“TIS and six criticisms”

This paper is a response to six criticisms made of the authors’ “baby” – the Technlogical Innovation Systems appraoch.

Markard, J., Hekkert, M and Jacobsson, S. 2015. The technological innovation systems framework: Response to six criticisms. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 16, 76–86

They take each one in turn, give what seems to be to my inexpert eye a fair summation (no strawmen here, as best I can tell) and then say what they agree with, what they don’t, and what is being done/could be done to address the criticisms. It’s not gonna ever be a best-seller, but it’s the kind of detailed pains-taking work that academics gotta do to nut out what it is they actually know, what it is their favoured lens helps them to see, what it occludes. The trick is not being defensive/aggressive. You do that, you create more heat than light. Here, the authors succeed in staying firmly on the “light” side of the equatioon imo. Lots of nice references too…

There’s also interesting stuff on where the study of innovation systems has been coming from, and where the TIS itself was born, and why…

the approach is often used to assess the performance of a TIS, to identify shortcomings and to derive recommendations for the design of policies in support of a specific technology (Alkemade et al., 2011; Jacobsson and Karltorp, 2013; Weber and Rohracher, 2012; Wieczorek and Hekkert, 2012). Indeed, the latter was a central motivation for developing the framework (Carlsson et al., 2010) (Markard et al. 2015: 77)

For each of these issues, we will briefly summarize the main aspects of the critique, clarify where we agree or disagree and explain why. In particular, we discuss what the TIS framework can embrace and what is beyond its capacity. With this contribution, we want to further improve the TIS approach. We view conceptual development as an important and ongoing process that – hopefully – takes a step forward with this debate but certainly does not end here. (Markard et al. 2015: 78)

Some of the critique, however, also relates to new challenges arising from the study of sustainability transitions—a novel field of research occupied with large-scale transformation processes of sectors such as energy, transportation, food or water towards more sustainable production and consumption (Markard et al., 2012). The TIS approach is viewed as one of the key frameworks in this field for mainly two reasons. First, the emergence of novel technologies is a central processes in socio-technical transitions and several new technologies have meanwhile matured to a degree that they very much threaten established technologies, organizations, and institutional structures. Second, a host of recent empirical work using the TIS approach has studied technologies (e.g. renewable energies, alternative vehicle technologies) that are associated with sustainability promises. As a consequence, the TIS framework is increasingly confronted with both issues, transitions (cf. Section 5) and sustainability (cf. Section 7). (Markard et al. 2015: 78)

Nice history!!

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of innovation system concepts with different delineations. These included national, regional and sectoral innovation systems. In addition, Carlsson and Stankiewicz (1991) developed a framework focusing on technologies and products, which was the start of work on TIS. Throughout the 1990s, structures of systems with different delineations were explored. These included knowledge fields, e.g. biomaterials (Rickne, 2000), industries, e.g. factory automation (Carlsson and Jacobsson, 1994), and sectors, e.g. biomedical (Carlsson, 2002). In the 1990s, research on TIS shifted from exploring static structures to analyzing the dynamics of systems. It was then argued that, in times of technological discontinuities, transformation processes at various levels, e.g. technological, sectoral, and national, interact. (Markard et al. 2015: 78)

We often see papers, in which authors just write very briefly about TIS boundaries without explaining their choice or discussing the implications of this choice. This is not at all helpful for the development of TIS research. Below we share our thoughts of how to improve research practice. First, TIS delineation involves several dimensions. These include the breadth of the technological field (narrow or broad range of technology variants or applications), vertical scope (one or several parts of a value chain), spatial focus (local, regional, national, global), or whether to analyze a product or knowledge field (Bergek et al., 2008a). Also the temporal focus needs to be specified (e.g. snapshot type of analysis vs. analysis of different stages of development). Second, TIS delineation is about making analytical choices, guided by the research question and the purpose of the study. There is no right or wrong whether to analyze, for example, electric vehicles, the engines or batteries they need, charging stations or electric mobility more broadly, in a specific city or country or internationally. However, behind these choices there might be interests of R&D funding agencies or industry actors—in general or even in the role of the principal of a TIS study (cf. Sections 6 and 7). Third, technologies, actors and institutional structures in the focus of the analysis are interrelated with technologies, actors, and institutions in the context.2 Boundary setting can be viewed as cutting through these ties, with the analyst paying [page break] more attention to relationships within the focal TIS than to those beyond. So there is an inevitable neglect or downplaying of context structures, and relationships to these. TIS analysts have to be aware of that and ideally make the implications transparent. Fourth, boundary setting is an iterative process rather than a one-time choice. TIS analysts ideally go back and forth between the analytical level and the empirical insights they accumulate in the course of the analysis, ready to adjust the initial choices as new results come up.  (Markard et al. 2015: 78-9)

