Technology Analysis & Strategic Management
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Geographical perspectives on sociotechnical transitions and emerging bio-economies: introduction to a special issue Kirby E. Calvert, Peter Kedron, Jennifer Baka & Kean Birch To cite this article: Kirby E. Calvert, Peter Kedron, Jennifer Baka & Kean Birch (2017) Geographical perspectives on sociotechnical transitions and emerging bio-economies: introduction to a special issue, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 29:5, 477-485, DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2017.1300643 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09537325.2017.1300643
Published online: 14 Mar 2017.
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Date: 15 March 2017, At: 09:29
TECHNOLOGY ANALYSIS & STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT, 2017 VOL. 29, NO. 5, 477–485 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09537325.2017.1300643
Geographical perspectives on sociotechnical transitions and emerging bio-economies: introduction to a special issue Among the most pressing energy and environmental strategic challenges today is to identify and deploy viable alternatives to fossil-fuel-based energy systems. The barriers to deployment are systematic, leading to a state of affairs described as ‘carbon lock-in’ (Unruh 2000; Neuhoff 2007). Simply stated, even if alternative energy systems are cost-competitive in theory, the prime movers that control their diffusion throughout society – for example, conversion and distribution infrastructure; financing mechanisms; skilled labour force; attitudes toward particular kinds of energy production activities and energy services – exhibit a preference for incumbent carbon-intensive fossil energy resources. Carbon lock-in represents path dependencies within energy systems including sunk-cost in prevailing infrastructure and entrenched political interests along with positively reinforcing relationships with broader system dynamics, from global financial logics that continue to monetise unburned carbon through energy futures contracts to our everyday practices and expectations about mobility, comfort, and overall well-being that underpin regular visits to the gasoline station. All of this is to say that energy systems are sociotechnical in nature, characterised by deep and often subtle interdependencies between technological, social, political-economic, and cultural processes which operate across the energy supply chain and at all scales of energy system operation (Miller, Richter, and O’Leary 2015). Therein lies the grand strategic challenge for a sustainable energy transition. In order to develop renewable energy resources, physical infrastructure will need to be disrupted along with the institutions, vested political-economic interests, and social values with which it is intertwined. Framing the problem in this way has led to a shift in focus among analysts and policy-makers from innovation systems, where the gaze is centred around the core functions of specific innovation networks in terms of their ability to promote greener goods and services, to system innovation, where the gaze is broadened to consider the historical, cultural, and material context that constrains and enables technological development and implementation (Smith, Voß, and Grin 2010). However, this shift toward system innovation has not diminished the importance of organisational or individual-level analysis. On the contrary, analysing an agent’s strategic decision-making within this broadening context remains central to understanding the catalysts and impediments of a sustainable energy transition. As such, decision-makers are increasingly looking for strategic guidance and practical solutions from multidisciplinary and multi-scalar perspectives (Sprenger 2014). The study of sociotechnical transitions (STTs), generally described as being ‘located at the disciplinary boundaries of social science and technology studies’ (Adil and Ko 2016, 1026), has helped to provide a foundation for the thought and practice of transition management. What can geographers, and the field of geography more generally, contribute to our understanding of STTs? The contributions to this special issue will, as a collective, begin to answer this question from a range of perspectives. Following Simandan (2005), we build on an inclusive definition of geography, as a loosely related set of theories and techniques focused on the study of Earth’s complexity from a broadly defined spatial dimension. The field is often described as inherently interdisciplinary, constituted by four core sub-fields: human geography, physical geography, humanenvironment geography, and geographic information science and cartography (Pattison 1964; Robinson 1976; Zimmerer 2010). With increasing frequency and enthusiasm, geographers from each of these sub-fields are contributing to a resurgence in resource studies generally, and energy studies © 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
in particular (Huber 2015; Calvert 2016). With this in mind, the primary objective of this introduction and of the special issue as a whole is twofold. First, to bring geographical theories and practices into further dialogue with STTs studies. Here, we build on recent observations that STT is deficient in its treatment of geographical factors and suffers from an impoverished conceptualisation of space and spatial relations (Smith, Voß, and Grin 2010; Hansen and Coenen 2016). Second, to identify ways in which STT theories and practices can advance the field of energy geographies. On this front, the SI provides an insight into how concepts and theories from STT can help to better ‘theorize the broad role of energy in the social production of space’ (Huber 2015, 337) and to act as a focal point for bridging critical and applied perspectives on energy and energy transitions (Calvert 2016). The special issue takes as its case study the emerging ‘advanced bio-economy’, one of the most oft-cited pathways to a sustainable energy future (Birch and Calvert 2015). This editorial introduction is laid out as follows. In the next section, we provide a fuller conceptualisation and description of ‘advanced bio-economy’ in order to establish the empirical context and practical significance of this special issue. Following this, we situate the contributions to this special issue in their scholarly context with a review of literature in section three and a brief overview of the contributions to this special issue in section four. In section five, we provide an insight on fruitful avenues for future dialogue between geography and STTs studies. We conclude with a few thoughts on the future of dialogue between analysts in technology, strategic management, and the various strands of geography.
