Understanding sustainable innovations

Attention now turns from the policy context to ideas in the sustainable innovation literature. Radical improvements in production and consumption systems (e.g. 'factor 20' resource efficiency or 60% carbon emissions reductions) imply greener innovation different from traditional improvements to single products or business practices; innovation is needed at the scale of 'socio-technical regimes' (Berkhout,

2002). Transforming systems of production and consumption poses considerable challenges; innovation studies identify mutually reinforcing processes that tend to channel developments along trajectories (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Dosi et al., 1988; Russell and Williams, 2002). Changes tend to be incremental and path dependent owing to:

• the cognitive frameworks, routines, resources, capabilities, and knowledge of technology producers and users, and expectations about what kinds of knowledge will be profitable in the future (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Dosi, 1982);

• the way specific social and technical practices are embedded within wider, facilitating infrastructures, which subsequently restrict opportunities for alternatives (Jacobsson and Johnson, 2000);

• incumbent practices enjoy economies of scale (e.g., mass markets) and positive network externalities (it is easier and less risky to follow established practices than to invest in new practices) (Arthur, 1988; Dosi, 1982);

• the co-evolution of institutions with technological practices, like professional associations, government policies, and market rules reinforce existing trajectories (Hughes, 1983; Walker, 2000);

• prevailing market and social norms influence the kinds of performance deemed satisfactory, and the lifestyle routines and norms that develop embed these practices further (Yearley, 1988; Shove, 2003).

In short, entrenched cognitive, social, economic, institutional and technological processes lock us into trajectories and lock out sustainable alternatives. The term 'socio-technical regime' captures this complex configuration of artefacts, institutions, and agents reproducing technological practices. The socio-technical 'adjective is used to stress the pervasive technological mediation of social relations, the inherently social nature of all technological entities, and indeed the arbitrary and misleading nature of distinctions between "social" and "technical" elements, institutions or spheres of activity' (Russell and Williams, 2002: 128). The development of the socio-technical is a highly social, collective process, and ultimately it is diverse social actors who negotiate innovation (Smith et al., 2005). Imposing a normative goal like sustainable development upon existing socio-technical regimes implies connecting and synchronising changes amongst actors, institutions and artefacts at many different points within and beyond the regime.

Consider the co-housing model. It is a model of community structure whereby residents live in houses around a 'common house'. This common house contains a large kitchen and dining area for shared meals, and industrial-sized washing machines and lawnmowers. Cars are kept to the perimeter (and may be shared), allowing for open gardens and footpaths between houses. This structure combines privacy with communal activities (planning meetings, weekly shared meals, easy conviviality, supportive networks of neighbours), and potentially reduces overall consumption. It is essentially a social innovation - a restructuring of the social institutions of housing - rather than a technological one (Hines, 2005; Meltzer, 2005). However, it opens up terrain for more sustainable technologies. Co-housers can pool resources for the use of small-scale renewable energy technologies, rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, and more sustainable construction materials and designs unavailable to individual households. In short, social innovations and the diffusion of technological innovations are intimately linked.

Historically regimes do undergo radical change. Succession tends to begin within a network of pioneering organisations, technologies and users that form a niche practice on the margins. Niche situations (e.g., unusual applications, demonstration programmes, social movements) provide space for new ideas, artefacts, and practices to develop without full exposure to the range of processes channelling regime development (Schot, 1998; Geels, 2004; Rip and Kemp, 1998). Hoogma et al. (2002: 4) state: 'A niche can be defined as a discrete application domain . where actors are prepared to work with specific functionalities, accept such teething problems as higher costs, and are willing to invest in improvements of new technology and the development of new markets.' If successful, alternatives become sufficiently robust to develop niche markets, branch out, and attract mainstream interest (Schot et al., 1994). This perspective informs certain approaches to sustainable development which are based upon the strategic creation of green niches that inform possibilities for more sustainable regimes (Kemp et al., 1998; Smith, 2004). Green niches are sustainability experiments in society in which participation is wide-spread2 and the focus is on social learning. Niche-based approaches explore problem framings (e.g., mobility, food, energy services) and search for solutions - in contrast to technology demonstration projects that begin with 'technical solutions' to tightly framed problems. Niche practices that resonate with widespread public concern sometimes catch on, get copied, become adapted and spread.

