Urenio Watch Watch: Collaborative Innovation

Transforming innovation for decarbonisation? Insights from combining complex systems and social practice perspectives

The transformation of research and policy approaches to innovation for decarbonisation towards a type of social innovation, is promising to open discussions and interrelate with the present reality. This paper starts by challenging the demand-supply dichotomy. Complex systems and social practice theories represent the compelling frameworks whereby to deal with this transformation.

The demand-supply dichotomy, as analysed by the authors, is constructed by two factors. On one hand, the assumption that energy demand will not be modified over time while energy supply is being changed is informing the prominent approach. On the other hand, the dichotomy results from framings and representations which set energy supply technologies as a given. These framings are based on the assumption that energy demand can be driven on a top-down way which changes individual behaviours around innovations and relies on other exogenous factors represented by price signals, information, education, training courses, etc. This dichotomy typically leads to neglecting how energy supply and demand co-evolve and influence each other in ways that can work towards or against low-carbon societies and sustainability

It is argued that contemporary methodological approaches informed by complex systems and social practice theories provide urgently needed insights into innovation for decarbonisation away from the existent dichotomy. Towards that direction, the authors address the following questions: Why are current conceptualisations of innovation narrowly framed and with what consequences? How would a framing of innovation grounded on complex systems and social practice theories improve the understanding of opportunities and challenges at stake with innovation for decarbonisation? How could this framing help uncover and deploy an important and still often neglected social innovation potential? As a result, they form suggestions towards a research-policy agenda based on social sciences approach.

It is underlined that innovation for decarbonisation has to be addressed and studied as a specific type of social innovation consisting of endogenous, relational and reflexive processes where technologies are entangled rather than deterministic. According to this paper decarbonisation should be devised as the outcome of new social practices whereby technical solutions are altered and enacted, rather than as the outcome of a seamless and large-scale diffusion of ready-made technical solutions.

Complex systems approaches are presented as valuable towards that direction. They lead to a better understanding of the ways that decarbonisation policies of one region affect a distinctive region. Such approaches can demonstrate the dangers of the absence of global and collective actions for a transformation towards decarbonisation, which are particularly relevant in present times of resurgence of nationalist movements. Social practice approaches are equally highly needed due to the political dimension of this transformation, as they contribute in the study of the agencies involved in expected changes and how these changes might be activated.  

Social practice theories allow 1) deconstruction of traditional dichotomies established between producers and consumers, administrators and administered, and 2) reframe the problem of innovations for a transformation towards a decarbonised future as a political problem where materiality is involved in a fundamental way.

The authors argue that the technocratic approaches attempted until now are certainly necessary, but they prove insufficient as they fail to take into account complex systems dynamics and how innovations and new social practices actually develop and diffuse. The type of knowledge required for effective and equal decarbonisation policies originates from a bottom-up approach, involving tradition, history, political imaginaries, local practical knowledge, expertise and innovation. This paper opens a discussion suggesting the grounds for development paths.

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