A hero like Hirschman and the turns in transition thinking

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Although they are completely different subject areas, there is a striking similarity between transition thinking and development economics: both assume a development curve that describes the shape of an S. This representation makes it difficult to recognize other ways in which societal change can occur. Albert Hirschman pointed out the shortcomings of these kinds of dogmas for development economy, he proposed that we should look at different individual motivations and actions to understand processes of societal change. Also in case of transition thinking, it would help not to assume the S-curve, but to look at the way in which actors express their discontent with unsustainable practices and to ask the question about how this can contribute to the necessary societal changes.

One of my scientific heroes is the economist Albert Hirschman. By the way, in Hirschman’s case, you can rightly speak of a hero. As a German of Jewish descent, he fought the rise in fascism in Spain, Italy and France. As a member of the French underground, he helped countless Jews flee to the US during the Second World War (including Hannah Arendt – another hero of mine). Finally, he was in the US Army during the invasion and liberation of mainland Europe.

As a scientist, he distrusted dogmas. In his field, development economics, one theoretical model of economic development was assumed. Hirschman thought that was nonsense. He would rather go to South America himself to see which initiatives were taken and how these contributed to the progress of a country. Most of the time those initiatives were stopped when another lousy dictator seized power in such a country, but Hirschman never lost hope.

His method consisted of carefully observing empirical reality in order to arrive at the right concepts and patterns to describe that reality. Subsequently, he wrote thin books that presented major scientific contributions that usually far exceeded the domain of economics. His most famous work is Exit, Voice and Loyalty about the ways that someone has to deal with her discontent (within a group, an organization, a country or a system).

A model that exemplifies the theoretical approach of the development economists in the decades after the Second World War is the phase model of Rostow that was published in 1960. Rostow states that a developing country that works its way up to a developed country goes through the same phases, namely from pre-take off, via take-off to the drive to maturity.

For Hirschman, approaches such as those of Rostow lacked the essence of the economic development of poor countries. These types of approaches took a neoclassical view of the market as a starting point, where competition and a properly functioning pricing mechanism were mistakenly assumed. Such a vision of the market cannot simply be placed on every market, the institutional context of a developing country varies from country to region, and it makes no sense to use a generic Western model to understand such a market, let alone use it as a basis for development policy.

Another reason for Hirschman to distrust a neoclassical approach was the assumption that people acted solely on the basis of their self-interest. That may work in a special kind of economic system (namely our own system), but such individualism cannot be the starting point to describe general human action. For someone who risked his life in various wars against fascism, the narrowing down of any motivation to self-interest would be an absurd thought: people have, in addition to self-interest, all kinds of motivations, such as curiosity, moral awareness, emotions and a sense of community.

I have highlighted the Rostow development model here mainly for its form. The Rostow model is very similar to the S-curve devised by communication scientist Everett Rogers in 1962. Below there are images of the two models. I have thought for a long time that Rogers and Rostow were the same person (NB Robert Solow has nothing to do with this, despite the similarity in name and the fact that his economic growth model also appeared around the same time).

With his curve, Rogers described the way in which the market adopts a new innovation. First there are few users, only a small group of early adopters. If the technology catches on, then more and more people will start using the product and an acceleration will take place until the market or society becomes saturated and the growth of development flattens out.

These S-curves reappear in thinking about sustainability transitions. This is not surprising, since these transitions revolve around innovations, namely the kind of innovations that contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

But where Rogers is indifferent with regards to the nature of the innovation, sustainability transitions specifically target the question how the development of technologies can be influenced in such a way that they become sustainable. Current technologies are usually not. Firstly, because they are based on the use of exhaustive resources, such as fossil fuels, scarce minerals and fresh water. Secondly, because they are polluting, such as plastic waste, emissions and toxins. By and large, it is a combination of both: the gasoline on which your car runs is at the expense of the available reservoir of petroleum and it emits CO2; the plastic bags are also made from petroleum and contribute to creation of the plastic islands in the oceans; the clean water with which you flush the toilet is becoming increasingly difficult to make because of the salinization of the groundwater and the flushed water is not only contaminated by droppings but also, for example, by medicines. Things have to change: we must develop new technologies that solve all these kinds of problems, technologies that are sustainable.

