Why Technology Shifts Matter-or is it all down to luck?

Perhaps the success of the Kindle “book-killer” is just all down to luck?

An Open source image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Amazon-kindle-gen2.jpg

Geels (2005*) has a nice argument about why technology shifts matter from an environmental perspective:

‘In recent years there is increasing interest, in transitions and systems innovation, because of their promise to achieve jumps in environmental efficiency. In transport systems, energy systems, agricultural systems, etc., there are promissing new environmental technologies, with better environmental performance. But many of these new technologies are not (yet) taken up. This is partly related to economic reasons, but also to social, cultural, infrastructure and regulative reasons. Because existing systems are ‘locked in’ at multiple dimensions, they are stable and not easy to change.’ (p.682)

So promissing developments in renewables, electric vehicles, and such like are just out there waiting to create a revolution but they may never get there because the overall socio-technical system basically does not find it convenient to change. How frustrating, and also if this is true, it represents a criminal waste of technological opportunities for more sustainable technologies than we currently use.

Geels argues our major technology systems will only make a major change when there is a seemingly fortuitous coming together of micro, messo and macro level changes-and the combined effect of these produce a system change.

The problem with that account seems to be that it suggests major technical shifts are more or less down to luck and possibly accidental. It does not seem possible to Geels, that between the various levels of change, there may be scope for strategic steering of change overall. In others words could we not somehow force a coming together of developments at levels? If we take Geel’s account at its face value we are left wth a somewhat mechanistic account of technical shifts, and one where the emphasis is on a catallaxy of events at different levels, without any seeming scope for strategic leadership of direction.

Geel’s mentions the concept of ‘strategic niche management’, (which has become a minor acdemic cottage industry in the last few years), but seem oblivious to the scope that should in principle exist for strategic technology transformation management at all levels-not just at the niche level. This is odd given the later work by Geels is expressly addressed to the idea of encouraging technological transformations. After all, if we can map and understand the various levels of technical change, the numerous actors and constituencies as Geels does, can we not also begin to construct alliances and coalitions between acrosss the various niches, regimes and landscape developments and actors?

In particular the state should be seen as a central actor who can uniquely play the most obvious role as dominant co-ordination actor across niche, regime and landscape domains. This is because the state has unique abilities to co-ordinate diverse social actors across micro, messo, and macro levels. The state retains powerful hegemonic powers in many policy sectors, most obviously by residual legal powers and competences. In other cases the state is a strategic disburser of funds without a narrow commercial focus on return on investment-precisley the type of funding that may bankroll high risk and therefore likely to fail technology change. Even in an era of globalisation, where the scope and automy of nation state action has become argubaly more qualified if not fettered, such states still retain important capacities and indeed a resilience to dominate in certain in key policy issues if there is willpower, capacity and the perception of core interests being engaged.

It seems to me at any rate we do not simply have to wait for major technology changes to emerge by accident….we can probably bring them on-or at least get our states and governments to do that job for us. That is far from simple. It does not necessarily mean statist forms of development or ownership, but rather suggest that state or public leadership and co-ordination that is strategic is what matters.

Geels, F. W. (2005) ‘Processes and Patterns in transitions and systems innovations: refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective’, Technology Forecasting and Social Change, Vol.72, pp.681-696.

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