Evidence from history: Deliberate acceleration of socio-technical transitions

The diffusion of low-energy systems needs to be accelerated to address climate change. What lessons can be learned from historical case studies about the technological, political, cultural and economic actions and mechanisms that accelerate diffusion?

Accelerating innovation theme icon
Start date: 1 January, 2016 - End date: 31 December, 2017

This project studies the rate of change in ‘socio-technical transitions’ – the complex social, technical, economic, and political processes that lead to the replacement of old technological systems, and the social systems connected to them, with new ones. The project aims to analyse what deliberate actions can accelerate a transition by examining historical case studies.

Existing studies of transitions do not give a very good account of what determines how quickly they happen, while theoretical perspectives on the rate of technological change do not always account well for the role of complex social, political, and economic contexts. This project aims to remedy some of those gaps.

M6 Motorway postcard
The M6 motorway after it was built in the 1960s. Image credit: Richard Charnock.

Our core research question is: What are the mechanisms by which transitions to new sustainable socio-technical systems can be deliberately accelerated? To answer this, we are developing a model of the rate of change in transitions, and the actions that can accelerate them, using a range of theoretical literatures from transitions studies, evolutionary economics, discourse theory, and political science.

We are testing and refining this model using four historical case studies of transitions, which were deliberately accelerated. The four historical case studies are set in different geographical and historical settings.

We will examine the:

  • transition from rail to road transport in the United Kingdom,
  • development of modern grain agriculture in the United Kingdom,
  • development of district heating in Denmark, and
  • the development of natural gas infrastructure in The Netherlands.