Article 10 of 20 – “Forever stuck in old ways? Pluralising incumbencies in sustainability transitions.”

We gotta get beyond the comedy cartoon image of incumbents tying the heroine to the train tracks while twirling their moustache and cackling maniacally. We gotta be beyond incumbents ONLY being Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies. Incumbents are a more slippery proposition than that, and we do ourselves and others a disservice if we don’t think this stuff through more seriously. And, right on time, comes…

Turnheim, B. and Sovacool. B. 2020. Forever stuck in old ways? Pluralising incumbencies in sustainability transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 180–184

So, it’s not a long article, but here are some of the killer quotes

More recently, scholars have suggested that niche-regime interactions suffer from an asymmetrically treatment (Mylan et al., 2019) or that “regimes have been black-boxed, and few studies have explored incumbents’ responses to transition processes” (Steen and Weaver, 2017). (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:181)

In other cases, however, incumbent actors have been observed to contribute to niche-regime interactions (Berggren et al., 2015) and to contribute to regime fragmentation by pursuing divergent strategies (Steen and Weaver, 2017). In this context, we ask whether it is time for the field to engage more subtly with claims around the role of incumbents in transitions processes. We are not alone in proposing to cast a new light on forms of incumbency: Berggren et al. (2015) have argued for a more ‘dynamic’ understanding of incumbent actors and their influence over transitions pathways, Steen and Weaver (2017) have suggested a need to disentangle the partial overlap between incumbent actors and regimes, while Stirling (2019) has recently proposed that the depth and intractability of patterns of incumbency calls for a pluralising of perspectives.

(Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:181)

Firstly, when thinking about incumbencies, it is useful to recognise a multiplicity of incumbent actor types, representing the heterogeneous make-up of socio-technical systems. Indeed, inasmuch as socio-technical systems are understood as complex bundles of heterogeneous interacting elements jointly contributing to the provision of societal functions, the make-up of actors developing, operating, maintaining or ‘disbanding’ from such configurations is also heterogeneous. (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:181)

It is, for instance, realistic to also observe incumbency at work in the actions of environmental NGOs within the formation, establishment and maturation of environmental regimes (Doyle and Doherty, 2006). This point aligns with wider calls for resisting the temptation of portraying socio-technical regimes as monolithic and inherently coherent entities (Stirling, 2011). (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182)

Across and within heterogeneous forms of incumbencies, different styles and sensitivities are likely to underpin a wide range of positioning strategies pursued (intentionally or not) by incumbent actors. With reference to the dual challenge of sustainability transitions (Kemp and Van Lente, 2011), two broad kinds of strategic actions can be distinguished: a) those related to techno-economic dimensions, and b) those related to socio-political and institutional dimensions. (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182

Identifying the varied forms of incumbent responses to various transitions contexts is an interesting direction. Mossel et al. (2018), for instance, have reviewed what various organisational theories have to say concerning the role and behaviour of incumbent firms during transitions. Others are exploring how incumbent industry actor strategies hinge upon the nature and perception of opportunity structures by said actors (Lee and Hess, 2019; Steen and Weaver, 2017). (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182)

Thirdly, it is crucial to recognise the transient nature of incumbent positioning strategies and incumbencies themselves. Indeed, the behaviours and strategies of incumbents are likely to change over time as part of internal dynamics (e.g. organisational learning) as well as significant changes in transitions contexts (e.g. accelerated dynamics or altered opportunity structures). (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182)

It hence becomes possible to explore how specific incumbent actors may change their strategies over time (e.g. from initial resistance and denial, to exploration and re-orientation when economic, environmental or societal pressures become too overwhelming) (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen, 2010; Turnheim and Geels, 2013) and to approach a variety of incumbent strategies related to sustainability innovation with greater nuance (Steen and Weaver, 2017). For instance, progress with low-carbon transitions is making a purely resistive stance increasingly short-term and untenable (Markard, 2018; Roberts et al., 2018), which may explain why we are empirically seeing greater engagement of incumbent actors. (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182)