The critique on the spatial dimension of TIS analysis has emerged in the context of the larger research agenda on the ‘geography of transitions’ (Coenen and Truffer, 2012; Hansen and Coenen, 2015). It contains two aspects. One argument is that, e.g. when focusing on a TIS in a selected country or region, one might miss out on the foreign or global parts of the TIS that also contribute to TIS performance (Binz et al., 2014; Gosens et al., 2015). This issue is not only important for analytical reasons but also with regard to policy intervention. It questions the often implicit assumption in many studies that each focal TIS should develop all necessary structures—and that policy making should intervene if there are deficits (cf. Section 7). Indirectly, this is also a critique of “methodological nationalism” (Coenen, 2015), i.e. TIS analysts often concentrating on a selected technology in a selected country. (Markard et al. 2015: 79)

Studying the relationships among different sub-systems of a focal TIS that are located in different places is certainly a promising way forward. Such relationships already matter in early phases of TIS development but can be even more prominent in later stages (Quitzow, 2015). Take for example photovoltaics, which has developed into a global industry with different national TIS constituting important parts either downstream (as markets, e.g. Australia), midstream (producers, e.g. China), or upstream (as tech. developers, e.g. Germany)

(Markard et al. 2015: 79)

The second point about the variety of institutional contexts is also something we very much agree on. This connects, among others, to the literature on varieties of capitalism (Hall and Soskice, 2001), or patterns of democracy (Lijphart, 2012), which has described general differences in economic or political systems. To an extent, TIS analyses capture this variety as they explain different dynamics (between nations or regions) with differences in structure, including institutions. However, the implications of different institutional frame conditions for TIS development deserve more attention and systematic comparative analyses (Markard et al. 2015: 80)

In recent years, the TIS framework has been prominently applied for the analysis of emerging technologies in sectors such as energy, transportation, or water. As these novel technologies diffuse and mature, they compete and may eventually help overthrow established technologies, thus, contributing to socio-technical change and transitions more broadly. The TIS approach is, therefore, viewed as a key framework in transition studies (Markard et al., 2012), although it was not designed for this in the first place (Carlsson et al., 2010). So it is a central question whether and how the TIS can be used for understanding socio-technical transitions. Some scholars have denied its applicability right away (Geels, 2011), while others have expressed doubts (Kern, 2015; Markard and Truffer, 2008; Smith and Raven, 2012). (Markard et al. 2015: 80)

Currently, the TIS approach cannot cover all aspects of socio-technical transitions. It does not address the decline of (incumbent) socio-technical systems, nor has it paid much attention to interaction of multiple technologies. This is why, we agree with much of the critique of Kern and others. At the same time, we believe that the TIS approach has the potential to also explain other key processes in socio-technical transitions and that it will be a worthwhile endeavor to further develop the framework in this direction (Markard et al. 2015: 80)

However, we have to emphasize that politics were acknowledged early on in the development of the TIS framework. Jacobsson and Bergek (2004), for example, point to the contested nature of institutional change and to the importance of technology-specific [page break]  advocacy coalitions, or political networks, with the objective of influencing institutional structures. Moreover, TIS scholars have regularly reported on acts of politics, e.g. lobbying by actors joining forces in emerging TIS or by incumbents opposing new technologies (Jacobsson and Johnson, 2000; Jacobsson and Lauber, 2006; Negro and Hekkert, 2008; Musiolik et al., 2012). (Markard et al. 2015: 81-2)

