What future for the technological innovation systems approach in analysing sustainability transition

solarIn this blog, Dr Florian Kern discusses the future of the Technological Innovation Systems approach, identifying three key challenges facing the framework.

Today the 5th annual gathering of the community studying sustainability transitions (organised in the Sustainability Transitions Research Network) starts in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Such conferences always present a good opportunity to step back from the day to day business of teaching, research and consultancy and to discuss the future directions of the field. One such reflection has been organised by Bernhard Truffer from EAWAG/Utrecht University in the form of a panel session. The panel will reflect on and discuss the following theme: ‘Prospects of the Technological Innovation Systems (TIS) Research: Riding a dead horse or the start of a new blossoming period?’. The panellists will include Frans Berkhout, Lars Coenen, Jochen Markard, Marko Hekkert and myself, with Berhard Truffer as chair.

Since I, Dr Florian Kern, am named as one of the contenders, my role will be to challenge the approach. The starting point for my consideration is to acknowledge that the TIS approach has been very helpful over the last few years in understanding the emergence of different TIS in various sectors which has been analysed through many, often single-country, case studies. I agree with the organiser that ‘[T]he approach of technological innovation systems (TIS) represents one of the most productive lines of research in the field of transition studies’. We have learned a lot about how TIS form and grow over time and what effects it has on technology development and diffusion. However, I will argue that when thinking about the future of the TIS approach ‘more of the same’ is not desirable. For me the future potential of any research approach is to be judged against its ability to generate and answer new research questions. In my opinion, one of the most exciting research strands within our field is understanding the politics of transitions. For example, structural change in the ways we fulfil our energy needs cannot simply be brought about by fostering TIS around renewable energy technologies. Such a system change will require different institutional arrangements and policies, different sector structures, different ways of producing and consuming energy. However, changing such structures is difficult in terms of steering, will possibly be expensive, and will have redistributive consequences with winners and losers, and therefore meets opposition. My challenges for the TIS research field is whether the framework can be developed further to tackle these important issues? I have my doubts and will explain why on the basis of three related points:

First, while the framework incorporates some political aspects through the ‘legitimation’ function, I argue that politics is much more pervasive and clearly also influences other functions. For example political processes determine whether or not ‘market formation’ through feed-in-tariffs is available, for which technologies and at what rates. Recent experiences in the UK, Germany and Spain show how contested such processes can be. This points to a more generic conceptual weakness of the TIS approach, which is that the relationships between different functions, and what results their interplay can produce, is under-theorised.

Second, the TIS approach follows a tradition that looks at the structure of the innovation system, the links between different players within their institutional contexts and then assesses how well certain functions are fulfilled which are thought to be important for the development of new technologies. While this makes a lot of sense, a generic weakness of such systems approaches is that they pay insufficient attention to what drives change, for example in the fulfilment of a certain function. Counting events to determine the strength of a particular function and how it evolved over time gives us a good overview how things have changed but tells us little about the agency involved in producing such changes. It is the agency of actors , however, which drives transitions and should be foregrounded in the analysis. In that sense one can question whether the TIS approach, beyond its value as a ‘diagnostic approach’, is also an explanatory approach. I don’t find the logic of ‘motors of innovation’ that are used to explain change through cumulative causation particularly convincing.

Third, it seems that the development of various energy transitions show similar patterns. While many of the TIS functions of a variety of renewable energy technologies in several countries are now quite well developed, we see little evidence of processes of ‘creative destruction’ in which these new technological systems replace incumbent ones. How can the TIS approach explain this finding? For me part of the answer are the structural rigidities in sectors such as energy, mobility, agriculture or health, their embedding within society and the powerful agency of incumbents trying to protect their status. It is not clear to me that currently the TIS approach has much to say about these issues, but I do see potential avenues for developing research into this direction, as the paper by Anna Bergek et al that will be presented at this conference already starts to do (Bergek et al: ‘TIS interactions with technological, sectorial, political and geographical contexts: some lessons for analysts’, IST 2014).

So for me the TIS approach still has a future but only if scholars are willing to creatively develop the framework further to address some of these challenges. More of the same is not an option. I am looking forward to the discussions during the panel session, and at IST 2014 more generally.


This post was originally posted on the University Of Sussex, Science Policy Research Unit blog

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