What is system innovation for sustainability?

System innovation is defined as “a transition from one socio-technical system to another (Geels, 2005, p.2)”. Some historical examples of system innovation are the transition from sailing ships to steam ships, the transition from horse-and-carriage to automobiles, and the transition from piston engine aircrafts to jetliners in American aviation (Geels, 2002a, 2002b, 2005). Much more profound examples of system innovation are agricultural revolution and industrial revolution, both of which fundamentally changed how the society operates. The society is currently experiencing another profound system innovation determined by the rapid development and diffusion of information and communication technologies. Since system innovation is a transformation which takes place at the wider societal context, it covers not only product and process innovations but also changes in user practices, markets, policy, regulations, culture, infrastructure, lifestyle, and management of firms (see, for example, Berkhout, 2002; Geels, 2006; Kemp and Rotmans, 2005; Sartorius, 2006).  In other words, system innovation occurs when the societal system functions differently and thus there is a requirement for fundamental structural change (Frantzeskaki and De Haan, 2009).

Historical examples of system innovation differ from system innovation for sustainability simply by not having a predefined and desired output. On the contrary to historical examples, endeavours to achieve system innovation for sustainability has a desired outcome: sustainable socio-technical systems. This raises questions about what sustainability means, how sustainability of a system can be achieved, what characteristics socio-technical systems have and how can we change socio-technical systems. Answers to these will be investigated in my upcoming musings. But next, I’ll write about the history of system innovation, how it all started and where it is now.

References used in this post:

Berkhout, F., 2002. Technological regimes, path dependency and the environment. Global Environmental Change, 12(1), 1-4.

Frantzeskaki, N., De Haan, H., 2009. Transitions: Two steps from theory to policy. Futures, 41(9), 593-606.

Geels, F. W. 2002a. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8-9), 1257-1274. Retrieved May 20, 2007 from ScienceDirect.

Geels, F. 2002b. Understanding the Dynamics of Technological Transitions: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Unpublished Ph.D., University of Twente, Twente.

Geels, F. W., 2005. Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Pub.

Geels, F. W., 2006. System innovations and transitions to sustainability: challenges for innovation theory. Paper presented at the SPRU 40th Anniversary Conference,11-13 September 2006.

Kemp, R., Rotmans, J., 2005. The Management of the Co-evolution of Technical, Environmental and Social Systems, in: Weber, M., Hemmelskamp, J. (Eds.), Towards environmental innovation systems. Berlin, New York: Springer, pp. 33-55.

Sartorius, C., 2006. Second-order sustainability–conditions for the development of sustainable innovations in a dynamic environment. Ecological Economics, 58(2), 268-286.


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