Advanced bio-economies as STTs A bio-economy refers to a set of institutions and infrastructures which meet society’s material needs and cultural desires through the production and conversion of biological matter into energy and products. By this definition, the term bio-economy describes most of human history along with a significant proportion of the current global population who continue to rely on plant matter for heat, energy, shelter, and other necessities. Emerging in recent years, however, is the notion of an ‘advanced’ bio-economy, promoted by institutions like the Organization for Economic Co-ordination and Development and European Union (EU) along with governments all over the world (see Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer 2017). The notion of an advanced bio-economy exists in relation to a modern fossil-fuel economy; that is, it indicates a transition from fossil fuels to biomass as the underpinning natural resource base for socioeconomic activity. In other words, an advanced bio-economy implies that biomass resources go well beyond the provision of basic energy and material services, for example to replace liquid petroleum transport fuels and the petroleum-based plastics that have come to underpin the material existence of developed economies. Furthermore, the advanced bio-economy is premised on the idea of a ‘circular economy’, wherein biological resources are used at a rate that is consistent with the rate at which they are regrown, and the only waste streams leaving the economy are those that can be immediately processed into new biological growth and therefore new production inputs. For most of the twentieth century, efforts toward the advanced bio-economy were mostly directed toward the energy sector, led by the United States and Brazil, in search of domestic replacements for imported petroleum after the oil shocks of the 1970s (Solomon, Barnes, and Halvorsen 2007). These efforts are meeting a number of economic barriers. Producing biofuels at a scale sufficient to replace fossil fuels is not widely competitive without direct government support or extensive modifications to fuel distribution and conversion infrastructure. Furthermore, competition for arable land to produce biofuel feedstock has disrupted existing land-based economies and the livelihoods upon which they are based, leading to economic disruption and social tension. Even if these economic barriers are lifted, however, the logical extension of these efforts meets a biophysical limit. The maximum quantity of energy that could be provided by biomass grown on land at a global scale is estimated at 450 exajoules (EJ), assuming increased efficiencies in existing food systems and new harvesting systems adopted by farmers and foresters all over the world are able to open
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up vast tracts of arable land for dedicated biomass production (Berndes, Hoogwijk, and van den Broek 2003; see also Deng et al. 2015). Global energy consumption, on the other hand, is already at 500 EJ. Advanced bio-economies are evolving under these limitations, and visions of their future are being tempered. Most proponents have shifted from an economy-wide approach to a sectorbased approach, targeting lower-volume, higher-value opportunities such as ‘drop-in’ biofuels for airlines and/or biochemicals for plastics, pharmaceuticals, flavouring, cosmetics, detergents and other products. As one example, the US Department of Energy has re-allocated funding from the largescale production of biofuels to small-scale production of the molecular building blocks that could be processed into a hydrocarbon fuel or into any other hydrocarbon-based product such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and detergents (see USDOE 2016). The ultimate goal is to displace petroleum in the airline industry, but without the grand visions to power America’s entire vehicle fleet with biofuels. Meanwhile, other proponents are trying to stretch the economic and biophysical limits of bio-economies with new sources of biomass supply. Exemplary in this regard are efforts to identify resource-efficient and productive strains of microalgae and to grow them in artificial environments on offshore platforms (e.g. http://www.aljadix.com/Home/). This resource product strategy would overcome the production limits of terrestrial environments while producing a source of biomass that is easier to process into a fuel (though, very difficult to grow and handle at scale). As this cursory overview has shown, the emergence of advanced bio-economies represents a complex STT with deep geographical implications. The introduction of advanced biomass processing technologies and new uses of biomass exhibits interdependencies with distribution and conversion infrastructure; land and resource management systems; and land-based economies. Relative to fossilfuel systems, the spaces and scales at which energy and materials are produced changes dramatically. Land-based economies are being restructured. New relationships between places are established as biomass supply chains are re-oriented. With all of these in mind, it becomes intuitive that concepts and tools from geography are required in order to understand and manage the transition toward an advanced bio-economy, in whatever form it may take.
