Category Archives: sociotechnical transitions

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

workshop comparison

From page 19 of this excellent report of an intriguing-sounding event.

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“Confer”ence – the clue is in the name; excellent #transitions event in Lausanne

A brilliant event –  the “2nd PhDs in Transitions Conference: Theory and Practice – took place in Switzerland, last week.  Organised by four enterprising PhD students, it was a 48 hour space for students at different stages of the process (from touching naive enthusiasm all the way through to night-sweat panic) to exchange ideas and advice, with a few older hands there to nudge and challenge as appropriate.  And repeatedly transitioning from sobriety to merriness, obviously.

How many times do you go to a conference expecting to get useful feedback on your work, meet lots of like-minded and sympathetic potential-future colleagues, and have space to think about others’ work and how it might help your own,  but come away disappointed?  We’ve all been there – or will be there – an over-stuffed programme, with alpha (male) chest-beating displays and turf battles making conferring (the clue is in the name, that’s what a conference is for, no) that much more difficult, if not impossible.

All of the former and none of the latter was in evidence last week in Lausanne.  Around 45 would/will-be-scholars of socio-technical transitions gathered to…. Wait,  what is socio-technical transitions when it’s at home?’ I hear a reader ask – well, roughly,  it’s a new academic field/sub-discipline/whatever you-want-to-call-it, where geographers, historians, economic modellers, innovation scholars, political scientists, technology geeks etc (try to) grapple with the how/when/why of societies moving from one way of organising things (food, transport, energy) to another.  Within it you’ve got all sorts of competing rules-of-thumb (Multi-level perspective, transitions management, technological innovation systems, strategic niche management –

as many as there are grants for, basically).

Clear enough?  Okay, … 45 PhD students got together to deliver powerpoint presentations, get feedback, engage in workshops, schmooze and drink (the latter activity constrained by the 7 quid pints of Switzerland).

The event was held near on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, within walking distance of Lake Geneva.

A building opposite the venue was under scaffolding, with a bright red banner advertising “FACT construction”, which will have annoyed any positivists  who had stumbled in by mistake.

fact construction at lausanne

After registration of Swiss efficiency, day one started with a keynote/Q& A “Presenting different transition frameworks, history and application.”  Too much to fully capture here, but this’

As per Kern and Markard (2016) on socio-technical transitions versus transitions you gotta see they’re value laden, public policies matter, power and politics are central (vested interests, winners and losers, coalitions and alliances), they’re complex, uncertain, long-term, context dependent and multidimensional.  [tl:dr – it’s complicated, usually more complicated than you are willing or able to see, especially if you fall in love with a technology or a policy or a set of events. You gotta step back and try to see the wood for the trees. Which needs lotsa lenses. Good luck.]

There are various traps – with (young) scholars as the mice, the cheese being the technology/policy/concepts/set of events with which they become transfixed and the trap being the (intellectual) cage they might build for themselves.

  • You might read (too much) literature (not systematically enough) and get hopelessly confused [this never happened to me, not at all.]
  • You might raise issues in a paper and get beaten down by a senior scholar (“It’s all in my earlier writing”)
  • You might end up ‘reinventing poor copies of old wheels (ad hoc theorising)
  • You  might end up getting sidelined by “mainstream” disciplines which ignore 20 years of spade work
  • You might get caught up in too much jargon, a lack of definitions, the micro-macro confusion, (and not everything meso is much help with that), the structure-agency dilemma.

In the words of one of the presenters, you might end up “riding the same old horse, sometimes feeling it’s already dead.”

How to navigate these various Scyllae and Charbydises?  Delineating systems, having better methodologies so the comparison of empirical studies becomes possible, staying woke to the normativity problem (i.e. normative motives don’t excuse sloppy methodology).  We were urged to “build bridges but also stand on our own two legs”, to “be constructively critical and intermittently bold” to be “obsessed with methodological rigour.” In addition, not to be too naive in our normativity and to develop better policy advice.

One speaker argued that we need more studies of technologies NOT taking off, and of industrial decline.  Further, we need to be able to look at exactly how strong a regime is (labelling it ‘semi-coherent’ might only deflect rather than resolve the problem).

Lunch was followed by two 90 minute sessions where three or four students presented their work for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of Q and A (the chairs did a fine job, with no need for the clap clinic technique).

hm2 Clap Clinic

Those watching the presentations were invited to give their comments directly or via bright pink/yellow post-its.  “That’s a meaningless gimmick that will fail”  I thought, when it was explained.  100% wrong, of course – it worked a treat, and thanks to the six people who wrote down encouragement/advice [though not to the person who listed all those mouth-watering articles.  Like I need distraction from WRITING.]