Old technologies must therefore be replaced by new sustainable technologies. We need to innovate. Not just of a product or a technical system, but ultimately the entire society must be replaced, it has to change into a sustainable society. In the terms of transition thinking: a ‘system innovation’ is needed. With that, the S-curve of Rogers not only describes the path that a technological innovation must follow, but also the entire social system. Now it is becoming confusing, because the phases of Rostow’s model are now taken up and simply integrated with Rogers’s diffusion model.

Is it not bad science to just merge two pictures? In fact, it is. But as I said, I had never noticed this before, I always thought Rogers and Rostow were the same person – and apparently I am not the only one, because I have found no evidence that another researcher has stumbled upon the manner in which the diffusion model for innovation and the development model for countries have been brought together in the transition curve.

By the wat, the use of Rogers and Rostow is striking enough on its own. Not only are these neoclassical models that are used to develop a not so neoclassical vision of a sustainable society, but also because the approaches have been strongly criticized in the past fifty tears. Nobody believes in the Rostow model any longer, Hirschman is no longer alone in that. Rogers’s model is still widely used, but it has been refined over time in response to a number of intrinsic conceptual and methodological problems.

A first problem for Rogers is that an innovation is not just a product or even a technology, it is above all a new way of acting in which a technology plays a role, which may in fact involve an old technology. This implies that it is fairly difficult to measure what the uptake of such an innovation actually is. What exactly do you have to measure and compared to what do you measure? Even more difficult is that if an innovation becomes more popular, the nature of the use can change. But if that is the case, then the innovation itself also changes, because that was precisely what makes an innovation an innovation.

Secondly, the path with which one innovation replaces the other can almost never be described with the S-curve; instead, such a curve can go in all directions. The diffusion of an innovation appears to be a contingent process with all kinds of feedback loops and unpredictable results. It is by no means a question of some supplier that releases a product on the market and gradually surpasses the product of a competitor. The competitor reacts with a new product, the market responds with new requirements, a new strategy is chosen within a company and the project is put on hold, the product suddenly becomes popular in a completely different context and unexpectedly competes with a total other technology. All such matters are the rule rather than the exception.

Quite some doubts to be raised. At the same time you can say that such an S-curve is just a picture that is used to illustrate how the transition should take place. The point is that the picture points us to the place where the main problem for a transition is, namely the first tipping point of the S, the take-off phase, where pre-development turns to acceleration. You could say that the theory of socio-technical transitions is fully focused on this tipping point, with raises the first question of what withholds sustainable innovations from becoming successful and the second question what can we do to remove those barriers ?

The core of the answer to the question why sustainable innovations fail to become successful is that many new technologies are being developed, but that you cannot force these technologies to become genuine innovations.

This is because a technology is not just an artifact, it is an artifact that is used. It is part of a certain practice. In addition, a technology almost never stands alone, but is often embedded in a larger network of artifacts and practices. That means that an innovation entails that people have to adjust their way of doing things and that entire networks of connected technologies have to be changed.

Take the example of the car. This is not just a means of transport, but a pivot point around which some of our most important decisions revolve. Questions about where we are going to live, work or go to for our holidays, all too often we are guided by the criteria of travel time and accessibility. To facilitate these decisions, a whole network has been developed consisting of suburbs, industrial areas, campsites, gas stations, garages, drilling platforms and oil tankers.

If you want to replace the artifact of the car by a more sustainable alternative, for example by a car that runs on electricity or hydrogen, you intervene in the standard repertoire of choices made by people. How far do I drive a single tank, what are the costs, how long will such a car last, how safe is it, can I still go on holiday with my caravan? But you also need to intervene in the network of technologies, where a new fuel supply infrastructure has to be built and technicians are required to develop new skills. You also affect the economic and business interests of companies, countries and individuals.

