The Governance of Socio-Technical Systems

The Governance of Socio-Technical Systems

Explaining Change

Eu-SPRI Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation Policy series

Edited by Susana Borrás and Jakob Edler

Examining the ‘who’ (agents), ‘how’ (policy instruments) and ‘why’ (societal legitimacy) of the governance process, this book presents a conceptual framework about the governance of change in socio-technical systems. Bridging the gap between disciplinary fields, expert contributions provide innovative empirical cases of different modes of governing change. The Governance of Socio-Technical Systems offers a stepping-stone towards building a theory of governance of change and presents a new research agenda on the interaction between science, technology and society.

Chapter 3: Anticipatory markets: technical standards as a governance tool in the development of biodegradable plastics

Arthur Daemmrich

Subjects: economics and finance, evolutionary economics, institutional economics, innovation and technology, innovation policy, politics and public policy, public administration and management, regulation and governance


Standardization is never only a process of forcing uniformity and predictability onto measurements, products or services. Instead, standards act also as coordinators of system change, and standard setting involves the co-production (Jasanoff, 2004) of scientific knowledge, technology and social institutions. Furthermore, standards offer industry, academic institutions and government a more flexible form of technology governance than is typical with either precautionary or risk-based regulation. Intriguingly, the process of negotiating even what appear to be narrow technical standards also creates opportunity structures (Borrás and Edler, 2014) for broader system change. This chapter focuses on a complex system change underway that involves switching from stable but environmentally persistent plastics to novel biodegradable materials. Beyond innovations in materials science, this switch requires the development of new markets for biodegradable plastics and changes to consumer behaviour and waste processing systems. I find that key capable agents (Borrás and Edler, 2014) undertook a co-production of technical standards, novel plastics and waste systems but failed to account for consumer behaviours that put the entire initiative at risk. Yet the use of technical standards as a coordination device for broader systemic change allowed for flexibility in the market uses for biodegradable plastics, contributing to their still-emergent success. In recent years, standards have multiplied at the national and international level. For example, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published 1,200 new standards annually since 2001, compared to an average of only 140 per year dating back to its first international standard in 1951 (International Organization for Standardization, 2012).

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