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The challenges of low-carbon development : from technology transfer to socio-technical transformation

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A presentation given by Rob Byrne (SPRU, Sussex Energy Group) at the STEPS/Sussex Energy Group Seminar at IDS, 1 March 2010.

A presentation given by Rob Byrne (SPRU, Sussex Energy Group) at the STEPS/Sussex Energy Group Seminar at IDS, 1 March 2010.


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  • 1. The challenges of low-carbon development From technology transfer to socio-technical transformation Rob Byrne (with thanks to Adrian Smith and Jim Watson) Sussex Energy Group IDS 1 st March 2010
  • 2.
    • Energy-development relationship is complex
      • Differentiated notion of developing countries
        • Middle and low-income, emerging, transition
      • Rural and urban needs
      • Industrialisation, household, transport, etc.
    • Energy needed in different forms for different services (Modi et al . 2005:35)
      • Energy for cooking, heating
      • Electricity for illumination, ICT, and appliances to support household and commercial activities and the provision of social services
      • Mechanical power to operate agricultural and food processing equipment, to carry out supplementary irrigation, to support enterprises and other productive uses, and to transport goods and people
  • 3. World map of electricity use per capita by country Source : UNDP (2004) in Modi et al. (2005:11)
  • 4. Percentage of households using traditional biomass fuel, by country Source : Gordon et al . (2004) in Modi et al. (2005:12)
  • 5. Number of people (actual and projected) without electricity, 1970-2030, by region Source : IEA (2002) in Modi et al. (2005:11)
  • 6.
    • Development actors tend to focus on technical fixes to solve the many problems in the energy-development relationship
      • Access, equity, security, quality, etc.
    • The focus on technological fixes often leads to discussions of technology transfer – usually from rich to poor countries – and usually about technological hardware and its financing
    • Technology hardware is certainly important
      • It is needed in order to harness energy for productive uses
      • Technologies at the ‘frontier’ are considered essential for competitiveness
      • Developing countries offer market opportunities for hardware developed in the industrialised countries
  • 7.
    • Academic interest in technology transfer has also been widespread and long-lived, but rooted in diverse theoretical approaches
      • Neo-classical perspective
        • Technology equates with capital and so its transfer is unproblematic
        • New technology, once available, can be used immediately by all actors
      • Deeper theorising (e.g. innovation studies) tries to understand technology transfer as a process rather than an event
        • Develop indigenous technological capabilities, facilitate transfer of advanced technologies and cultivate innovation capabilities
        • Learning becomes an important focus of attention
  • 8.
    • The record of innovation and diffusion of technologies within developing countries is highly uneven
      • Different policy approaches with similar results, and similar policy approaches with different results
      • Early ‘successes’ around the terms of technology transfer (Radosevic 1999)
        • Technology transfer terms (e.g. contracts) as the static dimension
        • But, fostering technological capabilities as the dynamic dimension (not so successful)
      • Characteristics of technology have changed over time (Bell and Pavitt 1993)
        • Early process: ‘learning-by-operating’ technology led to capabilities to innovate
        • Later: increasing knowledge-embeddedness of technology with increasing specialisation
        • Now much harder to cultivate technological capabilities through ‘learning-by-operating’
  • 9.
    • Technology transfer research increasingly attentive to context
      • Bastos and Cooper (1995): politics of technology
      • Radosevic (1999): recognising political economy
      • Cimoli, Dosi and Stiglitz (2009): focusing on political economy
  • 10.
    • Implications of this work
      • Technology transfer is difficult, even without ‘constraints’ (e.g. low-carbon)
      • Simple ‘open-market’ strategies lead to the exploitation of current static comparative advantages and subsequent efficiency gains
        • Outcome can be growth, not necessarily development
        • Danger of low-technology ‘lock-in’
      • Industrial (and/or S&T) policy matters, but not just state versus market, ISI or export-led growth, etc.
      • Policy must be compatible with internal and external political-economic context
        • Contexts that co-evolve with each other, and with policy
        • These interactions and co-evolution create new interests and constituencies
  • 11.
    • Unresolved needs of the technology transfer literature
      • We do not yet have a good understanding of how long it takes to build technological capabilities (Bell 2006)
        • Theory needs a time dimension and research needs to be longitudinal
      • We do not yet have adequate theoretical frameworks to incorporate technology transfer processes and context
        • Political economy is useful but not integrated
  • 12.
    • A role for transition theory?
      • First, it has a time (historical) dimension
      • Second, it links together contextual levels and incorporates social as well as technical dimensions
      • Third, it allows us to focus on how radical and new technologies and practices grow and challenge the mainstream, as well as how the mainstream resists or attempts to suppress the new or radical
  • 13. Multi-Level Perspective of socio-technical systems Source : Geels (2002:1261)
