Theory, Evidence and Policy
Edited by Boelie Elzen, Frank W. Geels and Ken Green
Chapter 2: Understanding System Innovations: A Critical Literature Review and a Conceptual Synthesis
Frank W. Geels INTRODUCTION System innovations are deﬁned as large-scale transformations in the way societal functions such as transportation, communication, housing, feeding, are fulﬁlled. Technology plays an important role in fulﬁlling societal functions. Artefacts by themselves have no power, they do nothing. Only in association with human agency and social structures and organizations do artefacts fulﬁl functions. In real-life situations (for example, organizations, ﬁrms, houses) we never encounter artefacts per se, but artefacts-incontext. For the analysis of working/functioning artefacts in context, it is the combination of the social and the technical that is the appropriate unit of analysis (Fleck, 1993, 2000). From the perspective of science and technology studies two basic notions of technology are important: (i) technology is heterogeneous, not just a material contraption (engineers know this, their work is heterogeneous engineering); (ii) the functioning of technologies involves linkages between heterogeneous elements. Hughes (1987) coined the metaphor of a seamless web to indicate how physical artefacts, organizations (for example, manufacturing ﬁrms, investment banks, research and development laboratories), natural resources, scientiﬁc elements (that is, books, articles), legislative artefacts (laws) are combined in order to achieve functionalities. From these considerations it follows that societal functions are fulﬁlled by socio-technical systems. Socio-technical systems consist of a cluster of elements, including technology, regulation, user practices and markets, cultural meaning, infrastructure, maintenance networks, supply networks (see Figure 2.1 for an example for land-based transportation). In this conceptualization, a system innovation can be understood as a change from one...
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