Geographic perspectives on STTs STTs studies have its roots in innovations studies and evolutionary economics, and is most often operationalised through two complementary frameworks: technological innovation systems and the multilevel perspective (MLP) (see Coenen, Benneworth, and Truffer 2012). Fundamental debates within and between these frameworks notwithstanding (e.g. about whether STTs are revolutionary or evolutionary; the role of agency in facilitating systemic change; how to conceptualise instability within sociotechnical systems), the general goal of STT is to understand how social and technological systems are coupled in order to learn the levers for, and the potential implications of, structural change in systems of provision and consumption. The theoretical project of STT is connected to a practical outlet in the form of ‘transition management’, wherein particular understandings of STT translate into different kinds of strategic management propositions and practices (Loorbach 2007; Loorbach and Rotmans 2010). Strategic interventions into sociotechnical systems must be informed by a deep understanding of the socio-political context into which new technologies and infrastructure are intended to ‘fit’, as well as the broader social implications of their implementation and operation. From this premise, STT theorists and practitioners have been challenged to consider the (micro-)politics and power relations (see Meadowcroft 2009) along with the role of social practices in shaping the way STTs are articulated. In a sympathetic critique of STT generally and the MLP in particular, however, Smith, Voß, and Grin (2010) note that few scholars were trying to understand geographical questions that are crucial to improve understandings and practices of STTs (management). Why do transitions happen in one place, and not another? Do small regional or local differences matter in explaining the pace, scale, and outcome of energy transitions? And if so, which ones are the most important? Truffer and
Coenen (2012) go further, to state that the STTs literature has a ‘naïve’ view of space, scale, and power, in that these dimensions are treated simply as a backdrop to transition processes rather than central to the process itself and its outcomes. Recent scholarship has begun to address these shortcomings (see Hansen and Coenen 2016, for a more complete review). The earliest contributions emerged from institutional economic geography, studying processes and outcomes as they differed across regional contexts. Coenen, Benneworth, and Truffer (2012), for example, point out that STT processes and outcomes are shaped by institutional embeddedness (territorial context) and aim to identify how STTs are dependent on spatial context and in particular spatial differentiations in niche–regime interactions. The implication here is that ‘a spatially variegated institutional landscape gives rise to some regions and nations forging ahead in terms of sustainability transition processes while others lag behind’ (Coenen, Raven, and Verbong 2010, 975; see also Loorbach and Rotmans 2010; Späth and Rohracher 2012). Disentangling spatial variation in STT hinges, in large part, on developing a better understanding of path dependence as a dynamic process simultaneously driven by regionally endogenous factors interacting with exogenous forces (Martin 2010). Policy and innovation-oriented studies of regional STTs make it clear that the spaces in which transitions unfold are not ‘containerised’. The processes and outcomes of STTs are, at least in part, shaped at a distance through cross-scalar political-economic interdependencies (Coenen and Truffer 2012; Coenen, Benneworth, and Truffer 2012; Binz, Truffer, and Coenen 2014; Kedron 2015). Bagchi-Sen and Kedron (2015), for example, demonstrate how interdependencies and feedback loops between state-level and national-level policies generated spatial variation in the adoption and industrial