A new 3S Working Paper by Jason Chilvers and Noel Longhurst develops a novel approach to understanding and intervening in sociotechnical system transitions, in domains such as energy and sustainability. The approach builds a relational and co-productionist understanding of system change – grounded theories from science and technology studies (STS) and wider social theory – that seeks to address some of the perceived shortcomings of existing approaches like the multi-level perspective (MLP). It offers a constructivist perspective on ‘whole systems’ analysis and, in doing so, attempts to bring significant elements of the ‘social’ dimensions of systemic change (for example in the energy system) into view whilst also emphasising the co-production of social orders and technological systems.
The framework set out in the paper conceptualises sociotechnical ‘systems’ in terms of relational ecologies of stabilised and emergent sociomaterial arrangements. Key distinctive features of the approach include deliberate attempts to better attend to and account for:
- The politics and difference over the object and direction sociotechnical change. Transitions are always conflictual and negotiated settlements. The framework encourages the exploration of entangled relations between incumbent and distributed visions that define and problematize meanings of the energy ‘system’, its boundaries and political situation.
- Diversity within sociotechnical transitions including with respect to diversities of meanings (visions, issues), doings (technologies, practices), knowledges and ways of organizing that make up (and exist beyond) any given ‘system’.
- Processes of sociotechnical emergence and stability, through exploring the interplay of both in equal measure. The interest here is between stabilized constitutional arrangements established over historical time (institutions, laws, energy infrastructures, etc.), that are dynamic and open to sudden perturbations, and their relations with continually emergent forms of knowing, doing, meaning and organizing at play within any given sociotechnical system.
- Distributed agency through understanding agency and cognition as distributed across a system and reproduced by the practices and commitments of multiple actors.
- The co-production of technology and society. Rather than seeing the ‘social’ and ‘technological’ as separate interacting (sub)systems, the approach sees them as inherently intertwined and always produced together.
In addition to developing new theoretical understandings the paper also seeks to inform the development of new approaches for reflexive and responsible governance of sociotechnical transitions.
The working paper is an output of the Realising Transitions Pathyways project, an Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) funded consortium of nine universities which have collaborated to develop interdisciplinary ‘transition pathways’ that explore possible futures for the UK electricity system up to 2050. A key role for the 3S team has been to balance the engineering and economic dimensions of analysis with a recognition of the significance of the social dimensions of sociotechnical system change, including how the interactions of different actors might be understood. It is with this objective in mind that the relational co-productionist approach has been developed.