There were sessions with titles like “the diffusion of innovations and technologies”, “reflections on participation, changing contexts and experiments in energy transitions” and “participation and communities in transition processes.”

The day closed with an “Apero” (that’s Swiss for wine, beer and nibbles) and was followed by drinks in the city centre, with the Dutch dressed in Orange for King’s day.

Day two was two more sessions including “transitions’ spatiality and the role of cities” and “agency and power in transition processes”, with presenters using the advocacy coalition framework

and also the multiple streams approach

Three parallel workshops – “modelling in transition studies”, “Social Network Analysis in Transition studies” and “Applicability of transition frameworks in developing countries” were followed by lunch and a final session – “simulating the role of individuals in sustainability transitions” and “applying practice perspectives in transition research.”

Basically, the conference (far) exceeded the expectations of everyone I spoke to.   Why did it work? IMHO because it was

  • Well organised.
  • Careful selection of attendees
  • A ‘night before’ social
  • Long enough breaks between sessions (half an hour) and a decent lunch break (90 mins on the first day and 60 on the second).
  • The organisers had clearly thought about what they wanted to achieve
  • Subtle and well-executed support from the invited ‘big beasts’ who knew exactly how and when to give us the benefit of their accrued experience (I would say wisdom, but that would be too sycophantic, even for me.)
  • No gaudy or aggressive displays by anyone

What could have been better?

“Not much” is the short answer.   Perhaps something on how to increase the impact of transitions scholarship in civil society (as opposed to simply giving presentations and keynotes to policy-makers) might have been a useful fourth workshop or discussion session?  (It was planned, apparently, but wasn’t possible for personnel reasons).  The only other “criticism” is that the bar has been set so very high for the third PhD student conference which (hopefully) will happen next year.

Unsolicited advice –  PhD students in transition studies should beg borrow steal or blackmail in order to be able to come to the next one, wherever it is.

Good things to do in Lausanne- The lake, obvs.  Three stops on the Metro from the Gare, at Ouchy-Olympique.

The pizza place opposite the station  called Bella Vita.  The horse, I am told, is lovely.

A final shout out – to all those who organised the first conference, in Greenwich, (building on the research agenda thing from IST 2015).  Without your efforts to get the ball rolling, this Lausanne thing couldn’t have happened.  Thanks!

UPDATE 30 April 2017- Thanks to Pete, who commented on this video on “anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at top-down meetings” from 2013, with this link to “the conference manual“, which is brilliant and hilarious.

UPDATE Two – here, fwiw, is a blogpost I wrote about last year’s two day DPhil conference at SPRU

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)

and

How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)

BRILLIANT paper on sustainability transitions and political ecology. #holycrap #jealous

And the Best Paper I Have Read This Month Award goes to… drum-roll please…

Lawhon, M. and Murphy, J. 2011. Socio-technical regimes and sustainability transitions: Insights from political ecology. Progress in Human Geography. Vol. 36 (3), pp.354-378.

Here is the abstract

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a core focus of geography, linking subfields such as urban, economic, and political ecology, yet strategies for achieving this goal remain illusive [sic!]. Socio-technical transition theorists have made important contributions to our knowledge of the challenges and possibilities for achieving more sustainable societies, but this body of work generally lacks consideration of the influences of geography and power relations as forces shaping sustainability initiatives in practice. This paper assesses the significance for geographers interested in understanding the space, time, and scalar characteristics of sustainable development of one major strand of socio-technical transition theory, the multi-level perspective on socio-technical regime transitions. We describe the socio-technical transition approach, identify four major limitations facing it, show how insights from geographers – particularly political ecologists – can help address these challenges, and briefly examine a case study (GMO and food production) showing how a refined transition framework can improve our understanding of the social, political, and spatial dynamics that shape the prospects for more just and environmentally sustainable forms of development.

Why is it so good?   Very clearly written, very clearly argued, and the authors have read heaps of important literature and synthesised it beautifully.  There is so much here for academics, but also for activists who want to loot the ivory tower.  I can’t quote too much, but these bits, from an activist perspective are useful (I read it with my Write Your Bloody Thesis Hat on, the hat I will be wearing from now until it is done, or the Donald starts a thermonuclear war based on a stray tweet.)

