4 dimensional chess: “Technological innovation systems in contexts: Conceptualizing contextual structures and interaction dynamics”

Yikes. I just ain’t ever gonna be this smart. I mean, I can see how it’s done, like watching Roger Federer play tennis. You can understand the commentators explaining. But to actually DO it? Yeah, good luck with that.

Oh well. Fortunately though, to collect a pay check, I am not going to have to be this kinda ninja. Just a solid, reliable practitioner who is on the way to expert will be enough.

This is, in case you’d not gathered, an extraordinary piece of work, by people who have been at this stuff for years, who literally wrote the book(s). Which might explain the reasons for my awe.

The key sentence in that abstract is this “We identify and discuss four especially important types of context structures: technological, sectorial, geographical and political”  (Bergek et al. 2015: 51) 

I don’t know enough about TIS, having been, for various reasons, mostly “raised” on MLP (see Sorrell’s critique) and SNM (which I once did a video about, true story). Practice theory has its uses too. But TIS has been kind of in its own black box (ho ho).

So this origin story jumped out at me –

… the TIS concept was originally formulated as a critique of territorial innovation system concepts (Carlsson and Stankiewicz, 1991 see also Oinas and Malecki, 2002), by explicitly claiming that system formation processes normally run across any pre-set territorial boundaries. Indeed, Carlsson (2006) diagnosed that the majority of innovation systems research (including NIS, RIS and SIS) was not able to adequately address the growing globalization of innovative activities and urged for explicitly adopting an international view on innovation processes. In a multi-scalar perspective it is often hard to decide where actors, networks and institutions are actually located. Multinational firms, for instance, may be active in a specific region, but they are also connected to many other places in the world. They will therefore create structural couplings with all those geographical contexts they are active in. As a consequence, their corporate strategies will often reflect priorities which emerge out of overall considerations in their global value chains and not only focus on interests of a specific branch plant.  Bergek et al. 2015:59) 

Look, the whole damn thing is one long “read it twice, figure out what it is saying, slap your head and punch the air and say ‘of course’ while marvelling that such “obvious” insights are only obvious in retrospect, having been dug up and polished by very smart people…” Here is a non-exhaustive collection

As a technology-centred framework, there has always been a focus on technology-specific factors in TIS research. However, since it is a systems approach analysts have from its inception tried to find ways to take into account interactions with other types of systems encompassing or transcending the TIS, such as sectoral and national systems of innovation. Indeed, the ‘functions approach’ was developed as a methodological tool to handle this complexity by aggregating various influences (of different origins) on the dynamics of a TIS into a set of key processes (Hekkert et al., 2007; Jacobsson and Bergek, 2006; Johnson and Jacobsson, 2001). This has allowed for a large number of detailed empirical analyses of how the dynamics of various TISs have been influenced by internal and external pushes and pulls (for reviews, see Bergek, 2012; Truffer et al., 2012).  (Bergek et al. 2015:52) 

While these studies have all contributed to a better understanding of how a TIS relates to various context structures we still lack a coherent framework that makes explicit how the interactions between a TIS and its contexts can be conceptualized. Such a framework would have at least four clear benefits. First, it would improve the TIS framework as a policy tool in that an improved contextual understanding would guide analysts in their search for central interactions between a focal TIS and its context. Second, it would increase the awareness among analysts and policy-makers that contexts vary widely and that technologies develop differently in different contexts. Explicit consideration of contexts would, thus, increase our understanding of the particularities of individual case studies and, at the same time, provide a basis for a classification, generalization and transfer of findings, which is of key importance for TIS-based policy-making. Third, by acknowledging that context structures are not static but change over time, it would allow analysts to identify particularly favourable (or unfavourable) opportunities for development of new technologies. Fourth, a coherent framework incorporating context structures would facilitate further analytical work with a focus on how a given TIS (or set of TISs) impacts on different contexts. Hence, an additional benefit may be to pave the way for the development of a TIS-based framework which is helpful for analyzing larger transitions involving the growth and decline of several technologies and associated sectoral transformation processes.  (Bergek et al. 2015:52) 

Third and finally, we may identify context structures that are related to the provision of specific system-level assets. Think of political support for technology-specific policies, the need for trained personnel or the provision of venture capital. In each case, a focal TIS will have to interact more or less intensely with the political, educational or financial system, respectively. Each of these may exhibit very particular constraints and dynamics, which impact the further development of a TIS.  (Bergek et al. 2015:54) 

By including a more elaborate analysis of the interaction between the focal TIS and other TISs a whole new range of research questions emerge like: (1) What is the influence of TIS–TIS competition on the focal TIS and the role of policy in magnifying or balancing competitive forces (Hillman et al., 2008; Wirth and Markard, 2011)? (2) What are the typical types of struggles between actors from different innovation systems (Suurs and Hekkert, 2009a)? (3) Under what conditions do actors in competing TISs decide to run in packs and collaborate for institutional reforms (Bergek et al., 2008c; Jacobsson and Lauber, 2006)? (4) How do technological improvement and infrastructure developments in one TIS influence the success chances of other TISs, e.g. when are forerunners acting as ‘bridging technologies’ that pave the way for others and when do they lock competitors out of the market (Andersson and Jacobsson, 2000; Sandén and Hillman, 2011)? (5) What synergies (rather than competition) can occur between emerging and more established TISs (Haley, 2015) (Bergek et al. 2015:56) 

Sector-level networks, such as lobbying organizations, industry associations or collaborative research networks, can influence ‘legitimation’ and ‘guide the direction of search’ of all TISs associated with a sector.6 If actors of a focal TIS participate in such networks, they can potentially influence agendas to the benefit of the TIS, for example by making sure that part of the budget of a research institute is spent on TIS-relevant research.  (Bergek et al. 2015:56) 

Sector-level institutions also include laws, regulations and economic support systems aimed at all or most technologies in a sector, e.g. emissions or performance standards, which influence ‘market formation’ as well as the ‘direction of search’ to or from specific TISs. Some of these have technology-specific components or rules, which creates structural couplings with the affected TISs. For example, the Swedish tradable green certificate system, which in principle applies to all renewable electricity production, has technology-specific rules about which hydropower plants can receive certificates and, similarly, the German feed-in law differentiates between technologies in terms of fixed-price levels. 

