Upcycling – a new perspective on waste in social innovation


  • Charlotte Wegener
  • Marie Aakjær




upcycling, innovation, co-design, learning, sustainability, social work


The purpose of this paper is to introduce ‘upcycling’ – a well-known term within design practice – to the field of social innovation. A mix between ‘upgrading’ (adding value) and ‘recycling’ (reusing) creates the word upcycling, which, in its simplest terms, is the practice of reassessing waste and transforming it into something valuable. In this paper, we ask: How does an upcycle mind-set and practice contribute to situated social innovation?

This conceptual paper seeks to combine insights from the fields of social innovation and co-design with the ideas inherent in upcycling. To ground the theorizing of what we term ‘social upcycling’, four cases are used to illustrate what upcycling practices look like. The cases illustrate the diversity of actors, activities and materiality involved in social upcycling processes. Concluding, the paper outlines a new promising area of social innovation and some practical implications.

Author Biographies

Charlotte Wegener

Ph.D., Associate professor
Department of Communication
Aalborg University
Kroghstræde 3
DK-9220 Aalborg
Phone: 0030458582

Marie Aakjær

Ph.D., lecturer
Centre of Management and Experience Design
University College Zealand
Trekroner Forskerpark 4
DK-4000 Roskilde


12 Byer (2015). Ministeriet for By, Bolig og Landdistrikter. [12 cities’ (2015), Ministry for City, Housing and Rural Districts].

Banerjee, S. B. (2011). ‘Embedding Sustainability across the Organization: A Critical Perspective’. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(4), 719–31.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). ‘Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation’. Organization Science 2 (1): 40–57.

Burns, C., Cottam, H., Vanstone, C, & Winhall (2006). ‘Transformation Design’. RED Paper 2.

Gudiksen, S., & Lerche, C. (2012). ‘Musicon Byder På Samarbejde På Kryds Og Tværs’. Tidsskriftet Vand & Jord,19(1): 4–6. (’Musicon offers broad collaboration’ (2012), Journal for Water and Soil)

Hargadon, A. B., & Sutton, R. I. (2000). ‘Building an Innovation Factory’. Harvard Business Review, 78(3), 157–66.

Hargadon, A. B. (2002). ‘Brokering Knowledge: Linking Learning and Innovation’. Research in Organizational Behavior, 24, 41–85.

Hartley, J. (2005). ‘Innovation in Governance and Public Services: Past and Present’. Public Money and Management, 25(1), 27–34.

Høyrup, S. (2010). ‘Employee-Driven Innovation and Workplace Learning: Basic Concepts, Approaches and Themes’. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research,16(2), 143–54.

Kimbell, L., & Julier, J. (2012). ‘The Social Design Methods Menu’. Perpetual Beta.

McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

Mulgan, G., Tucker, S. Ali, R., & Sanders, B. (2007). ‘Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters and How It Can Be Accelerated, The Young Foundation’. Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneuship Working Paper 376.

Tanggaard, L., & Wegener, C. (2015). ‘Why Novelty Is Overrated’. Journal of Education and Work. Routledge. doi:10.1080/13639080.2015.1040379.

Telier, A., Binder, T., De Michelis, G., Ehn, P., Jacucci, G., & Wagner, I. (2011). Design Things. The MIT Press.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Aakjær, M. K. (2014). ‘Reconfiguring Boundaries in Social Innovation. Co-Creating New Meaning and Practice in a Prison Context’. Department of Education. Copenhagen: Aarhus University.




How to Cite

Wegener, C., & Aakjær, M. (2016). Upcycling – a new perspective on waste in social innovation. Journal of Comparative Social Work, 11(2), 242–260. https://doi.org/10.31265/jcsw.v11i2.143