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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.
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Chapter 2: Understanding System Innovations: A Critical Literature Review and a Conceptual Synthesis

Frank W. Geels


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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