Niche-based advocates qualify their bottom-up enthusiasm. Niches alone will not seed wider change (Hoogma et al., 2002). Work on multi-level socio-technical change identifies tensions and contradictions within incumbent regimes, exacerbated by pressures deriving from broader socio-economic dynamics, as opening niche opportunities and driving the transformations (Geels, 2004). Social movement agitations against regimes contribute to these pressures, but are distinct activities from the grassroots innovations considered here. Oil shocks, demographic change, economic recessions and so on are more general sources of pressure or shock on regimes. Change depends upon contingencies and processes beyond the unilateral control of niche actors (Berkhout et al., 2004). Niches still play a role as sites where alternatives try to resolve regime contradictions. Niches are potential sources of innovative ideas, even if not models or blueprints (Smith, 2006). More pragmatic, intermediary initiatives involving the mainstream help spread ideas and practices, but involve compromises and mutual adjustments that nevertheless take important cues from green niches. Ecopreneurs and intermediary organisations more attuned to market and commercial imperatives assist this bridging activity.

For example, East Anglia Food Link (EAFL), a small sustainable food NGO, began promoting locally sourced organic food in schools and hospitals in 1999. Marginal successes accrued over the following years, but in 2005 the national agenda on public sector catering was rewritten after a high-profile TV series criticising the standard of food in schools. This galvanised public opinion and spurred government policy changes that encouraged local, freshly made organic food. EAFL, along

2Kemp et al. (1998: 188) argue the niche-based approach is the 'collective endeavour' of 'state policy-makers, a regulatory agency, local authorities (e.g., a development agency), non-governmental organizations, a citizen group, a private company, an industry organization, a special interest group or an independent individual'.

with other Food Link organisations, were identified as pioneering sources of good practice (Wakeman, 2005). EAFL's approach is a radical departure from mainstream food and farming policy, reflecting quite different values, beliefs about the environment, and desirable sustain-ability outcomes (Seyfang, 2007). An organic farmer cooperative supplying local markets and delivering direct to households, schools and hospitals is experimenting not only with food production techniques, but with the social infrastructure of food supply. It offers a hitherto absent alternative to mainstream food, one which responds to the logic of internalising the environmental and social costs associated with globalised food systems (Pretty, 2002; Seyfang, 2006a; see chapter 5).

As an analytical framework, the niche-based approach studies niche emergence and development (Smith, 2007). Analysis focuses upon the social networks, learning processes, expectations and enrolment of actors and resources in emerging niche practices. Armed accordingly, advocates recommend policies to improve the development and influence of niches, including nurturing diverse niches, facilitating greater actor interaction, promoting social learning, and seeking institutional changes that embed promising lessons (Kemp et al., 1998; Smith, 2007; Hoogma et al., 2002). Lessons derived from the niche need not be restricted to narrow, technical appraisals of performance. Such 'first-order' learning can be supplemented by 'second-order' learning that generates lessons about the alternative socio-cultural values underpinning the niche and implications for diffusion (Hoogma et al., 2002). Insights into deeper institutional changes can be complemented by lessons relating to the constituencies, capabilities, contexts and markets able to appropriate niche elements (Weber et al., 1999; Kemp et al., 1998; Hoogma et al., 2002). As such, niche-based approaches demand an interactive policy style mature enough to recognise the value in acknowledging and learning from failure as well as success. Elements of niche practice that do not 'work' can be just as informative for sustainable developments as those aspects that operate successfully.

Contrasts between green niches and mainstream regimes can already be drawn in many systems of production and consumption, such as housing, food, energy and banking. This niche-based analytic and policy perspective might also encourage fresh thinking about grassroots initiatives. Can the grassroots be conceptualised as a site for innovative niches? Whilst the literature on green niches did not develop with an explicit focus on grassroots innovation in mind, early case studies included grassroots initiatives (e.g., wind energy in Denmark, car clubs in Switzerland) (Kemp et al., 1998; Hoogma et al., 2002).

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment