Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Convergent and Divergent Learning in Photovoltaic Pilot Projects and Subsequent Niche Development

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Convergent and Divergent Learning in Photovoltaic Pilot Projects and Subsequent Niche Development

Article excerpt


Renewable energy technologies such as photovoltaics (PV) can play a major role in the move toward sustainable energy provision and use. At the same time, the relatively new approach of strategic niche management (SNM) offers a policy instrument for challenging existing sociotechnological regimes and thus stimulating increased application of radical sustainable technologies (Raven, 2005; Schot & Geels, 2008). Originally developed in the Netherlands, the SNM approach can also serve as an analytical framework. Notable examples of early work on SNM include Rip (1989) and Schot et al. (1994; 1996).

The starting point is that large-scale application of a radical new technology is possible only if severe bottlenecks can be overcome. The existing sociotechnological regime--the rules according to which existing technologies are considered self-evident (become locked-in)--typically hinders the introduction of novel technologies. Changes are therefore required in scientific knowledge, engineering practices, production processes, product characteristics, competencies, established user preferences, infrastructure, and so forth (Schot et al. 1994).

The conceptual idea of SNM, which aims to overcome lock-in, is grounded in quasievolutionary theories of technological change in which variation and selection are no longer seen as independent processes and in related notions of technology assessment that aim to manage technological development (Schot, 1992). Historical research confirms that initially many ultimately successful technologies were applied in small isolated parts of the market, so-called market niches (Schot, 1998). These are small application domains in which a novel idea already has some specific advantages over the established technology, although the innovation and its associated user preferences require further development (Hoogma et al. 2002). In these niches, incipient technologies have the opportunity to mature while new ideas evolve about their meaning, user preferences, desirable product development, needed infrastructure, and unexpected effects. The development and specification of these ideas are called learning processes. If market niches do not come into existence spontaneously, but a new technology is expected to have high societal advantages, then a government or company could create a protected niche by providing shelter (e.g., through the provision of a subsidy) to facilitate the process of bringing a technology into actual use.

Scholars of SNM regard niches as potential starting points for sociotechnological regime change, although they have typically assumed that the chance to contribute to such transitions is quite small. The central dynamic is considered to be niche branching, a process in which niches arise and grow, while a specific new technology is applied in an increasing number of market segments. It is a coevolutionary process in which changes in the knowledge of actors, user preferences, and infrastructure occur in tandem with consistent changes in technology. Geels (2002) provides the example of the substitution of sailing ships by steamships, which started in small niches such as inland waterways and ports and for mail transport. The complete substitution of sailing ships ultimately came with mass emigration from Europe to the United States and the opening of the Suez Canal (which was not amenable to sailing ships).

In the early SNM literature, the main transition dynamic of regime change is thus regarded as an incipient technology that ultimately substitutes for an incumbent technology via a process of niches branching out, growing, and eventually replacing the regime. This process occurs if the niches align with, and are strengthened by, changes in the regime that are induced by pressure from external developments at the macro-scale (or landscape) level, such as an economic crisis, a natural disaster, or a particular demographic change (Weber et al. …

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