Socio-technical systems and transitions
We are viewing society as a network of intertwined socio-technical systems that are all serving the needs of the people. The nature and the connectedness of this network of socio-technical systems makes it steadfast and keeps it regenerating itself. With this project, we are focusing on the socio-technical systems of energy, mobility, and communications.
Socio-technical systems are a combination of, surprise–surprise, the social and the technical. If we look at the auto-mobility system, we see the artefact—the car—at the centre of it (science and technology). However, to drive a car safely and comfortably, we need roads and various other infrastructures like gas stations. To make it even safer, we have traffic regulations and we must take driving courses to apply for a driving licence (regulations and policies). Cars are a part of our day-to-day life, whether it’s getting us to the office or taking our kids to school (day-to-day life and user practices). Furthermore, the car can say a lot about us (culture and symbolic meanings). And of course, vehicle manufacturing and distribution make up a unique industry with definite demand (business models and market).
The way stable socio-technical systems usually change is mostly predictable. For example, we can count on a car to become more safe or economic each time a new model comes out.
Due to past lessons, we also know that socio-technical systems can undergo a change where the technological, economic, political, and cultural aspects, as well as the day-to-day life for the user, will change radically. This process is called a socio-technical transition.
Socio-technical transitions are driven by the interactions of the processes happening on three levels: system, landscape, and niches.
System: the way things are done now (i.e. the auto-mobility systems that can largely be characterized by gasoline-powered cars and private transportation)
Niches: alternatives to the system, both technological (i.e. electricity-powered car) and social innovations (i.e. ridesharing)
Landscape: pressure from the external environment that makes the change possible (i.e. climate change, global economic crisis, The Paris Climate Agreement)
A transition can happen if 1) the landscape is putting pressure on the system, 2) the system cannot solve the problems by using its internal rules, 3) the pressure creates favourable conditions for niches to emerge.
Surges of Development and industrial modernity
The industrial societies have formed through five surges of development (each lasting 40-60 years) starting from the latter part of the 18th century. There are different resources, technologies, policies, and ideologies at the heart of each surge of development (see the figure above). Each surge of development starts with niches bringing forth a new way of thinking but end up influencing the ins and outs of many socio-technical systems.
For example, all the ideas needed for mass production were already circulating when Henry Ford connected the dots at the beginning of the 20th century. During the surge of development, mass production became a standard for most socio-technical systems. Now, mass-produced consumer goods, copy-pasted environments and services are what’s dominating everyday life.
As each surge passed, it brought on beliefs, rules, and behaviours that with time became characteristic of every industrial society. We call this collection of beliefs, rules, and behaviours industrial modernity. An example of the continuity of industrial modernity is that while in 1874 it was considered innovative for Friedrich Bayer to hire an educated chemist to work in his dyestuff factory, today, science-based development is the standard for all socio-technical systems.
First Deep Transition
Every socio-technical system that is serving the society’s needs today has come to be as an answer to the issues that were weighing on the more developed societies in the second half of 18th century—poverty and shortage of energy resources. Because these systems raised both standards of living and quality of life, many have benefited. However, during the 20th century, it became clear that the progress didn’t come without challenges—we are now facing major environmental issues and social inequality.
The process of individual socio-technical systems taking similar trajectories, the co-dependence of these systems, and the co-development of industrial modernity are what we call The First Deep Transition.
Second Deep Transition
Considering the amount of energy and materials the current socio-technical systems are absorbing and the environmental consequences of it, it’s clear that the challenges presented by the First Deep Transition cannot be unravelled by reconfiguring the existing systems. We must prepare for a change as comprehensive as the First Deep Transition. We need a Second Deep Transition.
On the one hand, we need to support the mixing and coupling of new technologies, business models, policies, everyday practices, and social innovations in new ways. On the other hand, we also need to advocate for new niche-innovations, transitions in individual socio-technical systems, a surge of development with a focus on green technologies, and the updating of the rules of industrial modernity itself.