“Incumbent actors as niche agents”

Späth, P., Rohracher, H., and von Radecki, A., 2016. Incumbent actors as niche agents: the German car industry and the taming of the “Stuttgart E-mobility region”. Sustainability, 8 (3), 252. doi:10.3390/su8030252  


I read this for more on the “how incumbents behave” question, and it didn’t disappoint. As folks (including in articles I’ve read this month) have long argued, characterising incumbent behaviour as all-resistance-all-the-time, either overt or covert, is going to mean you simply miss some of the more interesting and significant stuff that goes on. As well as being, well, how to put this with nuance…. “wrong.” Being predictably and unproductively wrong is, well, stupid.

They note that

“As some critics argue, transition theory does not put sufficient emphasis on the role that powerful actors can actually play in changing the course of such change processes [7,8]—partly because of a focus on change processes “from below” (niches) and partly due to its foundation in a systems perspective.” (Spath et al. 2016: 1) 

And therefore what they want to explore is –

It is this complex interplay of interests, discursive agency and systemic change that we want to explore with regard to a particular interplay of key industry and governmental actors. Such actor constellations often reflect the particularity of a certain region which may, for example, also be dominated in political terms by key industries. We need to acknowledge such spatial particularities in order to understand the dynamics of socio-technical change and therefore to apply an explicitly geographical perspective on this process [9,10] (Spath et al. 2016: 2) 

, incumbent firms may attempt to shape and redefine transitions in a way which allows them to retain a central market position. To hedge against the risk of not being prepared, it is thus also rational for such actors to get involved in experiments relating to these emerging alternatives to the classical business case of the industry (Spath et al. 2016: 2) 

Focusing particularly on agency in such a “transition arena”, our key questions are: How do the key actors in this arena frame the challenge of sustainable mobility? How do different parts of the industry relate to each other? What role is attributed to public policy? What role is attributed to the industry? (Spath et al. 2016: 3) 

While transition study approaches help us understand the inertia of highly stabilized and interdependent systems, the potential of incumbent regime actors to strategically react to and effectively attenuate challenges to their superior position—such as changed societal expectations, novel technologies or regulatory policies—often tends to be downplayed (see [25–28] for recent exceptions). (Spath et al. 2016: 3) 

Smith and Kern [30], for example, showed in their study of the Dutch Energy transition in 2009, how incumbent actors were able to capture and re-define a process of institutional reform that originally aimed to support “systemic” sustainability transitions in the energy domain of the Netherlands. However, the politico-economic concept of “capture” [31], while frequently used by transition scholars, has rarely been defined and operationalized in the literature on socio-technical transitions. (Spath et al. 2016: 3) 

Further, we should not expect the same framing of an incumbent’s self-interest to prevail homogenously throughout an entire enterprise. Particularly in multi-national companies, which operate in many different national markets and are exposed to diverse regulatory and normative framework conditions, we can expect a significant internal cultural diversity within heterogeneous teams (comprising of sales managers, product developers etc.) leading to inconsistent strategies across diverse parts of the enterprise. It can also be considered a very rational choice to develop a “pluralistic” response to perceived risks of regime change. Although enterprises in key industries will often try to perpetuate a once successful business model as long as possible, including massive lobbying for political support, they may at the same time invest significant resources in research and development activity around alternative technical configurations. In this context, the participation in potentially transformative joint niche activities with external partners can be considered necessary for hedging against the risk of a complete break-down of revenues. Additionally, such activities may be seen as instrumental in attracting young employees to the enterprise, who love to get involved in cutting edge research and development. (Spath et al. 2016: 4) 

Although the idea that governments could manage the transformation of socio-technical regimes from an external position has been challenged by key texts of the transition literature from the beginning (cf. [32]), this simplification and optimistic outlook reappears again and again. Governments, just as multi-national companies, should not be treated as monolithic blocks with a consistent strategy of regime change, but as aggregates of multiple actors with different and internally ambivalent views and strategies (Spath et al. 2016: 4) 

Disaggregating from monolithic “incumbents” or “industries” matters (and is something I did not do well enough, back in teh day).

To summarize, we consider that to properly assess the transformative potential of regime dynamics it is very important to disaggregate the various strategies of actors both within key industries and within governments. Furthermore, we need to understand and appreciate the ways in which these actors interact with each other. Most importantly, they will try to support each other in order to increase the chances of stabilizing in the long-term the core features of the incumbent regime (Spath et al. 2016: 4) 

Here’s what they use (I just scholared “argumentative discourse analysis” and “deep decarbonisation” and came up with a small number of articles, some v. useful-looking.)

As far as data allow, we aim to apply the perspective of “argumentative discourse analysis (ADA)”, which was developed by Maarten Hajer [34–36] and is frequently used in interpretive policy analysis [37,38]. It particularly highlights agency in the form of building discourse coalitions and in a struggle about discourse structuration and institutionalization, e.g., in policy formation (Spath et al. 2016: 4) 

Our analysis is mainly based on document analyses complemented by 14 expert interviews, which were conducted between June and September 2011 with large car manufacturers, suppliers, political actors, innovative niche producers, associations and research organizations, which all participate in the promotion of e-mobility in the Stuttgart Region (Spath et al. 2016: 4) 

Nice findings, and the key (for me) conclusions are these

there are no signs of any political intervention that is not in favor of the main incumbent actors of the car industry. The only slightly more moderate position—that political interventions are only legitimate if they are unproblematic for the large employers of the region—seems to be absolutely dominant given that no contradictory statement was found (Spath et al. 2016: 12) 

MLP studies traditionally focus on how regimes are challenged, i.e., on “impacts on regimes” as opposed to “impacts of regimes” [60,62]. The focus traditionally tends to be on how socio-technical regimes adapt to challenges from niches and landscapes, which is often positively framed as “learning” (see right hand side of Figure 3 below). Due to the axiomatic assumption that with regard to socio-technical regimes complex system dynamics dominate over individual actors’ agency, the possibility of regime actors to (strategically) influence niches and broader publics has so far been backgrounded by many transition studies. In contrast, we suggest shedding more light on reverse impacts, i.e., “impacts of regimes” on niche activities and potentially also on landscape developments (Spath et al. 2016: 13) 

Comprehensively analyzing the dynamics of fundamental transformations of the transport system or other regimes requires more sensibility to those intrinsic connections and interdependencies between niches, regimes and landscapes than current transition studies suggest. (Spath et al. 2016: 14) 


26. Farla, J.; Markard, J.; Raven, R.; Coenen, L. Sustainability transitions in the making: A closer look at actors, strategies and resources. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Chang. 2012, 79, 991–998. [CrossRef]  

27. Budde, B.; Alkemade, F.; Weber, K.M. Expectations as a key to understanding actor strategies in the field of fuel cell and hydrogen vehicles. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Chang. 2012, 79, 1072–1083. [CrossRef] [PubMed]  

28. Penna, C.C.R.; Geels, F.W. Multi-dimensional struggles in the greening of industry: A dialectic issue lifecycle model and case study. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Chang. 2012, 79, 999–1020. [CrossRef] 

Kern, F.; Smith, A. Restructuring energy systems for sustainability? Energy transition policy in the Netherlands. Energy Policy 2008, 36, 4093–4103. 

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