This article can be found in the current issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs regarding Social Impact Bonds and the Urban Transformation.
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Confronted with the challenge of how to address complex urban problems in a climate of fiscal austerity, many governments around the world have turned to a new funding tool: the social impact bond (SIB). Pioneered in the UK in 2010, SIBs are investment contracts in which investors offer upfront funding for preventative social programs, with government agreeing to repay the investment and provide a return if these programs meet specified outcomes. Though SIBs have been the focus of a growing policy and academic literature, little is known about the work of building the SIB market infrastructure, the actors performing this labor, and the challenges and struggles encountered along the way. Drawing from the results of a larger 3-year study of SIBs in Canada, the United States, and the UK, this article maps out the essential features of each respective “SIB economy” and examines how the unique struggles encountered in each context reflect key tensions between the “financial” and the “local”; between urban financial elites and the logics of risk/return, standardization, and scale; and the local nature, contexts, and contingencies of urban social problems and related markets in social and public services. The result is a different lens through which to evaluate the nature, limitations, and future of social impact bonds.