During my third year, I did a minor in Sustainable Innovation. This is a study at the Eindhoven University of Technology focused on the different aspects of the energy transition. During this minor, I got theoretical a background in transition sciences, the history of the energy transition and materials and energy flows. On this page, I will give examples that I find relevant for my vision and identity as a designer of what I have learned during this minor.
One of the important topics of Sustainable Innovation is transition. This is because to move towards a sustainable society, multiple transitions need to take place. For example, the generation of energy needs to move towards a renewable option to enable the energy transition. During my minor, I learnt many different theories about transition. Here, I will limit it to three different examples: Multilevel Perspective (MLP), Strategic Niche Management (SNM), and Social Construct of Technology (SCOT).
Multilevel Perspective (Geels, 2002) is a fundamental model that allows for a socio-technical system analysis. An example of a socio-technical system could be energy generation, but it is also possible to zoom to a smaller sub-system, like renewable energy generation. MLP views a socio-technical system on three different levels: landscape (macro), regimes (meso) and niches (micro).
The regimes are the currently common practice of the system. This logic can be viewed on different dimensions, namely: (1) principles and beliefs, (2) industry structure, (3) technology and infrastructure, (4) knowledge base, (5) market and users, (6) policy and political power, and (7) culture, routine and practices. Regimes have a strong lock-in effect and are hard to change. The regime of the energy generation would be the burning of fossil fuels.
Alternatives to the regime are called the niches. Niches are the safe-spaces where innovations can develop and become their own proto-regime. As a niche is still in development, it is easier to change things. Examples of niches in the energy generation system would be solar panels, windmills or the burning of biogas.
The regimes operate in a society which influences the situation as well. These influences are called landscape pressures. They are the things that happen outside the regime but still have impact. These pressures can either stabilize or destabilize the regime. For example, climate change and urbanization are pressures that destabilize the energy generation system. An example of a stabilizing landscape pressure is the growing populist movement.
For transition to happen, MLP claims there needs to be enough momentum to go from the incumbent regime to one of the niches. The momentum is reached by having enough external pressures on the landscape level, internal tensions on regime level and availability of alternatives on the niche level.
Strategic Niche Management
Strategic Niche Management (Kemp et al., 1998; Smith et al., 2012) is the navigation of the process of niche formation. It is concerned with the creation, maintenance and phasing out of protective spaces (niches). The theory is built up out of three processes who all have their core activities. These processes are shielding, nurturing and empowering. Even though it seems like a linear process, it is important to note that all these processes are present during the entire innovation process, but the focus shifts from shielding to nurturing to empowering.
Shielding refers to the activities that hold off selection pressures. This can be active support, like creating a district strictly for built environment innovation, or passive, like an island where bringing outside resources is more expensive. Typical activities are finding financial support, working on a favourable location, tolerating poor performance, getting temporary rule exemption and mobilizing pre-existing support.
Nurturing refers to the activities that make sure your innovation can grow. Important activities are aligning expectations, learning and building an actor-network. Aligning expectations is important to make sure that all stakeholders want to go in the same direction. If this is not the case, your innovation will have a hard time growing. The learning activities are central as those can confirm your expectations and create a clear idea of what you are doing and whether you are doing the right things. Important aspects of learning are doing different experiments. Finally, the actor-network is important to carry out your innovation. This network needs to be focused (understanding the technology) and broad (getting different insights and reaching a lot of people).
Empowering activities are the activities that will let you escape the protective space and go into the real market. The support build up in shielding becomes less important and your innovation starts competing in the market. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is to fit into the system as it is. You play with the rules of the current regime and create a symbiosis with the current mainstream technology. The second way is to change the regime for the better of your innovation. For example, instead of removing the shielding measurements, institutionalizing them in the system. Of course, it is also possible to fit in certain regime dimensions, while transforming others.
Social Construct of technology
The Social Construct of Technology (Pinch et al., 1984) is used to analyse the socio-technical development of artefact as a process of social construction. It criticizes the deterministic, simplistic and linear thinking about innovation development. Instead, SCOT looks at different elements that are present in the development of an artefact to analyse the development.
The first element is the relevant social groups. These are groups of people who share the same set of meanings attached to the specific artefact. For example, during the development of the bicycle relevant social groups were young men, women and elderly people, but also anti-cyclist. During the analysis, the artefacts need to be described through the eyes of the different social groups. Which brings the second element: interpretative flexibility.
Not all social groups will think the same about the artefact and get different pains and gains from the artefact. The flexibility lies in how people think about the technology as well as in how it is designed. In the example for the development of the bicycle, young men found the bicycle a tool to impress and to do sport, while elderly found the the first bicycle a dangerous machine with steep falls.
