Sociotechnical transitions for beginners; of speed, stability and mixing it up

What’s a sociotechnical transition? Why should you care?  What does history teach us? Why might it be a false teacher? All good questions and they received good (though sometimes, by necessity provisional) answers yesterday as Dr Florian Kern of University of Sussex spoke on ‘Governing Low Carbon Transitions’ (see foot of this post for the abstract).

Kern, who is a senior Lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit and Co-Director of the  Sussex Energy Group at University Sussex, started with a brief overview of energy – there are lots of different ways we (7 and a half billion of us) get energy – nuclear, coal, solar, burning wood etc) and each has consequences/sideeffects/costs (Fukushima, tar sands etc).  He touched on the Sustainable Development Goals (see here for a philosophical critique of them).  Energy dominates human well-being, and – crucially –  energy systems tent to be complex, long-lived and capital intensive. This means they involve ‘carbon lock-in’ . Businesses will be fonder of doing incremental ‘within the system’ changes on a business as usual trajectory.  You’ve got assets, you want to sweat them.  You’ve got core competencies, you don’t want to trash them…

So this leads us onto transitions of whole systems (rather than focussing unduly on shiny gadgets being invented and distributed).   How exacly do we think about these systems?  Technological infrastructure, user preferences? A mix.

Kern touched on the standard definition of a transition – scrutucal change in the way that societal needs are fulfilled (the thorny question of created needs – via advertising or destroying alternative provision – throwing people off the commons/accumulation by dispossession) was outside his remit.

The standard view (see below) is that they usually take 30-50 years, if not longer, that they involve both technical and non-technical change, that they are multi-level and co-evolutionary affairs that are non-linear and involve multiple actors.

At which point he threw up that Turner painting of a steam tug taking a sailing ship on its final journey…


So, transitions have various possible pathways, with questions around how they’re developed and supported.

There was then a rather snazzy and useful diagram of Jochen Markard listing some of the various intellectual (well, academic) disciplines which contribute to transitions studies – management, sociology, political science, natural science, , innovation studies, economic geography, economics (an incomplete list)

There are soooo many emerging topics within (sustainability) sociotechnical transitions, more than you could shake a thesis at.  (Deep breath): politics, power, agency, contestation; cities/urban sustainability’ beyond initial experiments (how to scale up/extend/mainstream); the role of social innovation.  [Fortunately my thesis (due by 2020, 2022 at the latest), will resolve ALL of these.]

Kern today was specifically focusing on three particular topics – the speed of transitions, whether/how sociotechnical systems can be destabilised and the appropriate ‘policy mix’ for transitions.

  1. Speed

“Speed” is not just a classic Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock action film.  It also matters given that we’re supposed to be decarbonising not just electricity grids but everything under, well, the sun.  Keeling Curve, Two Degrees, etc etc (#wearetoast)

The conventional view is this takes decades or centuries, but in late 2016 Benjam Sovacool (also SPRU) threw a very lively cat among the pigeons by arguing ‘How long will it take?’

It all might be quicker, he argues (and I am paraphrasing a paraphrase, not having re-read that paper!)  because … three things

  • there are lots of actors pushing,
  • lots of interesting international dynamics (from the global – IRENA, UNFCCC all the way through to local communities [Carbon Coop will save the world!!! I hope.]
  • Paris  (don’t talk to me about Paris).

Kern was interesting on the international dynamics thing, arguing (as have others) that German Solar PV policies got the Chinese interested in upping their manufacturing capacity, leading to oversupply, a price plummet and all sorts of gamechangery stuff. He cited also Peter Newell and Lucy Baker on emerging economies and possibly leapfrogging.  Suzlon instead of Vestas etc

Meanwhile, since (but not necessarily because of) Paris, renewable investment is outstripping fossil fuel investment.
2.  Destabilisation

We need to move beyond nurturing niches (What was that Vonnegut said about half the world’s problems being down to the fact at everyone wants to build, nobody wants to do maintenance).

So, what of incumbents?  Is Goliath motivated to innovate before David bullseyes him like a Womp rat? Can dinosaurs tapdance or do they just engage in state capture and buying/swallowing/crushing/controlling/retarding competence-destroying innovations?  It depends.

There are of course technological, economic, political and normative dimensions to all this.  And the incumbents toil at all of them, as do moral entrepreneurs like the divestors.

3. Policy Mixes

So (how) do various policies affect what innovation does happen?  Kern referenced Weber and Rohracher 2012 and Schot and Steinmuller 2016 here. What of both active and passive ‘protective spaces‘? There are no silver bullets (either policy or technological) and the direction of innovation matters too…

Can we honestly expect serious destabilisation through policy instruments? (I would argue nope, but I am one of life’s pessimists).  Kern pointed to the German Energy ministers attempted carbon levy and the pushback from mining companies and miners leading to companies being paid NOT to produce.  Great.  Then again, Norway and banning the internal combustion engine.  We. Shall. See. Quite soon.  (I’m writing of the Apocalypse here, y’all).

The empirical bit of the seminar came from a comparison of Finnish and UK policies for the Cinderella of energy policy, efficiency.  Kivimaa and Kern 2016 did some number crunching (with self-admitted concerns about the final validity of the methodology) and came to the conclusion that niche-creating activities were far more numerous than incumbent-attacking ones.  Then again, in the q and a it was pointed out that the latter, while fewer in number, might be more consequential.

This was followed by a vigorous Q and A session (but no chest-beatery nonsense) in which the relative lack of focus on individual firms was questioned (“in regimes they’re called incumbents, that’s it, but since Wikileaks we know Shell was ALL OVER Dutch energy policy”).

Kern agreed and lamented the lack of comparative political economy on the relative importance of policies and the nature of different states (esp fossil exporters)

The whole question of policy mixes got a further airing too (the lack of optimal mixes, the methodological trickiness of measurement, the fact that it’s always a snapshot in time and investors (aim to) take a long view.

Verdict: A great way to spend 90 minutes. Beats cutting cutting cutting my bloody empirical chapters.  And yes, Katrina, I have been doing that….


That abstract

“For a variety of reasons, current fossil fuel based energy systems are under pressure to change. Historical energy transitions have been slow processes, but in this seminar I will argue that there are reasons to believe that ongoing low carbon transitions can occur more quickly. The argument is that historic energy transitions were not consciously governed, while today a wide variety of actors is actively engaged in attempts to govern the transition towards low carbon energy, international innovation dynamics can work in favour of speeding up the global low-carbon transition and the 2015 Paris agreement demonstrates a global commitment to move towards a low carbon economy for the first time. I argue that supporting innovation as well as destabilising existing high carbon energy systems is required for a quick transition and that policy makers need to develop suitable policy mixes to successfully accelerate low carbon transitions.”


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