By Dr Adrian Ely, STEPS Centre member

How do we create more low-carbon societies? It’s clear that “top down” and “bottom up” forms of innovation will both have a role to play, but what will be the balance between the two? A new report, “Game-changing China: Lessons from China about Disruptive Low Carbon Innovation” contains some surprising examples.

Dr David Tyfield (CeMoRe, Lancaster University), one of the authors, visited the STEPS Centre last Thursday to present the report (co-authored by Dr Tyfield, Jun Jin and Tyler Rooker, and published by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

“Game-Changing China” is a welcome contribution to the debate over the role that different forms of innovation can play in the quest for low-carbon development. It is clear that a mixture of approaches to innovation are going to be required, but what remains to be seen is how this balance will be struck in different countries. Especially interesting in the Chinese case is how “grassroots innovation”, which has already played a huge role in China’s recent development, will or will not be harnessed in the search for environmental sustainability. This question also featured in a background paper to the STEPS Centre’s Manifesto project.

The NESTA report draws upon ideas of “disruptive innovation” (as originally put forward by Clayton Christensen) and “socio-technical transitions” (also used by colleagues at the STEPS Centre’s work). The authors argue that initially low-profile, and in some cases relatively low-tech, innovations can contribute – alongside social changes – to broader systemic changes that reach way beyond the newly-introduced technologies.

These systemic changes are widely seen as the kind of broad-scale “transitions” that will be required for us to move towards low-carbon societies. Most of the literature on “socio-technical transitions” sees an important role for the public and communities in bringing about these changes. One example is the Transition Network that is driving change from the community-level in the UK and beyond.

The audience at Dr Tyfield’s presentation last Thursday, made up of researchers from SPRU and IDS, raised questions about how current “socio-technical transitions” ideas could be applied in different governance contexts. While most of the case studies that have adopted these ideas have to date focussed on Western countries (usually democracies, although the form of democracy varies with each historical study), the governance context in China is markedly different. What impact do alternative political conditions have on the ways in which “landscape changes” (in the terms used by transitions theorists) put pressure on socio-technical regimes? How can/do “niches” accumulate, and how can/do dominant socio-technical regimes become disrupted in the very different situations found in China and elsewhere? This was identified as an important question for further empirical investigation.

As well as putting forward a selection of informative case studies and important lessons from the Chinese case, the new report opens the door to further research investigating the relative importance of different forms of innovation and social change in diverse governance contexts around the world.

>> “Game-changing China: Lessons from China about Disruptive Low Carbon Innovation”
>> Redistribution: The Global Redistribution of Innovation: Lessons from China and India (Manifesto background paper)