Niche to meet you, meet you niche… The Politics of SusTrans #02

Unless I win t’lottery on the weekend, I’ll be at a symposium on Monday, about the politics of socio-technical transitions. My blog about the first two papers is here, fwiw. This one will cover the second two papers. There may be a third post before, on the fifth (optional) paper and some other stuff I wanna talk about (around the stories we tell ourselves to get up in the morning).  It depends how much I get done this weekend on the paper about emancipatory catastrophism, third wave feminism and “Carbon Diaries 2015/7” I get done. It’s not like the Dystopias conference at which I have to present it is next week or anything. No, wait…

Whenever I write about niches, I like to get a few quotes out of the way first.

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
Ch. 6 of Macchiavelli’s The Prince


…Harwood blinks. ‘It’s what we do now instead of bohemias,” he says.
“Instead of what?”
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of Geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to re-commodification, not in the same way. We don’t know why exactly.”
William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties


I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.
Gilbert K. Chesterton


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

And (finally!) a video about “Strategic Niche Management” around a paper by two academics, Gil Seyfang and Alex Haxeltine

Right, finally, the two papers. First up

Smith, A., Raven, R., 2012, ‘What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability’, Research Policy, 41(6), 1025-1036

This one … is a corker.

It’s short, but took me ages to read, not because it was badly written (quite the opposite) but because the richness and volume of the ideas-per-square inch.

Basically they want to add “empowerment” to the literature about niche protection. But they are very alive to the (often justified) criticism of state’s “picking winners” and the ‘if you build it [a trough] they will come [and squeal with anger when you try to get their snouts out of it]” problem.  Especially when the bureaucrats who administer the programme have no interest in admitting failure, because they want to protect both their own careers and the arses of their political bosses.

“Historical experience indicates how difficult it can be for governments to credibly compel protected firms to learn and acquire new innovative capabilities, and that even well-intended governments can find it hard to independently withdraw public protection from infant industries that are not improving (Schrank, 1997). This might be because those industries have become politically significant constituencies for them to be abandoned (e.g. important for the labour and/or capital interests upon whom government elites are dependent).”
(Smith and Raven: 2012:1030)

It would be a real dilemma for a “sympathetic” minister, to be seen to be picking winners. If the minister knows the people, it will be “jobs for the boys”, if he/she doesn’t, and hasn’t looked the recipients in the eye, then he/she shouldn’t be gambling state money. Either way, they will end up skewered in Private Eye. And, as Barry Jones (Australian Science minister 1983-1990), timing is everything – if you are premature, nobody is happy. But I have digressed….

Smith and Raven are also very aware that a beautiful theory can be – if not slain – quite roughed up by some ugly facts.

Moreover, while the two broad patterns are analytically attractive, we expect in empirical work to find a more messy and dynamic reality, in which different actor networks debate different adaptations to niche innovation under different regime circumstances (cf. Smith, 2007). It is here where a more sophisticated analysis of political narratives becomes helpful by providing an agency-based and politics-informed framework for understanding shifts in the resource interdependencies that drive niche development.
(Smith and Raven: 2012:1034)

Oh, and The table (1) about what you can do to create/protect/empower/”stretch and transform” a niche will be dead useful for structuring purposes if/when I write something on how the Australian coal industry has done its level best to scupper/slow the growth of renewables (wind and solar esp).

References for after the Great Relaxation

Hommels, A., Peters, P., Bijker, W.E., 2007. Techno therapy or nurtured niches? Technology studies and the evaluation of radical innovations. Research Policy 36, 1088–1099.

Lampel, J., Meyer, A.D., 2008. Field-configuring events as structuring mechanisms: how conferences, ceremonies, and trade shows constitute new technologies, industries and markets. Journal of Management Studies 45 (6), 1025–1035.

Law, J., Callon, M., 1994. The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change. In: Bijker, W.E., Law, J. (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Star, S.L., 2010. This is not a boundary object: reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technology & Human Values 35 (5), 601–617.

Steenblik, R.P., 1995. A note on the concept of ‘subsidy’. Energy Policy 23 (6), 483–484.

Von Tunzelmann, N., Malerba, F., Nightingale, P., Metcalfe, S., 2008. Technological paradigms: past, present and future. Industrial and Corporate Change 17 (3), 467–484.

Hess, D. (2013) Industrial fields and countervailing power: The transformation of distributed solar energy in the United States Global Environmental Change 23 847-855.

Is… also a corker. Where I come from “GI” stands for gastro-intestinal. As in a “GI bleed” is bad news (for you, but not for the companies that sell swabs and medical equipment, and, if the surgery goes wrong, the person who then gets your bed). Here “GI” means Grassroots Innovation.

GIs bleed, in either case – Hess details what happens to niche actors when they mix it with the big boys. Usually they lose. If they “win” it usually means their radical ideas get shorn away and the private-profit-making bits get absorbed into The System (Man). And they are probably only even going to get absorbed if there’s another big outfit that can use said innovation in the never ending turf battle. As the one bearable moment in “The Phantom Menace” went, “there’s always a bigger fish.”