structure of biofuel technologies in the United States. Recognising the multi-scalar nature of political-economic relationships, Binz, Truffer, and Coenen (2014) argue that innovation scholars should not establish scale boundaries and hierarchies a priori; nor should innovation policy focus exclusively on fixed territorial boundaries in order to account for the global spatial set-up of an innovation system. Along these lines, Coenen, Raven, and Verbong (2010) argue that spatial proximity is an important but not by itself necessary precondition for innovations, and unpack the role of social proximity in strengthening regional innovation systems. They find that coordinating institutions and norms (visions) across stakeholder groups is equally as important as enabling spatial agglomerations of productive and creative activities. The work by Hansen and Coenen in this issue further exemplifies this fact in the context of understanding the slow uptake of new biofuel technologies in the forestry sector. Their work reveals that incumbent pulp and paper actors have very little shared value systems and practices with emerging technologies and their associated markets and actors, thus delaying uptake of potentially viable technologies. This is different from the agricultural sector, which in some cases has a deeper and more direct connection with fuel markets (see Calvert et al., forthcoming). These differences in social and institutional proximity partly explain differential success in bio-economy transitions between the forestry and agricultural sectors. How the geographies and futures of STTs are imagined shapes the emergence of those futures in place. As several scholars have noted (e.g. Hilgartner 2007; Birch, Levidow, and Papaioannou 2010; Levidow, Birch, and Papaioannou 2012), sociotechnical imaginaries of the bio-economy play an important role in configuring its future politics and policies. Geographical imaginaries are important here too, as Ponte and Birch (2014, 271) argue, in that sociotechnical imaginaries are spatially bounded and ‘centred on specific geographical spaces, places and territories’. Gillon (2014) and Palmer (2014) both illustrate the contrary ways that biofuels are represented, accounted for, and understood in different jurisdictions – the United States and EU respectively. Palmer, for example, shows how European bureaucracy actually constitutes particular discursive practices in the EU’s biofuels policy. In a slightly different vein, Birch (2016) shows how competing visions of a bio-economy in the Canadian context lead to the fragmentation of policy frameworks, providing a comparative analysis to more frequent studies of places like the EU (e.g. Levidow, Birch, and Papaioannou 2012). While much of the literature around spatial identities and imaginaries focuses on the national scale, others emphasise the importance of imaginaries at the regional or local scale. As Späth and
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Rohracher (2010) argue, spatial identities play a guiding role in such strategic visions, both within and between regions. Moreover, Eaton, Gasteyer, and Busch (2014) demonstrate that ‘national sociotechnical imaginaries’ – that is, a ‘collective vision of a feasible, desirable future social order, provided by technological projects’ (228) – are framed in different ways by different individuals according to experiences and recollections within the regions and localities that might host said technological projects. As such, it is evident that connections to place are central to these visions, such that (actors’ participation in) STTs also represent acts of place-making, and not simply strategic decisionmaking; that is, they represent ‘the process of reproducing, eliminating, and/or modifying the structures, identities, meanings, geographies, positionalities, and power relations associated with a given place’ (Murphy 2015, 12; see also Marsden and Farioli 2015).
