New paper explores Large Technical Systems

A new paper by Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and colleagues at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) Dr Katherine Lovell and Blanche Ting, explores so-called Large Technical Systems (LTS) and analyses the phases such systems move through.

LTS are integral to modern life and can be defined as ‘society-wide infrastructures’ that are large-scale, geographically expansive, and capital intensive, involving the integration of physical hardware with the human environment. For example, the electricity system is an LTS involving not only coalmines, power plants, transmission and distribution lines but also financing institutions, regulatory bodies, electrical engineers and residential and commercial users.

Building on earlier work from the late historian Thomas P. Hughes, the paper argues that these systems can go through eight phases:

  1. invention and development
  2. expansion and adaptation
  3. system growth
  4. momentum and path dependence
  5. technological style
  6. reconfiguration
  7. contestation
  8. stagnation

The authors point out that these phases don’t necessarily always follow each other in a linear order and they don’t always go through all the eight phases. Furthermore, these systems often favour certain actors, who, by constantly mobilising resources, are able to protect and maintain their advantage, say the researchers.

They argue that in order to understand these systems shaping our society, we need to better identify the mechanisms and characteristics of reconfiguration and contestation, introduced by this paper.

Read the full paper.

Find out more about Benjamin Sovacool and his work at CIED.