  • 14.
    • Socio-technical regimes disadvantage niche activity due to a variety of interdependent path-dependencies
      • Capabilities
      • Economic structures
      • Vested interests, politics and power
      • Infrastructure
      • Institutions
      • Technological and user cultures
    • A mix of social and technological, material and discursive processes reinforce one another
  • 15.
    • But…
      • Regimes are under pressure too
        • e.g. environmental change, social pressure, demography, development ideologies, internal dynamics and contradictions
      • Instabilities provide opportunities for niches
      • Policies and programmes for sustainable transitions need also to unsettle unsustainable regimes
  • 16.
    • Strategic Niche Management
      • Analytical and normative theoretical framework
      • Actor-networks, learning, and institutionalisation of socio-technical practice
      • Socio-technical expectations and visions
      • Solar home system (SHS) market in Tanzania
        • Many years of fragmented, dispersed attempts to push SHSs
        • Late 1990s, actors coming together around a programme of projects
        • Early to mid 2000s, several large projects of similar approaches with deep interactions
        • Perhaps around 5000-10,000 SHSs sold each year and rising
  • 17.
    • Climate change mitigation and adaptation have become increasingly urgent priorities
      • Action needed across all sectors of economic and social activity
      • Once again, technology transfer is at the centre of negotiations between the developed and developing countries
      • Discussions continue to assume technologies will be transferred from the developed to the developing countries
        • On the basis of concessional finance
        • Through mechanisms that depend on getting the price of carbon right
      • LDCs assumed to develop without a carbon constraint for now
        • Switch to low-carbon development later when the technologies are cheap enough
  • 18.
    • A paradox in this strategy?
      • Historical responsibility for carbon emissions
        • Rich countries must reduce emissions now
        • Poor countries can use the ‘freed’ carbon budget to develop
        • This is the basis of one powerful narrative (rhetorically if not materially)
      • But path dependency and lock-in could mean problems for LDCs later
        • Industrialised countries already experiencing difficulty of ‘switching’ to low-carbon
        • Some industrialising countries also somewhat locked-in already
        • When might LDCs become locked-in to high-carbon development?
  • 19.
    • So, we have a number of insights, approaches, hopeful contributions, and speculations
      • Technology transfer is a process not an event
      • Supportive policy is important to facilitate the process
      • Socio-technical transitions theory offers a framework to hold together these elements and the wider context over time
        • Also highlights the stability of regimes …
        • … but suggests regimes can be vulnerable under changing conditions
        • It does not yet persuasively incorporate politics and power
        • It is relatively ‘open’ to methodological approaches
  • 20.
    • Towards a research agenda?
      • Goal to develop robust theory that incorporates …
        • Our understanding of the processes of technology transfer
        • Insights from political economy
        • Insights and framework of transitions theory
        • Ability to analyse narratives and their influence on material realisations
      • … in order to understand
        • Why and how certain solutions are dominant; when and how they become unstable
        • The particular constraints and opportunities of low-carbon pathways
        • How to make carbon-constrained development pro-poor not simply pro-growth
  • 21. References
    • Bastos, M. and C. Cooper (eds.) (1995) Politics of Technology in Latin America , UNU/INTECH and Routledge, London, UK, and New York NY, USA.
    • Bell, M. (2006) “Time and technological learning in industrialising countries: how long does it take? How fast is it moving (if at all)?”, International Journal of Technology Management 36(1-3):25-39.
    • Bell, M. and K. Pavitt (1993) “Technological Accumulation and Industrial Growth: Contrasts Between Developed and Developing Countries”, Industrial and Corporate Change 2(2):157-210.
    • Cimoli, M., G. Dosi and J. Stiglitz (eds.) (2009) Industrial Policy and Development: The Political Economy of Capabilities Accumulation , Oxford University Press, New York NY, USA.
    • Geels, F. (2002) “Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study”, Research Policy 31:1257-1274.
    • Geels, F. (2004) “From sectoral systems of innovation to socio-technical systems: Insights about dynamics and change from sociology and institutional theory”, Research Policy 33:897-920.
    • Gordon, B., R. Mackay and E. Rehfuess (2004) Inheriting the World: The Atlas of Children’s Health and the Environment , World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
    • IEA (2002) World Energy Outlook 2002 , Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and International Energy Agency, Paris, France.
    • Modi, V., S. McDade, D. Lallement and J. Saghir (2005) Energy Services for the Millennium Development Goals , Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme, United Nations Development Programme, UN Millennium Project and World Bank, New York NY, USA.
    • Radosevic, S. (1999) International technology transfer and catch-up in economic development , Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.
    • UNDP (2004) Human Development Report: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World , United Nations Development Programme, New York NY, USA.