The Urbane Ecologist

Smith – 2010 – Translating sustainabilities between green niches and socio-technical regimes

“Translating sustainabilities between green niches and socio-technical regimes”

Adrian Smith

Technology Analysis and Strategic Management



  • role for green niches has risen in environment and innovation literature
  • “green niches” – spaces where networks of actors experiment with and mutually adapt greener organizational forms and eco-friendly technologies (AKA greener “socio-technical configurations”)
  • initial research into “strategic niche management” (SNM) focused on internal dynamics of niche development – conclusions are they have little potential
  • more recent work into niches puts them at the base of a multi-level system, beneath incumbent socio-technical regimes and overarching landscapes à in transition management, they are essential sources of systemic change if processes at other levels of the system are supportive
    • green niches are more likely to diffuse into mainstream and displace incumbent socio-technical regimes if latter placed under concerted pressure to become more sustainable
  • in literature analysis has been closely accompanied by normative advocacy


Green niches and sustainable development

  • “socio-technical regime” is a term intended to capture the complex structure of artefacts, institutions, and agents that comprise the mutually reinforcing and entrenching cognitive, social, economic, institutional, and technological processes that sustain existing trajectories of development (whew!)
  • seven dimensions proposed for characterizing the socio-technical
    • guiding principles
    • technologies and infrastructures
    • industrial structure
    • user relations and markets
    • policy and regulations
    • knowledge base for the regime
    • culture, symbolic meanings underpinning practices
  • Historical experience suggests that radical changes begin with networks of pioneering organisations, technologies, users that form a niche practice on the margins of the regime. Niches provide space for new ideas and practices to develop without being exposed to all the selection pressures that favor the regime
  • “A niche can be defined as a discrete application domain… where actors are prepared to work with specific functionalities, accept such teething problems as higher costs, and are willing to invest in improvements of new technology and the development of new markets.” (Hoogma et al., 2002)
  • strategic niche mgmt. concerned with (1) quality of learning and (2) quality of institutional embedding
    • institutional embedding is about robustness of niche development – in terms of level of technical, market, social, and institutional support; three specific features:
      • institutional embedding is about niche “entraining” complementary technologies and necessary infrastructures
      • involves development of robust, widely shared expectations about future niche development
      • influential niche enlists a broad network of actors in support of its socio-technical practice and the future regime it prefigures; supportive actors = producers, users, third parties (regulators, standards institutes, investors), policy-makers
    • successful niche = robust + shows good growth potential
    • SNM concludes that niches alone are unlikely to transform regimes. “In practice, success is most likely when robust niches are compatible with the regime (Weber et al., 1999) Paradoxically, a niche in tune with the incumbent system will not demand very great changes in socio-technical practice; whilst radical niches, like those studied here, will not diffuse very much at all since they demand too many (structural) changes. Highly divergent ssustainable niches will have to offer considerable positive feedbacks, in terms of scope for profitable application, before “mainstream” actors become enrolled (Smith, 2003). This latter feedback condition is reinforced if changes in society challenge the performance of the incumbent regime (e.g. increased environmentalism) (Hoogma et al., 2002). These “regime tensions” provide opportunities for niche “solutions” (Kemp et al., 2001).”
    • niche practices link up with regimes under stress, resolve bottlenecks and lead to reconfigurations. (we don’t have a theory of “linking” so far) but Raven (2006) provides some helpful and more sophisticated development of these ideas
    • Raven (2006) explores opportunities for niche engagement with regimes in terms of relative “stability” of the two; opportunities for niche influence are highest when niche stability is high and regime stability is low; niches remain marginal when confronting a regime much more stable than the situation in the niche
    • eco-housing and organic food are both established niches – this article has a really good short history of the rise of the movements in GB
    • what would the niches in SA case be??
    • has table “contrasting socio-technical practices in niche and regime”
    • energy-related tensions in regime in 1970s (oil crises) create early opportunities for energy-related niche ideas to spread. Gov’t R&D programmes provide resources for some activities [so is solar array, wind plant, “niche” in a global regime but dominant in a national regime?]
    • regulation encourages translations that (relatively) don’t disrupt the core socio-technical dimensions of the housing regime
    • literature on green niches must pay attention to niche-regime interaction
    • has table on “summary of case study analysis and socio-technical translation issues”
    • paradox: “Having demonstrated that an alternative kind of (sustainable) practice is possible, so niche diffusion requires sufficient common ground for those practices to link with the regime. Performance criteria in niche and regime need to come into some kind of correspondence—translating what works in the niche into something that also works in the regime.” [is this what is happened with RE in SA?]
    • case studies in this paper identify three kinds of translation
      • Translating sustainability problems – how problems in the regime inform the guiding principles of the niche
      • Translations that adapt lessons – reinterpreting elements of socio-technical practice of niche and inserting them into regime settings OR modifying the niche based on lessons about regime
      • Translations that alter contexts – changes that bring regime closer to situation that pertains in niche or vice versa
      • these aren’t exhaustive – other case studies may show other processes and interaxns
    • niche idealists and regime tensions – idealism helps launch and bind niche networks together initially, but it can be a challenge to wider institutional embedding
    • implications for niche-regime landscape model
      • multi-level model has heuristic value, but in practice niche-regime distinctions not so clear cut
        • some niche elements “break through” before others
        • more of a spectrum
      • translation rarely process between equals


References included in notes

Hoogma, R., Kemp, R., Schot, J., and Truffer, B., Experimenting for Sustainable Transport: The Approach of Strategic Niche Management (London, Spon Press, 2002).


Kemp, R., Rip, A.,  and Schot, J., “Constructing transition paths through the management of niches,” in Garud, R., and Karnøe (Eds.), Path Dependence and Creation (Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001).


Raven, R.P.J.M. “Towards alternative trajectories? Reconfigurations in the Dutch electricity regime.” Research Policy, 35, 2006, pp. 581-595.


Smith, A. (2003) “Transforming technological regimes for sustainable development: a role for alternative technology niches?” Science and Public Policy, 30(2), 2003, pp. 127-135.


Weber, M., Hoogma, R., Lane, B., and Schot, J., Experimenting with Sustainable Transport Innovations: A Workbook for Strategic Niche Management (Twente, University of Twente Press, 1999).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s