They may engage in various forms of political advocacy, by shaping visions and expectations, or by pushing for reforms and the adoption of stricter standards, or even by manipulating political campaigns, information and knowledge (Sovacool and Brisbois, 2019). The resulting possible divergence of incumbent actor strategic positioning within regimes is likely an important source of ‘regime fragmentation’ (Steen and Weaver, 2017) that can accelerate destabilisation, decline or transformation (re-orientation or re-creation) pathways (Turnheim and Geels, 2013). (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:18x)

Fourthly, it is imperative to recognise the kinds of resources (material, capabilities, political, ideational) that incumbents might constructively deploy to support transformative change. (Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:182)

So, ‘not all incumbents remain stuck in old technological paradigms’ (Hansen and Coenen, 2017:503).

(Turnheim and Sovacool, 2020:183)

ALL the references look #amazeballs but these were the ones jumping out at me and saying READ ME (again in one or two cases).

Ansari, S., Krop, P., 2012. Incumbent performance in the face of a radical innovation: towards a framework for incumbent challenger dynamics. Res. Policy 41, 1357–1374.

Bergek, A., Berggren, C., Magnusson, T., Hobday, M., 2013. Technological discontinuities and the challenge for incumbent firms: destruction, disruption or creative accumulation? Res. Policy 42, 1210–1224.

Berggren, C., Magnusson, T., Sushandoyo, D., 2015. Transition pathways revisited: established firms as multi-level actors in the heavy vehicle industry. Res. Policy 44, 1017–1028.

Darnhofer, I., D’Amico, S., Fouilleux, E., 2019. A relational perspective on the dynamics of the organic sector in Austria, Italy, and France. J. Rural Stud.

Hansen, T., Coenen, L., 2017. Unpacking resource mobilisation by incumbents for biorefineries: the role of micro level factors for technological innovation system weaknesses. Technol. Anal. Strateg. Manag. 29, 500–513.

Jenkins, K., Sovacool, B., 2019. Managing energy and climate transitions in theory and practice: a critical systematic review of strategic niche management. In: Jenkins, K.E.H., Hopkins, D. (Eds.), Transitions in Energy Efficiency and Demand: The Emergence, Diffusion and Impact of Low-Carbon Innovation. Routledge, New York, pp. 235–257.

Köhler, J., Geels, F.W., Kern, F., Markard, J., Wieczorek, A., Alkemade, F., Avelino, F., Bergek, A., Boons, F., Fünfschilling, L., et al., 2019. An agenda for sustainability transitions research: state of the art and future directions. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 31, 1–32.

Lee, D., Hess, D.J., 2019. Incumbent resistance and the solar transition: changing opportunity structures and framing strategies. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 0–1.

Markard, J., 2018. The next phase of the energy transition and its implications for Research and Policy. Nat. Energy.

Roberts, C., Geels, F.W., Lockwood, M., Newell, P., Schmitz, H., Turnheim, B., Jordan, A., 2018. The politics of accelerating low-carbon transitions: towards a new research agenda. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 44, 304–311.

Sovacool, B., Brisbois, M., 2019. Elite power in low-carbon transitions: a critical and interdisciplinary review. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 57, 1–10.

Steen, M., Weaver, T., 2017. Incumbents’ diversification and cross-sectorial energy industry dynamics. Res. Policy 46, 1071–1086.

Stirling, A., 2019. Energy Research & Social Science how deep is incumbency? A ‘configuring fields’ approach to redistributing and reorienting power in socio-material change. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 58, 101239.

Turnheim, B., Geels, F.W., 2019. Incumbent actors, guided search paths, and landmark projects in infra-system transitions: Re-thinking Strategic Niche Management with a case study of French tramway diffusion (1971–2016). Res. Policy 48, 1412–1428.

van Mossel, A., van Rijnsoever, F.J., Hekkert, M.P., 2018. Navigators through the storm: a review of organization theories and the behavior of incumbent firms during transitions. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 26, 44–63.

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