Contributions to the special issue Clearly, the dialogue between STT and geography is established and growing. That said, there is more work to be done to formally incorporate geographical perspectives into the analytical models and management practices derived from STT, such as the MLP and energy transition management (Smith, Voß, and Grin 2010; Coenen, Benneworth, and Truffer 2012). The works compiled in this special issue represent a step in this direction. Broadly conceived, contributions to this special issue can be usefully described in two themes. The first theme builds directly from previous work in the (institutional) economic geography of advanced bio-economies. Kedron and Bagchi-Sen identify the significance of a coherent industry value chain that operates across space in helping to establish corn-biofuels and, in turn, limiting the establishment of cellulosic-biofuels, which lacks such a network. Hansen and Coenen bring a multi-scalar approach to understand the barriers to re-tool pulp and paper mills to establish an industrial basis for the advanced bio-economy. Analysing firm-level behaviour at the nexus of supply-chain management within different institutional contexts (Finland and Sweden), the research highlights the role of (insufficient) social networks over spatial proximity in terms of driving technology selection and other strategic decisions. Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäuẞer analyse and compare the emergence of socio-political networks within three Central German states. Importantly, their work questions the optimistic assumptions about the benefits to rural areas of biomass-based economic development. This suggests that, in addition to developing more research around the geographical dimensions of the process of advanced bio-economies, further research is required to understand the geographical dimensions of the (economic) outcomes related to advanced bio-economies. The second theme, related but distinct, is the role of applied geographic thought and practice in strategic management decisions. Here, key points of emphasis include: (a) context dependence in technological fitness and how this (should) inform strategic decisions and (b) the implications of different space-economies (e.g. supply-chain organisation; number and spatial distribution of facilities) on successful implementation. Where Hansen and Coenen discuss the importance of studying firm-level behaviour across the value chain in the forestry sector in terms of its social dimension, Blair et al. demonstrate the importance of studying (possible) firm-level behaviour across the value chain in the forestry sector from a technical and economic perspective. Here, the authors combine material flow analyses in a geographic information system (GIS) with regional geography and market-level analyses in order to compare across a spatially centralised feedstock management and technology implementation strategy relative to a spatially decentralised feedstock management and technology implementation strategy.
Gaps and emerging perspectives As the STT perspective foregrounds infrastructure and the society–technology relationship, it dismisses the society–environment relationship that is also critical to understanding transitions
processes. Here, we wish to highlight perspectives from environment-society studies that offer fruitful avenues of a more enriched dialogue between geography and STT. A burgeoning literature in environmental economic geography (EEG) is exemplary in this regard. EEG attends specifically to the economy–environment interface when studying technological innovations (Hayter 2008; Bridge 2008; Patchell and Hayter 2013). The field is premised on the notion that environments and economies are not separate systems that simply impose costs on each other; they are deeply co-constitutive. In other words, biophysical processes and context ‘make a difference to the functioning of economic processes’ (Bridge 2008, 79). This influence is simultaneously material and discursive. Materially, the ‘ … environmental qualities of the commodity or the ecological conditions of production and consumption affect the way [supply] chains work’ (Bridge 2008, 79). Especially for resource-based STT such as the advanced bio-economy, spatial variability of biophysical processes establishes the opportunities and limits on sociotechnical pathways in certain regions and countries (see Kedron and Bagchi-Sen 2017). Moreover, the quantity, quality, form, and timing of availability of the resource base exert considerable influence over STT processes and outcomes such as technology siting, supply-chain development, the distribution of costs and benefits, and even political agency (Birch and Calvert 2015; see also Mitchell 2011). This material interplay has considerable implications on how STTs unfold. The advanced bioeconomy, for example, is envisioned and deployed on the basis of biophysical processes that contrast starkly with existing fossil-fuel economies. As fuel production systems transition from below-ground to above-ground resources, with relatively lower energy density and less flexible mobility, our energy systems will necessarily entail a new space-economy with a larger above-ground footprint (e.g. cultivation, roads/rail for biomass distribution) and will reconfigure the (role of) actors and institutions involved in fuel production (see Birch and Calvert 2015). For example, if only a single petroleum refinery processing a modest 50,000–60,000 barrels of oil per day were to switch to biomass, thousands of farms would be enrolled into its fuel production system, hundreds of thousands of new trips by road or rail would be made to gather feedstock, and the fuel would be processed at three to five facilities in order to overcome the dis-economies of scale associated with hauling biomass long distances. Understanding how material properties co-constitute sociotechnical systems, and