SP416 How to get from here to there OR how does technological change happen?

A pair of Pratt and Whitney JT3D engines on an early Boeing 707……http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_707

Yes that is right a jet engine is the focus for today’s blog. Of course it is not really about jet engines as such…that is just an example.

The question is technology itself.

New technology has to play a major part in improving our environment. If we are serious about reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, then pretty major technical changes are required-and sooner rather than later.

The problem is how do major technological changes arise and is there some way these can even be controlled or encouraged? Must we simply wait for technical change to ‘arrive’ in some kind of slow evolutionary process?

As it turns out there is quite a bit of social science writing on the subject of technical change. An interesting writer in this regard is the Dutch social scientist Frank Geels, who is a professor at the famous University of Sussex SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit). Over a fairly extensive  series of publications, he has interesting things to say about jet engines and rather more to say about how technical change occurs ( a profile of him and his work appears here; http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/228052)

The publication I’ll be using as an example here is: Geels, F.W. (2006) ‘Co-evolutionary and multi-level dynamics in transitions: the transformation of aviation systems and the shift from propellor to turbojet (1930-1970)’, Technovation, Vol.26, pp.999-1016

First the bit about technical change. According to Geels technical change occurs at multiple reinforcing levels-and he has coined a whole approach labelled as the MLP (Multi Level Perspective) model. What does this mean?

Forget the idea of the genuis working in the garage to invent on his own some new technology-instead technologies evolve in complex layers of social, technical and economic interaction.

Not quite as romantic is it?

According to Geels change occurs at THREE levels: niche, regime, and landscape. When technical innovations reinforce each other at these three levels major technical transitions are likely to occur. Otherwise technical innovations are often bubbling away at each level, but remain apart and they fail to achieve their potential. It is the reinforcing effect of discrete levels coming together over time which produces major evolutionary and technical change. Such a synthesis can come about by chance, but it is also apparent that policies can be followed which look for and create reinforcing effects between the levels.

By niches, Geels means that technological niches are micro level, small social networks where a particular technology is developed, often by an individual firm, laboratory or as part of a particular project. He borrows specifically from the concept of an ‘ecological niche’, but the stress is as much on the sociological context in which a small technical community who are interested in a particular technology work to develop it, and yet the potential of the technology is usually less proven. Moreover, the boundaries  between one niche and any other may not be as clear-cut as happens with established mature technologies. Researchers or firms may dabble in related technology niches (Geels, 2006, p. 1004). They may variously prioritize them as well-believing some to be marginal technologies and others to be ‘sure bets’.

With regard to regimes, what Geels means is a direct invocation of the concept of ‘technical regime’ as developed by Nelson and Winter (1982)*. This means a meso-level system of norms, rules and standards which create some form of de facto or de jure technological governance. The regime include many more actors than just the technology developers. It includes users and shapers of a given technology. For example the growing railway technology of the early 19th century was governed by emerging regimes built around railway firms, regulations, state controls, passeneger and commercial interests, together with technological innovators. The most important regime contributions were to issues such as establishing norms on safety, guage, and ownership.

Landscape is Geel’s own somewhat arcane terminology for macro level changes, and this could include the macro level of economic changes and natural resource constraints, but also macro political events that can stimulate or restrict demand for technology (war is an obvious example).  According to Geels an extensive, but not exclusive, list of landscape level considerations include: “economic growth, broad political coalitions, cultural and normative values, environmental problems, resource scarcities’ (and even) ‘the material and spatial arrangements of cities, factories, highways, and electricty infrastructures” (Geels, 2006, p.1004)

As an example of a major technical change Geels offers the case-study of the shift from propellors to jets-a move which had quite a few environmental costs as jet aicraft used a lot more fuel than propellor alternatives.

Examples of niche, regime and landscape innovation furthering the shift to jets

According to Geel’s account a key niche development was the successful production of the J-57 engine which was as a direct result of military research from Cold-war era jet powered bombers. Without this engine, the radically innovative designs for the Boeing 707 and DC-8 simply would not have been possible. According to Geels: “especially the J-57 engine came to power very large aircraft such as the B-52 bomber, which entered service in 1952, and the civilian Boeing 707 and DC-8. Jet engines came to be seen as powerful all purpose engines” (Geels, 2006, p.1011).   That military engine (J-57) got renamed the JT-3 (as seen above-although the model in the picture above is in fact the D version, which is an importantly different variant from the J-57)

Examples of a regime innovation furthering the shift to jets was the 1952 decision by IATA (International Air Transport Association), a key forum for airlines and air tourist interests, to introduce discounted tourist tickets to develop an American tourist market for long haul travel. This in turn reflected an airliner business model where they wanted  increased capacity-bigger aicraft that could fly further and faster. This commercial change made big jets such as the Boeing 707 much more attractive and commercially viable once they emerged in the late 1950s. One change reinforced another, as Geels would have it.

Although Geels doesn’t explictedly give any detailed example of a landscape innovation furthering the shift to jets in his 2006 paper, it is clear that both the Second World War and espeically the Cold War were major landsacpe changes which furthered research on jets engines. Jets were originally a military development explored from the 1930s onward. However, in the early Cold War period, the British and American military in general did not want jet engines that appealed to civil aviation until the later 1940s. They wanted small jets engines that suited small nimble fighters-not civilian transport aircraft.  The larger bomber aircraft needed as the atomic arms race speeded up by the early 1950s, encouraged a very different type of jet engine compared with smaller fighther aircraft. Thus was born a technology niche which could be readily converted to civilian application by the mid 1950s. According the Geels this is the story behind the the J-57 engine which became in civilian guise the the JT-3.

So there it is then. Technical revolutions-in this case the jet age-happen when innovations is reinforced at various levels.

The only problem with this account is that:

(1) I don’t buy it. It seems far too mechanistic as explanations go.

(2) It tends to describe but NOT explain what happens within each level-why does one particular niche get reinforced by another level but not another particular niche?

(3) It tends to imply all the levels of innovation are more or less equal in terms of explanatory power, but surely some levels might be more strategic? An obvious candidate would seem to be the landscape level, which simply might matter more than developments at niche or regime level? Also, are all actors within a given level equal as regards their power to influence technical innovation? I’m thinking here of the power of the state as being predominant, something which Geels’ account seems to downplay by instead portraying a wide and diffuse actor network for innovation.

(4) Some of the historical details that Geels uses to build his case are arguably inaccurate and fail to account for complexities and ambiguities in technical choice. For example, has he got the basic story on technical niches correct? The photo above shows the D version of the JT3 jet engine. This version was a turbofan rather than a turbojet and it was turbofan technology pioneered by Rolls Royce in the early 1950s, for purely civilian applications. By the early 1960s nearly all 707s had converted to turbofan D models. Today modern airliners are nearly all powered by turbofans which are direct descendants of British civilian technology not American military technology!  So the wonderful story of the Boeing 707 being based on a bomber’s engine may actually be just that….a story with some truth (the initial breakthrough design was certainly based on the military J-57 engine). However,  the subsequent dominant design configuration was based on quite a different engine technology.

It seems a lot more complex that merely reinforcing levels of technical change.


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