Traditional forms of energy supply are being challenged. Photo: Gas meter dials by Leo Reynolds on Flickr (Creative Commons)

By Adrian Smith, STEPS Centre member

How does a new way of doing things – say, fair trade, or community energy production – get a foothold? How does it avoid being overwhelmed or crushed by the dominant, existing system? What are the conditions that can help it or prevent it from flourishing?

The study of “sustainability transitions” aims to answer these questions. Sometimes, transitions happen on a massive scale – for example, with the “green revolution” in the 1940s-1970s – and usually with mixed results. Often, however, the dominant system can stifle the emergence of radically novel technologies or practices, so that even good ideas find it hard to gain traction.

For those wanting to promote more sustainable pathways, it’s important to understand how transitions can be nurtured when they’re at a small, vulnerable stage. Transitions thinking talks about supportive spaces (“niches”) where a new practice or technology can develop, sheltered from hostile structures or market forces. Once it has had chance to grow, it can start to move outside the niche and interact and compete more successfully with existing systems.

From fossil fuel to alternative power

An example of a dominant system and a possible transformation is in the area of energy. The dominant model of energy generation and use is currently being challenged by social pressure to reduce climate change, as well as fears over the security of energy supply. The assumption that development can continue to be powered by large fossil-fuel plants, for instance, is increasingly challenged by a variety of alternatives and their advocates. Whether it is nuclear energy, solar power, or managing patterns of demand, there is an increasing amount of political and material support for alternative pathways.

There are parallels to this picture in many development domains. What is needed is more analysis of the interactions and co-existence of plural pathways, and how each is affected differently by the others and the incumbent regimes of provision which they are all trying to displace.

What are niche spaces for?

As researchers, we are interested in the idea of ‘niche spaces’ that allow pathways to materialise and gain momentum through practical experimentation in the real world. Niche spaces are opened-up through networking processes amongst initiatives, which establish and foster alternative pathways.

What can this kind of networking do? Well, it allows people to share lessons – for example, about the development of viable off-grid electricity projects in diverse development settings. But while sharing lessons is a good thing – for example, it’s undoubtedly an important area for learning-based development approaches and ideas for strategic niche management – on its own, lesson-sharing is somewhat limited and limiting. So, in addition, we are interested in how the networking that goes on in niche spaces cultivates shared identities, solidarities and mutual interests, which help mobilise demands for changes to wider institutions and social structures – changes that would enable niche practices to diffuse, scale-up and translate into much wider practices. This might happen through new institutions, or transformed markets, or through links with social movements, or through a re-thinking and re-design of large-scale development assistance programmes.

But niche spaces can also find it hard to develop. We need to confront head-on the political economy of incumbent regimes that makes the creation of niche spaces so difficult to establish and grow. Attention to the social movements that challenge these political economies can be helpful here, especially for the opportunities these social movements give to niche space developments.

STEPS Centre work on transitions

There is an emerging agenda for rethinking the roles of bottom-up and alternative social, technological and environmental development initiatives in the construction and realisation of sustainability pathways. The STEPS Centre plans to develop a ‘transitions’ cluster of projects that address this agenda as part of its second phase of work (how we do this depends on some funding decisions happening later this year).

Meanwhile, we continue to engage through a variety of projects and processes that include the following:

  1. UK-based work on Community Innovation in Sustainable Energy. This is part of a broader programme of work on grassroots innovations for sustainable development, again with a UK focus, but which seeks to reach out to research with similar sensibilities in other parts of the world (including an international workshop to be held in Spring 2012). This project will develop insights into how niches are formed and mobilised in civil society settings, through an analysis of the recent ferment of activity on community energy in the UK.
  2. Links with research into “social technologies” led by Hernán Thomas, Mariano Fressoli and colleagues at the Centro de Estudios de Ciencia, Tecnología y Sociedad at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes in Buenos Aires. Social technology is an approach to grassroots innovation for poorer and more marginalised communities in Latin America that seek to develop social integration and sustainability. As such, they hint at an intriguing set of pathways for sustainability which is also of interest to STEPS. The Quilmes team have an IDRC-funded project that is analysing the social technologies movement in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Brazil. Social technology initiatives benefit from a fairly developed network programme in Brazil which is supported by the Federal Government. There are features here reminiscent to earlier movements and debates about appropriate technology. We have been exploring these links through a Visiting Fellowship to the STEPS Centre that Mariano held in October 2010 through an ESRC-SSRC funding scheme, and which we are developing through a paper written by Mariano and Hernán and me.
  3. I am involved in the Sustainability Transitions Research Network which brings together a variety of researchers and projects. Closest to our own STEPS Centre plans have been activities led by Frans Berkhout and Rob Raven from the network, and that are looking at sustainability experiments in South Asia and East Asia, initially through the IHDP, and now in a new NWO-funded project. Special issues of Technological Forecasting and Social Change in 2009 and Environmental Science and Policy in 2010 collected together papers on this topic. Here at the STEPS Centre, Rob Byrne in his DPhil has been comparing niche development processes for home solar electric systems in Tanzania and Kenya, and finding that there is more to relative success in Kenya that market-based claims being made by other analysts. An international conference on sustainability transitions at Lund University in Sweden on 13-15 June 2011 will provide an opportunity for similarly-inclined studies to meet and debate.
  4. Niche spaces and protection. I am also collaborating with Rob Raven in an ESRC-NWO funded project that will analyse and develop the way “niche spaces” offer protection and help nurture the development of socio-technical alternatives. Whilst their study will compare different energy alternatives in the UK and Netherlands, it is nevertheless inspired by the controversial debates about protection associated with the “infant industries” literature in development economics. Insights arising from this project will provide questions and hopefully fruitful lines of analysis for nurturing alternative pathways in development settings in future work.
  5. Natural resource based industries in Latin America. Another IDRC-funded project, led by Anabel Marin at Conicet / Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina and Antonio Carlos Figueira Galvão at Centro de Gestão e Estudos Estratégicos, is interested in applying the STEPS pathways approach to the question of natural resource based industries in Latin America. Influential economists in the region conventionally see natural resource based sectors as a brake on economic development. Anabel is interested in whether niche initiatives can open up more knowledge intensive, more economically interlinked, and more socially inclusive forms of sustainable natural resource exploitation in the region. I am helping her develop sustainability transitions ideas to the analysis for her project, which will also help rethink and revise the basic model, and develop our own thinking further.
  6. Climate change negotiations. It is sobering to compare the innovative thinking around sustainability pathways with the narrow development of technology transfer agreements within international climate change negotiations. Too many of the international discussions consider technology transfer as an event, rather than a process, and see those transfers as rooted in techno-economic criteria, rather than the development of indigenous capabilities. This is despite 40 years of study that identifies socio-technical capability building processes to be so crucial that the term “technology transfer” becomes an unhelpful way to frame the challenges and roles of technology in addressing international climate change. Rob Byrne, Adrian Smith, David Ockwell and Jim Watson, in a new STEPS Centre Working Paper due in December, are considering what new light transitions thinking can shed on these long-standing debates, and whether transitions research might help unlock some advances in this area.

As we do more work on transitions, we’re looking forward to developing a number of exciting new projects and partnerships as part of the STEPS Centre’s ‘transitions’ research cluster. It would be great to hear from others doing similar work.

> STEPS Centre work on Dynamics (including transitions)
> Adrian Smith’s profile