differences between incumbent and alternatives, is critical to developing a more complete understanding of STT. Although the biophysical qualities of biomass and biomass production systems shape patterns of access and control over land, the process and outcomes are by no means environmentally determined. The concept of ‘materiality’ reminds us that biophysical processes and context are not only materially significant, but discursive as well. Indeed, biophysical processes and contexts are in many cases a normative driver for STT and influence governance systems and decision-making; in the terms of the MLP, particular framings of biophysical processes and contexts provide a ‘landscape pressure’ for STT in the first place. Differences in the way climate change is framed in terms of causes, urgency, and accountability, is an obvious example. Baka (2016) unpacks the social construction of ‘wastelands’ as a discursive process to identify areas considered ‘suitable’ for biofuel feedstock production in India, and how this intertwines with the material properties of biomass with political processes of enclosure and dispossession. As large-scale land acquisitions happen all over the world in the name of advanced bio-economies, Neville and Dauvergne (2012, 287) provide an insight into how maps, as one among many discursive tools, are ‘strategically wielded within accepted processes of claim-making in legal and social forums’ in order to establish control over land (see also Nalepa and Bauer 2012; Hesse, Baka, and Calvert 2016). In other words, understandings of ‘regimes’ within the MLP, and the notion of lock-in and path dependence more generally, needs to go beyond traditional emphasis on institutions and infrastructure to account for our representations of, and personal relationships with, particular environments and landscapes. Insights gleaned from research at the environment-society nexus reviewed above have helped to show that geographical context is not simply a backdrop to STT, but is actually embedded into the process.
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Conclusion More work needs to be done to bring a geographical sensibility to STTs studies, and a sociotechnical perspective to geographical theory. The perspectives reviewed above, and represented through the contributions that follow, represent a modest but significant step in this direction. Overall, the papers in this special issue emphasise: (a) the material and political-economic factors shaping and shaped by the spatial dispersion or concentration of bioenergy and biofuel production and (b) the path-dependent and path-breaking characteristics shaping advanced bio-economies and their economic geographies. Looking forward, there is ample opportunity to expand the focus of STT beyond policy– technology interdependencies to consider interdependencies at the policy–technology–geography nexus. This work demands that STT studies consider geographical context not as a mere backdrop to transitions but as embedded into the process and directly shaping its outcomes. In addition, the role of GIS in technology analysis and in guiding strategic management decisions needs to be further explored.
Disclosure statement No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors Kirby E. Calvert’s research programme focuses on the land-use implications of energy transitions and the trend toward decentralised governance of energy systems. He is co-Director of the Community Energy Knowledge-Action Partnership (www.cekap.ca). Calvert received his PhD in Geography (2013), working with the Queen’s Institute of Energy and Environmental Policy to develop concepts and techniques to assess and spatially plan for local renewable energy generation. As an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at The Pennsylvania State University (2013–2015), Dr Calvert broadened his research programme to understand how existing and emerging renewable energy technologies interact with landscapes and land-use systems. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Guelph where he is co-directing the Community Energy Knowledge and Action Partnership (CEKAP); a national partnership of universities and non-academic partners which aims to facilitate local climate change mitigation and resilience building through community energy planning. Peter Kedron’s research focuses on how geographic differences in economic activity relate to the social and ecological aspects of regions. His ongoing research into the emergence of renewable energy industries examines how innovation, policy, and incumbent response shape geographic patterns of adoption and commercialisation. Jennifer Baka’s research focuses on integrating political and industrial ecology to examine the social and environmental impacts of energy systems. She has extensive experience analysing bioenergy and hydraulic fracturing energy systems. Kean Birch’s research interests include the political economy of science, innovation, and the environment. He is the author of We Have Never Been Neoliberal (2015, Zer0 Books), Innovation, Regional Development, and the Life Sciences (2016, Routledge), Business and Society: A Critical Introduction (2017, Zed Books – with others), and A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism (forthcoming 2017, Edward Elgar). He is also co-editor of The Handbook of Neoliberalism (2016, Routledge – with Simon Springer and Julie MacLeavy).
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Kirby E. Calvert Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada [email protected]
http://orcid.org/0000-0002-6608-5786 Peter Kedron Department of Geography, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA Jennifer Baka Department of Geography, Penn State University, University Park, PA, USA http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3046-5039 Kean Birch Innovation Policy Lab, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada