27 June 2018

Scaling up sustainable innovation: actors, institutions and geographies

A new phase in the transition to a more sustainable society has arrived: some sustainable innovations are now scaling up. Researchers from the University of Oxford and Utrecht University discussed upscaling during a one-day workshop in Oxford. 

From electric vehicles to decentralized energy, new technologies and organizational forms are now diffusing around the globe and in different institutional contexts. On 23 May, researchers gathered in the Gottman Room to find answers to some of the new questions that accompany the process of scaling up. For example, how can different technologies best be integrated with each other as they scale up? And, can we accelerate diffusion and ensure innovation really contributes to sustainability?

The workshop was organized by Aoife Brophy Haney from the Smith School in Oxford and Toon Meelen from the Copernicus Institute, Utrecht University. Presenters were from the University of Oxford and Utrecht University, with backgrounds in organizational studies, sustainability transition studies, and geography.

Emerging themes from the day’s discussions

The case studies presented looked at various sectors relevant to sustainability. Across all contexts, there were three main themes that emerged. First, there are many tensions that affect the process of scaling up sustainable innovations. There are tensions, for example, for entrepreneurs in the circular economy as they try to stay true to their ideals (Julian Kirchherr and Marvin Henry), for policymakers in India as they face the challenge of reaching scale with LED lighting and maintaining quality (Radhika Khosla), and tensions between platform owners and platform service providers in how they understand their roles (Koen Frenken).

Integration needs new thinking

Second, a major challenge in all settings is how to integrate different technologies (Debbie Hopkins, Aoife Brophy Haney), different practices (Bernhard Truffer), and different actors (Toon Meelen, Tim Schwanen) in new ways. This requires new thinking on how these different components relate to each other, and may require new roles for companies involved in implementing new technologies and for users as active participants in the diffusion of innovations.

The actual meaning of scaling up

Third, throughout the course of the day it was discussed what scaling up actually means. Tim Schwanen, for example, called for more attention to the repetition of small-scale experiments in different places, instead of seeing scaling up only as a process of fast and efficient diffusion.  

The organizers were glad to see the many connections between the presentations, cutting across theoretical approaches and empirical contexts. The workshop was the first in a series of seminars on sustainable innovation organized by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.