To solve sustainability problems, especially those related to energy, huge socio-technical innovations have to take place. Theory that is developed on how stimulate such innovations by stressing the interplay between knowledge and technology development, policy and entrepreneurship features some interesting points of departure.
However, in spite of the promising aspects these theoretical frameworks, there are still some fundamental theoretical and practical barriers to overcome. This paper addresses some of these barriers and explores a route to avoid at least some of these problems. It does so by focusing on the connections between sustainability socio-technical transitions, globalization and regionalization. This connection shows some potential for a theoretical and practical framework that allows an effective approach to sustainability problems.
An insight that is commonly held is that in order to achieve a sustainable society, it necessary to have so-called socio-technical transitions, in which the notion of ‘transitions’ refers to interconnected fundamental changes in society and technology. To conceptualize such transitions, authors have introduced a range of approaches of which most are systemic approaches. For instance, socio-technical systems, socio-technical innovations systems, social-ecological systems.
The benefit of these systemic approaches lies in their articulation of the complex character of radical socio-technical changes, which are based on the interplay of systemic elements, such as actors, institutions, technologies, etc. This complexity implies that future socio-technical developments are fundamentally unpredictable. However, by identifying the elements that prevent or stimulate innovative trajectories, these systemic approaches allow beneficial strategies to be constructed. One may think here of strategies like the stimulation of the interaction between actors and the strengthening of the interdependencies between systemic elements. In that way, resources, people and ideas are brought together so that common orientations can be established.
A crucial question, however, concerns the boundaries of the system. In most cases, researchers make an identification of their system with a national state. The logic of this choice is obvious, as national states convey a unified body of laws, policies, institutions and values. However, it is also obvious that not every socio-technical systemic element fits well within this national scope. Technology, science and market economy for instance have an increasing tendency to become internationally orientated. Nowadays, also politics and culture do not simply coincide with national arrangements. In other terms, the development of globalization is puts a large strain upon the way socio-technical systems are identified.
The significance of this problem increases if we focus on socio-technical transitions. First, because these address long-term developments and the development of globalization can only be expected to become more intense in the coming decades. Although it may not be so that national boundaries will become irrelevant, it seems evident that economic, social and institutional conditions will relate differently to national boundaries in the future. Globalization implies the nature of national boundaries will change substantially. Second, dealing with sustainability we are looking at a globalised issue throughout, as it encompasses global environmental and global socio-economical problems.
What can be done about this problem? The scope of a socio-technical systems approach cannot be enlarged without losing relevance, because territorial expansion of a systemic approach leads to management problems in relation to the interactions between individual actors and also to methodological problems, because of the sheer size of the empirical domain that has to be covered. This paper suggests that a possible way out may lie in perceiving ‘regionalization’ as a development that has emerged simultaneously with globalization. It can even be so that regionalization and globalization are two sides of one medal.
Clearly, regionalization is not described as exhaustively as globalization. Still, one can observe an increased significance of regional and local factors – be it in different and perhaps unconnected spheres. Here, some phenomena will be presented that are involved in this process. In relation to concrete politics, we can think for instance about the attempts of many local and regional authorities to develop sustainability plans that go beyond national or international requirement. Such local and regional authorities seem to be much more effective in involving citizens and companies in environmental issues. Another salient development is the development of ‘industrial ecology’, which includes both academic and entrepreneurial efforts to find sustainable synergies between different industrial activities. Turning towards scholarly activities, one can witness a growing body of literature on stakeholder involvement and knowledge issues, in which the relevance of local knowledge is emphasized.
This provisional list of examples is by no means complete. Nevertheless, it allows one to make some inferences about particular trends. Both in theory and in practice, the effectiveness of local governance arrangements is perceived to be greater, allowing for concrete decisions, which concern consensus on goals, the stimulation of entrepreneurial and industrial activities, the concentration of stakeholders, etc. Also, the contribution of local actors is taken more seriously; their reasoning is not instantly equated with their particular interest. At the same time, individual citizens demand to be taken more seriously, which can be related to the way the general public has emancipated over the last decades. The general level of education has increased immensely during the last generations, which implies that capabilities to find and process information has also increased – helped by developments in communication technologies.
Above, we have observed three developments in a rather tentative manner. First, the appropriate territorial scale of socio-technical systemic approaches has been introduced as a problem question for thinking about sustainability transitions. Second, the long term effects of globalization on national boundaries in relation to sustainability issues needs to be identified. Third, the connections of globalization and 'regionalization' need to be mapped out.
These three developments, which are here linked to each other, lead into distinct research questions – involving insights from sociology, technology dynamics, environmental studies. Until now, there has not been much research activities that deal with these issues in this particular context. The potential of a theoretical framework that combines these issues seems quite large, therefore this paper hopes to help in the development of such a framework.