Table of Contents

System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability

System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability

Theory, Evidence and Policy

Edited by Boelie Elzen, Frank W. Geels and Ken Green

This book considers two main questions: how do system innovations or transitions come about and how can they be influenced by different actors, in particular by governments. The authors identify the theories which can be used to conceptualise the dynamics of system innovations and discuss the weaknesses in these theories. They also look at the lessons which can be learned from historical examples of transitions, and highlight the instruments and policy tools which can be used to stimulate future system innovations towards sustainability. The expert contributors address these questions using insights from a variety of different disciplines including innovation studies, evolutionary economics, the sociology of technology, environmental analysis and governance studies. The book concludes with an extensive summary of the results and practical suggestions for future research.

Chapter 1: General Introduction: System Innovation and Transitions to Sustainability

Frank W. Geels, Boelie Elzen and Ken Green

Subjects: economics and finance, environmental economics, environment, environmental economics, innovation and technology, innovation policy


Frank W. Geels, Boelie Elzen, Ken Green Modern societies face structural problems in several sectors. In the energy sector there are problems related to oil dependency, reliability, and CO2 and NOx emissions. The transport system suffers from congestion, air pollution (particulates, NOx), energy use and CO2 emissions. Cattle farming suffers from manure disposal problems, ammonia emissions and diseases like BSE and foot and mouth disease. These problems are deeply rooted in social production and consumption patterns. Since the 1980s, much effort has been made to solve problems with product and process innovations. Cleaner products and processes have been developed alongside the application of end-of-pipe solutions. Sometimes these innovations have led to substantial improvements in environmental efficiency, such as in the case of automobile catalysts which greatly reduced tailpipe-emissions of pollutants. The focus in these cases has been on changing some technological artefact. Substantial improvements in environmental efficiency (a ‘Factor 2’ is a general average) may still be possible with innovations of an ‘incremental’ kind. But larger jumps in environmental efficiency (possibly by a ‘Factor 10’) may only be possible with system innovations. The promise of transitions to sustainability via system innovations is schematically represented in Figure 1.1. Such transitions to sustainability require changes from, for example, one transport system to another or from one energy system to another. Such system innovations not only involve new technological artefacts, but also new markets, user practices, regulations, infrastructures and cultural meanings. Because of its sustainability potential there...