Once the lens is extended to include diverse actors, questions will arise regarding the roles played and the kinds of interactions between them. How and why were different stakeholders approached, informed about, and enrolled into the transition management process? What kind of language was used in these processes? Are participants made to feel that their opinions are valued and considered in decision-making?
When considering these kinds of questions, Whatmore (2009) argues for the development of competency groups as a means to more pluralistically and fairly develop interventions in response to social or environmental problems while still keeping focused and including relevant, affected actors
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 366)

and

As Allen (1997) has shown, power can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – as an ‘inscribed capacity’, a collectively produced resource mobilized by groups to achieve particular ends, or as a mobile and diffuse phenomenon realized as a series of ‘strategies, techniques, and practices’.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

and

Power may be expressed directly – in terms of who controls the selection of participants in decision-making processes, who participates, and whose voices count in the making of decisions – or indirectly – in terms of the language used to convince others to support a position or to create discursive alliances (Birkenholtz, 2009).
Many political ecologists emphasize the relational nature of power, arguing that power is found not in elite individuals as suggested by socio-technical transition theory but instead in relationships.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

But activists won’t get away from the smugosphere, the emotathons, and will keep losing, and keep burning through potential recruits, who – after being used as ego-fodder a couple of times – give up and stay home.

In terms of the politics of sustainability socio-technical transitions (my Thesis) it is insanely useful.  I’ll stop gushing now – gotta read a few 2016 papers (Avelino et al x 2)

Here’s the references that look particularly mouth-watering to me, fwiw.. (no offence intended to the others)

References

Allen J (1997) Economies of power and space. In: Lee R and Wills J (eds) Geographies of Economies. London: Arnold, 59–70.

Allen J (2003) Lost Geographies of Power. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell.

Angel DP and Rock MT (2003) Engaging economic development agencies in environmental protection: The case for embedded autonomy. Local Environment 8: 45–59.

Avelino F and Rotmans J (2009) Power in transition: An interdisciplinary framework to study power in relation to structural change. European Journal of Social Theory 12: 543–569.

Bailey I and Wilson GA (2009) Theorising transitional pathways in response to climate change: Technocentrism, ecocentrism and the carbon economy. Environment and Planning A 41: 2324–2341.

Berkhout F, Smith A, and Stirling A (2004) Sociotechnological regimes and transition contexts. In:

Elzen B, Geels FW, and Green K (eds) System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability. Cheltenham: EdwardElgar, 48–75.

Blaikie P (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. Harlow: Longman.

Castree N (2005) Nature: The Adventures of a Concept. Abingdon: Routledge.

Ekers M and Loftus A (2008) The power of water: Developing dialogues between Gramsci and Foucault. Environment and Planning D 26: 698–719.

Freeman C (1991) Innovation, changes of techno-economic paradigm and biological analogies in economics. Revue Economique 42: 211–231.

GandyM (2002) Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Geels FW (2006) The hygienic transition from cesspools to sewer systems (1840–1930): The dynamics of regime transformation. Research Policy 35: 1069–1082.

Hodson M and Marvin S (2010) Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were? Research Policy 39: 477–485.

Kemp R, Schot J, and Hoogma R (1998) Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: The approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 10: 175–195.

McManus P and Gibbs D (2008) Industrial ecosystems? The use of tropes in the literature of industrial ecology and eco-industrial parks. Progress in Human Geography 32: 525–40.

Mann G (2009) Should political ecology be Marxist? A case for Gramsci’s historical materialism. Geoforum 40(3): 335–344.

Markard J and Truffer B (2008) Technological innovation systems and the multi-level perspective: Towards an integrated framework. Research Policy 37: 596–615.

Meadowcroft J (2005) Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy 10: 479–498.

Meadowcroft J (2009) What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions. Policy Science 42: 323–340.

Patil AC (2009) Transition to clean coal technologies in India. Computer Aided Chemical Engineering 27: 1731–1736.

Robbins P and Bishop K (2008) There and back again: Epiphany, disillusionment, and rediscovery in political ecology. Geoforum 39: 747–755.

Rocheleau D (2008) Political ecology in the key of policy: From chains of explanation to webs of relation. Geoforum 39: 716–727.

Rotmans J, Kemp R, and van AsseltM(2001) More evolution than revolution: Transition management in public policy. Foresight – The Journal of Future Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy 3: 15–31.

Scott J (1999) Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith A, Voß JP, and Grin J (2010) Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research Policy 39: 435–448.

 

Pigs might fly, (in comfort) – on sociotechnical transitions, streams and social movements

“This eventually led to the development of a new pigsty concept called Pigs in Comfort Class (PCC) with a term derived from the aviation sector. [Regular sties were basically designed according to economic criteria, thus housing pigs in ‘economy class’. In contrast, the new stables were called ‘comfort class’, because pigs were much better off.]”