While politics is not of marginal importance, Kern (2015) is right that the main focus is not on the political narratives of incumbents (with associated actors) and advocates of challenging TISs. Instead, these are one factor out of many that are addressed in a systems approach. The TIS perspective is primarily a meso-level perspective and, therefore, by definition it cannot bring to the fore all micro mechanisms. However, as TIS has a strong focus on actors (which is a core concept, just as political networks), it is rather straightforward to include strategies, positions, networks, coalitions etc. in the analysis. The insights gained from such studies can then be incorporated into comprehensive TIS studies. Indeed, we would encourage a greater attention to such micro level analyses, which can enrich our understanding at the meso-level. (Markard et al. 2015: 82)

When the Swedish Board for Technical Development (STU) initiated the work that led to early versions of the TIS framework, the objective was to develop an understanding of technical change that could meet the operational needs of the agency in designing policies geared towards specific, already prioritized technologies, or industries. Hence, the technology choice was not an area of concern for the analyst who studied strengths and weaknesses of an a priori selected technological field [page break] and suggested inroads for policy making to support the selected technology.7 Whether such support is desirable for certain stakeholders or society more broadly is a different issue. Against this background, we disagree with Bening et al. (2015) that TIS studies should necessarily be accompanied with a justification why a particular technology deserves policy support. (Markard et al. 2015: 82-3)

A complementary option would be to take the step from a TIS analysis to developing an action plan for a specific technology, in which concrete and specific policy recommendations are made which deal with the pinpointed system weaknesses. The academic must, though, be aware that(s) he will then take the step into a political minefield, in which not only opposing business interests are active, but also other academics, politicians, civil servants, journalists, and others participating in the political debate. The academic needs, therefore, to acknowledge political realities and processes as well as take into account interaction with existing policies. (Markard et al. 2015: 83)

Apparently, not only the framework but also the interests and needs of researchers are changing. There are at least three major trends we observe at the moment: (i) an increasing interest in ‘clean’ technologies and sustainability issues, (ii) a maturation, global expansion and growing socio-economic impact of former ‘emerging’ technologies such as solar or wind, and (iii) a rising interest in the study of sectoral transformation and socio-technical transitions. Independently but even more so in combination, these issues translate into new demands the TIS framework is confronted with (Markard et al. 2015: 83)

Fourth, researchers work towards adapting and applying the TIS framework for the study of socio-technical transitions (e.g. Markard and Truffer, 2008; Markard and Hekkert, 2013). This is a rather recent area of conceptual development that has to address issues such as interaction of multiple technological innovation systems, system decline, TIS lifecycle etc. There are obvious overlaps with the literature on sustainability transitions (Markard et al., 2012) and industry lifecycles (Anita et al., 2004). In the light of these different conceptual developments, we expect the TIS framework to maintain and strengthen its position as one of the key frameworks in the field of innovation studies (Markard et al. 2015: 84)


Anita, M.M., Nicholas, A., Joel, A.C.B., 2004. Context, Technology and Strategy: Forging New Perspectives on the Industry Life Cycle, Business Strategy Over the Industry Lifecycle. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 1–21.

Kern, F., 2015. What future for the technological innovation systems approach in analysing sustainability transitions? Environ. Innovation Soc. Transitions 

Musiolik, J., Markard, J., Hekkert, M., 2012. Networks and network resources in technological innovation systems: Towards a conceptual framework for system building. Technol. Forecasting Soc. Change 79, 1032–1048.

Quitzow, R., 2015. Dynamics of a policy-driven market: The co-evolution of technological innovation systems for solar photovoltaics in China and Germany. Environ. Innovation Soc. Transitions

Smink, M.M., Hekkert, M.P., Negro, S.O., 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Bus. Strat. Environ. 24, 86–101

Wirth, S., Markard, J., 2011. Context matters: How existing sectors and competing technologies affect the prospects of the Swiss Bio-SNG innovation system. Technol. Forecasting Soc. Change 78, 635–649.

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