Development policy increasingly focuses on building capacities to respond to change (adaptation), and to drive change (innovation). Few studies, however, focus specifically on the social and gender differentiation of capacities to adapt and innovate. We address this gap using a qualitative study in three communities in Solomon Islands; a developing country, where rural livelihoods and well-being are tightly tied to agriculture and fisheries. We find the five dimensions of capacity to adapt and to innovate (i.e. assets, flexibility, learning, social organisation, agency) to be mutually dependant. For example, limits to education, physical mobility and agency meant that women and youth, particularly, felt it was difficult to establish relations with external agencies to access technical support or new information important for innovating or adapting. Willingness to bear risk and to challenge social norms hindered both women’s and men’s capacity to innovate, albeit to differing degrees. Our findings are of value to those aspiring for equitable improvements to well-being within dynamic and diverse social–ecological systems.