Current and future sustainability challenges are increasingly acknowledged to be of a persistent and systemic nature. This gives rise to calls for likewise systemic solution strategies: Transformative system innovations instead of incremental system improvements, and societal transitions rather than procrastination on current locked-in trajectories. On these accounts, incremental change will not do. Still it proves difficult to achieve truly radical transformations. Insights from innovation theory, governance, sociology and critical theory help understand why radical transformation is unlikely to occur: Novelty, if it is to spread at all, should be acceptable to potential ‘adopters’, and should not be overly disruptive to existing practices. Initiatives should be radical enough to constitute transformative potential, but also shallow enough to be acceptable in current institutional constellations: This contradiction between transformation and non-disruption, the ‘paradox of acceptable novelty’, can be considered a key system innovation challenge. It is only paradoxical in its idealized form, however. System-innovative practices bring out various ways of dealing with the contradiction and its tradeoffs. This paper returns to the archetypical example of the more favorable case: The Trojan horse, the seemingly innocuous innovation with latent transformative force. Addressing its ambiguities, the concept’s practical relevance is elicited. Clever levers to systemic change may be devised, but inversely they may become ‘domesticated’ and neutralized. Based on a comparative case study on innovation attempts in the Dutch traffic management field, it is shown how these two faces can even alternate. The ‘incremental’ turn towards ‘network-oriented’ traffic management and the ‘radical’ call for the social sharing of space display an intriguing mixture of transformative and non-disruptive faces. Analyzed as sequences of ‘translations’, these cases help understand and deal with the ambiguities of Trojan horses. A dialectical approach to ‘acceptable novelty’ helps combine system-innovative idealism with Machiavellian agility.

system innovation
Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Pel, B. (2012). Trojan horses in System Innovation; A dialectical perspective on the paradox of acceptable novelty. Retrieved from