Bergek et al. 2015:57) 

However, interactions between a focal TIS and geographical contexts get quite a bit more complex if we focus on two further problems that are associated with geography as context (Truffer and Coenen, 2012): (i) structural couplings that lead to the embedding of TIS structures in a specific territory (think of a firm that proactively develops a new technology and is at the same time very actively supporting the education of the regional labour force, or farmers that adopt a cooperative management system for biogas because they have developed a culture of sharing machines and resources with their local neighbours), and (ii) structural couplings that relate to actors, networks and institutions that interconnect different places (e.g. in the case of transnational companies or globalized value chains).  (Bergek et al. 2015:58) 

. As a consequence, TIS elements may get structurally coupled with these territorially aligned elements. Take for instance, building codes which may represent major barriers for the instalment of spatially extensive energy technologies like renewables. Building codes have developed over historical time periods, integrating specific regional or national political priorities related to housing needs, industrial development, landscape and nature protection, as well as livelihood and aesthetic considerations. The instalment of renewable energy technologies may be strongly impacted by these codes and in that case they represent external links. TIS actors will have to try to either adapt to or change specific regulations within these building codes. In the latter case, building codes will represent a structural coupling. This coupled dynamics of TIS and building codes is on the one side affected by all other considerations that are associated with regional building codes and on the other side the codes may be changed in a way that might have unintended consequences in other areas (e.g. a changed perception of aesthetic perceptions of roof surfaces or physical landscape). 

Bergek et al. 2015:58) 

As Van de Ven and Garud (1989, p. 210) put it: “firms not only compete in the market place but also in this political institutional context. Rival firms often cooperate to collectively manipulate the institutional context to legitimize and gain access to resources necessary for collective survival …” (Bergek et al. 2015:59) 

Van de Ven, A.H., Garud, R., 1989. A framework for understanding the emergence of new industries. In: Rosenbloom, R., Burgelman, R. (Eds.), Research on Technological Innovation and Management Policy. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT, pp. 195–226 

A weakness of much of the TIS and transitions literature is, however, that the political circumstances that make the adoption of policies supporting a far reaching transformation likely is not addressed (Markard et al., 2015). When the political system is explicitly considered as a contextual system, attention needs to be given to the characterization of the political system, including its dynamics, and how it constrains or enables the further development of the focal TIS. An example is Schenner (2011), who analyses the politics behind the ‘selection’ of tradable green certificates in Sweden as a regulatory framework for governing investments in technologies that supply electricity from renewable energy sources. This framework impacts on all associated TISs and constitutes a major blocking mechanism of TIS dynamics beyond the demonstration phase, except for the currently most cost-effective technologies. She traces the roots of this choice to a political ideology which is strongly influenced by a core belief in the superiority of technology-neutral policies. This ideology is much due to the political influence of the large Swedish energy-intensive base industry (iron and steel, paper and pulp and chemical industries). The dominance of this ideology makes it a major challenge to influence the understanding of acceptable policy solutions so that these include technology-specific market formation policies.  (Bergek et al. 2015:60) 

analysts should tread warily when setting the technological and territorial boundaries within which they want to analyze a specific TIS. Ideally, for the case of territorial boundaries, they would first identify the global set of TIS-elements and functions and then determine whether their preferred spatial delimitation represents a sufficiently interconnected sub-system in the global TIS. Furthermore, an analyst should carefully identify which sort of “external factors” have to be taken into account and whether these are sufficiently independent of each other to be treated as isolated forces. If not, the system boundary would have to be redefined in order to allow for more complex system topologies. For instance, the analysis would consist of a set of nested TISs if a national TIS is heavily influenced by higher-order policies (e.g. as in the case of a national offshore wind TIS being part of a European TIS). Another case could be if a TIS analysis was framed as the coupled dynamics of two national TISs (cf. Bento and Fontes, 2015)  (Bergek et al. 2015:61) 

There are, of course, a gazillion references, but these will do for now… 

Jacobsson, S., Karltorp, K., 2013. Mechanisms blocking the dynamics of the European offshore wind energy innovation system—Challenges for policy intervention. Energy Policy 63, 1182–1195.  

Jacobsson, S., Lauber, V., 2006. The politics and policy of energy system transformation—explaining the German diffusion of renewable energy technology. Energy Policy 34, 256–276.  

Jacobsson, T., Jacobsson, S., 2014. Conceptual confusion—an analysis of the meaning of concepts in technological innovation systems and sociological functionalism. Technol. Anal. Strateg. Manage., 1–13. 

Markard, J., Truffer, B., 2008. Technological innovation systems and the multi-level perspective: towards an integrated framework. Res. Policy 37, 596–615. 

Weber, K.M., Rohracher, H., 2012. Legitimizing research, technology and innovation policies for transformative change: combining insights from innovation systems and multi-level perspective in a comprehensive ‘failures’ framework. Res. Policy 41, 1037–1047. 

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