Such is the nature of our large technical systems, eh? Curiously, Hess doesn’t mention the charmers at the American Legislative Executive Council.

Some quotes

The multiple environmental challenges facing the world today—climate instability, shortages of food and water, irreversible ecosystem damage, and persistent chemical pollutants— require fundamental changes in technological systems. The changes are shaped not only by technological innovation and competition in the marketplace but also by political processes that involve conflicts among social movements, corporations, and governments. One example for which such political processes are especially important is the role of grassroots innovations (GIs) in sustainability transitions. This study will contribute to research on GIs and technological change by developing a political process perspective that focuses on the role of the industrial power of large corporations in shaping contention over sustainable technology.
(Hess, 2013:847)


Fields are relations of conflict and cooperation among agents (individuals, organizations, or informal networks) who have a shared stake in a particular outcome (such as the mix of electricity generation) but differential capacity to influence the outcome. Agents in the field possess different types and levels of capital (e.g., financial, environmental credibility, political), and in most fields they can be categorized as occupying dominant or subordinate positions, such as the fossil-fuel and nuclear-energy generation companies and the much smaller and less powerful renewable energy companies and GI projects.
(Hess, 2013:849)

And what does all this mean in practice? Big boys’ rules

Although there is municipal ownership of electricity distribution (and in some cases generation) in several large cities in the U.S., municipalization is a challenging road to a sustainability transition. The transaction costs are high, because cities must borrow to pay the IOUs for the power lines, they must develop the expertise and ability to manage a LTS, and they often face years of battles in courts and in elections due to challenges from the IOU. In recent decades, few cities have undergone municipalization in the United States. San Francisco tried, and its story has become a warning to other cities…..
In 2001 two ballot propositions would have enabled the city to municipalize its electricity, but they faced strong opposition from the IOU. Both ballot propositions were defeated, one by a narrow margin of 500 votes. Advocates tried again in 2002, but their campaign expenditures of $50,000 did not match that of the IOU, which spent over $2 million. In general, IOUs have intensely resisted municipalization efforts, just as cable companies have resisted efforts to undertake public ownership of broadband Internet (Greeley and Fitzgerald, 2011).
(Hess, 2013:850)

And is this sort of nonsense happening in Australia? You. Betcha.

Some references for after the Great Relaxation
Avelino, F., 2011. Power in transition: empowering discourses on sustainability transitions. PhD Dissertation. Erasmus University. See here!

Coley, J., Hess, D., 2012. Green energy laws and Republican legislators in the United States. Energy Policy 18 (1), 576–583.


Also, while looking for Reagan’s “Solar Socialism” speech, I found this

Your President Jimmy Carter was the first politician to promote an industrial revolution with renewables,” Fell said when we met in his Berlin office in April. “I looked to the USA in the 1970s. There was wind power in California and solar power on the White House. I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful! Why can’t we have this in Germany?'”

For a time, the United States led the world in developing renewable energy. At one point the Carter administration’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) made the dream of a renewable energy economy so real that it set off alarms in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

“The big powers are seriously trying to find alternatives to oil by seeking to draw energy from the sun,” Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani warned his colleagues. “We hope to God they will not succeed quickly because our position in that case will be painful.”

Four years later, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. The new administration considered SERI a prime example of what it derided as “solar socialism.” The budget of the world’s leading solar institute was slashed and before long it was back to (oil) business as usual.

As Fell tells it: “Reagan said, ‘Go away with this shit of renewables.’ And that was that.”

A generation of Germans picked up the renewable torch that the Reagan administration tossed aside and bought up SERI-produced patents at fire-sale prices. The renewable energy revolution didn’t end. It moved overseas and was renamed die Energiewende.

and dredged up this from t’memory;

COMMITTEES Environment, Recreation and the Arts Committee Report

Thursday, 17 November 1994
Mr Chynoweth “I would like to make some comments on various aspects of our report. In the first area we have made a recommendation regarding finance for solar hot water units. In the 1960s I used to work in Darwin, at the time when the federal government built the majority of the housing there. It insisted that solar hot water systems be fitted to all defence houses and things like that.

Mr Lindsay —And also for national parks, aviation and so on.

Mr Chynoweth —Yes, DCA, et cetera. That government decision forced Australia to set up its own solar heating manufacturing industry. That is the sort of area we can get into once again. Even in Melbourne I have a solar heater in my backyard and I use it for heating my hothouse and swimming pool. I am one of the people who actually use one; however, not many people in Melbourne do it. We could have great savings in Melbourne. Other cities should have it. The Commonwealth government should be giving tax incentives. I know we recommend energy cards and all those sorts of things to try to get people to move more into this area. We are world leaders in solar hot water technology; there is a great market there and we can move in there very quickly. I am quite certain that it will create many thousands of jobs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: