readership of students, researchers, and policymakers interested in social innovation, transition studies, social policy, development studies, social justice, climate change, environmental studies, political science, and economics will find this cutting-edge book particularly useful.

In Chap. 2, I provide a problem definition and the related field of development. I will start with an introduction to the paradox of prosperity (Sect. 2.1), the ecological limits of our planet (Sect. 2.2), and how this relates to a broad range of security and justice issues (Sect. 2.3). Following this, the chapter addresses the necessity and nature of the sustainability transition (Sect. 2.4). Chapter 2 concludes with a plea to be more explicit on the future beyond the sustainability transition (Sect. 2.5).

In Chap. 3, I explain how the sustainability transition offers humankind an opportunity for a new social contract: a ‘natural’ social contract. Following a brief introduction on the origins of the social contract (Sect. 3.1), I address the question of whether there can be human progress without economic growth, and explore redesigning economics based on ecology. This chapter includes a debate on the role and scope of the free market (Sect. 3.4), as well as an examination of how the Anglo-Saxon and Rhineland models fare in this debate (Sect. 3.5). Chapter 3 will also describe why we need a new social contract and what it should entail (Sect. 3.6). In doing so, I will embark on a quest for a Natural Social Contract (Sect. 3.7), and I will describe its theoretical foundations with multiple dimensions and crossovers (Sect. 3.8). In order to gain a better understanding of a Natural Social Contract and boost the development of such an arrangement, this chapter presents a conceptual framework for Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (TSEI) (Sect. 3.9), and how this may transpire at various governance levels (Sect. 3.10).

Part 2 of the book provides a brief literature review on the conceptual background of Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (Chap. 4). This includes a survey of key theories and concepts such as transition studies, institutional design principles for governing the commons, design principles from nature, various approaches to collective learning, multiple value creation, effective cooperation, and a section on the art of co-creation among others.

Part 3 offers a research and innovation agenda for a better understanding and advancement of Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation towards a sustainable, healthy, and just society. Chapter 5 highlights several analytical instruments for studying Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation, including an analytical framework for Transformative Social-Ecological Innovation (Sect. 5.1), a power and network analysis (Sect. 5.2), a framework for analysing different levels of collective learning (Sect. 5.3), and a section on collaborative action research (Sect. 5.4).

Chapters 6 and 7 will underscore relevant and ongoing research and educational activities, including the transition to a sustainable and healthy agri-food system (Chap. 6) and urban sustainability transitions (Chap. 7).

Finally, Chap. 8 wraps up the book with a conclusion, followed by a bibliography.