Based on the different problems the social groups have, solutions will be found. Of course, one problem can have different solutions, resulting in a range of different designs. The current shape of the bicycle, also known as the ‘safety bike’, was designed to address the safety issues with the bike by lowering the height and making balance easier. During this period, the interpretative flexibility slowly diminishes, some artefacts gain dominance over others and meanings converge resulting in one emerging of one artefact. This happens when the relevant social groups see the problems as solved.
Economics of Innovation
Besides theories how transition comes in play, it is also important to make sure to have a proper business model for your innovation. As an innovation for transition is often unconventional, it is important to know what different tools are available and to explore different kinds of business model canvasses.
An example of tools that can be used are intellectual property rights (Greenhalgh, 2010). IPR can be used to protect an innovation and give space for the innovator to proceed with their learning activities without worrying about competitors. Patents are one example of IP that is often used for technological innovation. However, some innovators choose not to use patents, as it has the requirement to publish all the details, so others will be able to copy the innovation when the patent expires. By using secrecy and non-disclosure agreements, companies can also protect their innovation and gain a competitive advantage.
Next to existing tools that can be used during the development of innovation, managing your innovation is also a challenge. Traditional business model canvasses (e.g. the Osterwalder canvas) are often linear and with strong economic value. In the transition economy, however, an iterative approach together with different kinds of values is more appropriate. A great example of this is the Cloverleaf Business Model Canvas (Jonker, 2014), a canvas that highlights the importance of going back and forth between designing and community. Furthermore, it also encourages thinking about the principles of the innovation connected to social, environmental and economic values.
History of Innovation and Sustainability
The World Book, 1920
Since transition is something that it is happening over a long period of time and has happened before, history can be one of the best teachers. Historical cases, like the example of the development of the bicycle, can help to see patterns and understand theories to be applied to relevant cases. Furthermore, the development of the creation of the concept sustainable development helps to understand the vision and the desired needs of the sustainability transition (Baker, 2015).
The most common definition for sustainable development is the Brundtland definition:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland report, 1987)
This definition captures different aspects that are important for the vision of sustainability. First, it refers to spacial and temporal equity claiming that everyone should be able to reach their needs now and later. Furthermore, it focuses on needs rather then wants, indicating that people should measure their wealth in their quality of life instead of the amount they can consume.
When talking about sustainable development, it is important to use three different perspectives. The first lens is the economic lens, in our society the economy is used to create wealth and is a tool for people to satisfy their needs. However, an economy is only possible if there is a society, so the second lens is the social lens. To meet the needs of all, creating an equitable society is an important step. Finally, society can not exist without nature. The third lens is the ecological lens. By keeping in mind the ecological impact of development, true sustainable development can be achieved.
Finally, I did not only learn about transition theories in my minor but also about sustainability concepts that play a central role in the energy transition. Here, I will shortly describe three concepts: embodied energy, Cradle-to-Cradle and industrial symbiosis.
Embodied energy (Ashby, 2013) is an eco-indicator that measures the environmental impact of a product by the amount of energy needed for that product. With the energy needed, it does not only refer to the energy that the product uses in operation but over the whole life cycle.
The life cycle of a product consists of six phases. These phases are (1) raw material extraction, (2) material processing & shipping, (3) product manufacturing & packaging, (4) product shipping, (5) product use, and (6) product disposal or recycling. By taking into account the energy usage of the product through the whole life cycle (from cradle to grave), comparisons can be done over the sustainability of different designs.
Cradle-to-cradle (Braungart, 2002) is a movement that wishes to copy nature in three principles to achieve sustainability. These three principles are:
- Waste equals food
The waste produced by our society should completely be used again by the industry, creating the technical cycle, just like nature uses all dead organisms to create compost and grow again. For this, products need to be designed for easy repair, reuse or recycling.
- Use solar income
The energy used in our society needs to be renewable. In nature, energy comes from plants who use solar to do photosynthesis.
- Celebrate diversity
In nature, having a great diversity enlarges the chances of a successful species. In industry, it can become valuable, as a big diversity means higher chances for recycling possibilities.
With these principles, the goal becomes to be eco-effective (being good for the environment) instead of eco-efficient (being less bad for the environment).
Industrial symbiosis (Cohen Rosenthal, 2003) is a practice that can be placed in cradle-to-cradle. The principle is that producers share their residual flows as input for others or their own company. This way, industrial symbiosis embodies the principle of waste equals food. Furthermore, in industrial symbiosis, a great diversity of companies in close geological proximity is important, as it increases the likelihood that companies have symbiotic needs.
Relevant courses: 0SV20 Industrial Ecology