One of the key challenges of a successful climate protection is to stimulate technological change.  Currently, our society’s modes of consumption and production are based on unsustainable technologies that cause vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. If we want to achieve the 2 degree climate target, it is necessary that these dirty technologies are replaced by low carbon technologies as quickly as possible.

However, to stimulate a transition towards low carbon technologies turns out to be quite difficult. Low carbon technologies often show a quite radical nature, in the sense that they do not fit into the established systems, in which conventional technologies are currently embedded. For instance, deploying electric cars on a larger scale would require a huge network of charging stations, which would need to be built from scratch. Or consider solar power technology, which affects the whole electricity system, as the technology turns power consumers into ‘prosumers’ (i.e. consumers who also produce electricity), or requires different grid management approaches due to intermittent pattern of power production.

Until recently, policy makers and scientist alike paid little attention to the characteristics of the system, in which technologies are embedded. For many decades there was the prevailing idea that the only precondition for the success of new technologies is to set their prices right. In other words, once a new technology is mature (and cheap) enough, it will automatically substitute old ones. As a result, clean technology policies have been (and still are) focusing mainly on price reductions and improvements of research & development activities. While these policies might have been useful for stimulating incremental technological change (such as end of pipe solutions), they have shown only limited success in supporting the take-off of radically new technologies.

To complement this narrow view, innovation scholars are trying to gain a more systemic understanding of technological change. Most notably, some scholars refer to so-called ‘socio-technical’ systems that surround (old and new) technologies. Socio-technical systems comprise not only the broader technical infrastructure, in which technologies are embedded, but also actors and institutions that shape and are shaped by technologies. As a result, these scholars regard technological change as a deep transformation of actor constellations, institutions and surrounding infrastructures, and not only as a substitution of old technologies by new ones. In my upcoming posts, I will present two quite prominent concepts that explicitly use the notion of socio-technical systems to describe technological change: (i) the Multi-level Perspective (MLP) and (ii) the Technological Innovation System framework…

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