This above is from page 271 of this –

Elzen, B. Geels, G. Leeuiwis, C. and van Mierlo, B. 2011. Normative contestation in transitions ‘in the making’: Animal welfare concerns and system innovation in pig husbandry. Research Policy, Vol. 40, pp.263-275.

It’s a corking article that looks at pressures on incumbents (in this case the pig industry in the Netherlands) coming from moral entrepreneurs (animal rights organisations and political allies) and how this pressure ‘works’ –  if and when viable (i.e. cheap enough) technofixes are at hand to solve a problem.  But if the technofix arrives after pressure has faded, things can languish.  [So, the key question, which the authors don’t address-  and neither does anybody else – is how do you arrive at a situation where sustained pressure from social movements is common and effective… Answers on a postcard to the usual address… But I digress…]

The central research question is

How, when and why is normative contestation of existing regimes effective in influencing the orientation of transitions in the making?
(Elzen et al. 2011: 263)

So, they mash up the multilevel perspective with social movement theory [who builds pressure, how, when, for how long] and a modified ‘Multiple Streams Approach’ [with a market stream and a technology stream along side a problem stream and regulatory/politics stream].

There’s good stuff on how using the wrong analogies (pigs are not cows, and do not behave as such) led to dashed optimism of technological progress, with the resultant loss of credibility making life difficult when the techies did finally ‘get it right’.

They used crude concepts adapted from the cattle sector and then found these did not work very well. This eventually led to sector-wide hostility towards group housing of pregnant sows in general which was difficult to counter with results from further research, no matter how hard the scientist tried to show that the second-generation system worked well (Interview LTO).
(Elzen et al. 2011: 269)

and also on how by the time you do get the right technology sorted, the caravan may have moved on –

By 2005, when the technical research was finished, the world of pig farming had changed significantly compared to the late 1990s. Although animal welfare and environmental concerns were still present in the societal and political debate, they were less prominent. The sense of urgency that had followed the 1997 outbreak of swine fever and other animal diseases had largely disappeared. In 2003, a new government had taken office that strongly emphasised deregulation. So, when the Hercules concept was considered ready for practical use, the alignment between the political process and normative pressure had weakened considerably. Consequently, the project results were shelved.9
(Elzen et al. 2011: 271)

There is, naturlich,  state refusal to release awkward reports –

In 1972, one researcher at the Institute for Animal Husbandry Research wrote a report that noted that pigs were biting each other’s tails and ears because of boredom and stress, related to confinement in small spaces. The Ministry stopped publication of the report and forbade the author to speak about it in public (Crijns, 1998).
(Elzen et al. 2011: 269)

Not sure this will play much of a part in The Thesis, but in terms of how you might be able to slow down transitions, there are a couple of suggestive thoughts chasing each other around my noggin.

 

References wot caught my eye

Dacin, M.T., Beal, B.S., Ventresca, M.J., 1999. The embeddedness of organizations: dialogue & directions. Journal of Management 25, 317–356.

Geels, F.W., 2005. The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles (1860-1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 17, 445–476.

Rip, A., Kemp, R., 1998. Technological change. In: Rayner, S., Malone, E.L. (Eds.), Human Choice and Climate Change.  Battelle Press, Columbus, Ohio, pp. 327–399.

http://kemp.unu-merit.nl/docs/Rip%20and%20Kemp.pdf

 

Ah, and there is this.  Augean stables and all that…

Bos, B. and Grin, J. 2008. Doing Reflexive Modernization in Pig Husbandry: The Hard Work of Changing the Course of a River. Science , Technology and Human Values, Vol 33, (4), pp.480-507.
The Dutch animal production sector faces significant pressure for change. We discuss a project for the design of a sustainable husbandry system for pigs. Named after the Greek hero Hercules, the project aimed for structural changes in both animal and crop production. However, instead of changing the course of the river, the project ended up merely adapting its flow. The Hercules project ran into difficulties typical for projects aiming at reflexive modernization.
It relapsed from an effort for reflexive modernization to ecological modernization, by ultimately leaving the structural features of the sociotechnical regime intact. We show how this resulted from the biases and limitations implied by existing institutions, in which the project was unavoidably embedded. We introduce the idea of reflexive design, as “doing” reflexive modernization, which implies working on action and structure at the same time. A number of recommendations are given for reflexive design projects like this.

Keywords: sustainable development; reflexive modernization; ecological modernization; agriculture; animal husbandry