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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 4: Sustainability, System Innovation and the Laundry

Elizabeth Shove


Elizabeth Shove Few would disagree that the challenge of sustainability is one of moving toward less resource-intensive ways of life built around new regimes of mobility, renewable energy or localized systems of food production. In understanding how shifts of this kind might be realized and in trying to engender them, environmentalists have much to gain from the careful analysis of comparable, large-scale transitions in the past. Following Hughes’s (1983) path breaking study of the social and technical construction of networks of electrical power, it is by now usual to document the ‘seamless webs’ from which technological transitions like that from sail to steam, or from horse to car, have been woven and to acknowledge the institutional and political processes required in support. In this sense, much contemporary debate is genuinely ‘socio-technical’ in its orientation. However, there is another sense in which the agenda remains lopsided, skewed around provision rather than consumption and around the diffusion rather than the use of technological systems, tools and techniques. This chapter seeks to recover some of that missing ground and in the process develop and enrich ‘transition theories’ that have grown out of science and technology studies and the analysis of innovation. The simple step of starting with convention and practice generates a substantially new menu of questions about the dynamics of system innovation. Approached in this way, the challenge is not only one of conceptualizing and steering pathways of infrastructural development like those associated with energy supply, but of also understanding the...

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