With that, sustainable innovation is difficult, you have to deal with all those existing expectations, rules, infrastructures, and interests. There is a socio-technical lock-in that ensures that the first tipping point of the S-curve cannot be taken. The system is so intertwined that technological alternatives do not get a chance to become successful. In transition theory, this is called the regime, the patchwork of established technologies, institutions, rules, practices, interests that all seem to be interconnected.

The task of transition thinking is therefore to break open lock-ins and replace the regime with a new, sustainable regime. The appropriate method for this is to help new, promising technologies by making them more attractive. You can do that by introducing subsidies and tax breaks so that the new technology is less expensive, but the main thing is to build a new system through targeted projects. In the context of such projects, people can learn exactly what the new technology means, which expectations and practices are the right ones, how the new technology relates to the old ones. Technology developers can also learn how their technology actually works, so that it can be adjusted if necessary. In short, start small by setting up a protected environment in which the technology can nestle and at some point be strong enough to compete with the existing system. Such protected environments for promising innovations are called niches.

This in turn leads to a variant of the S-curve. Where all sorts of alternatives are developed in the niche (bottom left) that after a learning period are strong enough to break through the regime (the arrows form into a single arrow) and grow into a new stable regime (the original picture shows much more, but then it becomes difficult to still recognize the S, so for convenience I omitted the quite some information).

This idea of ​​overcoming lock-ins is certainly productive and has yielded a lot of useful research and useful insights, but you could say that it has even been ‘locked in’ in the transition thinking. Other ways in which a transition can be made possible are still difficult to investigate within this framework. It has become a dogma and we have learned from Hirschman that we must distrust dogmas.

What then is the nature of this dogma? For this we must return to the way in which the transition curve combines Rogers’s diffusion model and Rostow’s development model. The diffusion of innovation means that a new technology replaces an existing technology, it is, to speak with Schumpeter, a form of creative destruction. Applied to a country, society or socio-technical system, that also means that the regime must be replaced by a new regime.

Every theory, however complex, can be seen as a storyline with a hero who pursues a goal and a villain who hinders the hero in reaching it. In transition thinking, the hero is the society on the road to sustainability, the villains are the incumbent actors, organizations and institutions with their already interests, rules and routines. These incumbent parties are closely intertwined with the socio-technical lock-in and with that they cannot help but stop every breakthrough, right?

But this story is hard to sustain. How would you like to replace such an entire system? How do you pass the existing institutional order? And do you want that? This institutional order may be unsustainable, it also ensures stability, democracy, freedom, progress, prosperity, and these are also important values. Are you going to replace them all to create a sustainable society?

Another question is how you actually determine when you have finished with the process of replacement? Rostow had a benchmark, every developing country had to be able to measure itself with Western countries. But what about the sustainability transition? When do you know you have reached the end of the S?

And why are the established parties automatically bad guys who want to stop any change? Is that system of established parties actually so homogeneous and should we not expect initiatives to set in motion sustainable developments? And if so, should we not distrust these initiatives because they are not being deployed by the right party?

The question then is what the role is for those who are outside the regime or the niche, the individual citizens. No villains, no heroes, but what are they? It seems as if they have to wait patiently for the transition to be rolled out over them. After all, as citizens or consumers they are on the side of the regimes, and as users of the new sustainable technology they are either guinea pigs within a niche or the unwilling recipients of the new innovation. Is that plausible or desirable to give citizens such a passive role? I think this is doubtful.

The criticisms I mentioned above basically come down to the combination of the criticism of Rogers’s and Rostow’s models. But the most important thing is that the replacement dogma of transition thinking directs the focus to a point and does not allow you to recognize other transition patterns.

You could start by not assuming a replacement model. You don’t necessarily have to put all your trust in niches that are seen as the opposites of the regime, you can also look at regime and look for opportunities to change them in a different way.

The starting point here is that a regime is a complex of rules, implicit and explicit norms about which decisions are the right ones. But a rule itself does nothing, such a rule only exists if it is followed – and that is done by people.

Having rules is necessary to coordinate interactions within a society, we can adapt our behavior to each other so that we know what someone else is going to do (and we know that the other person knows that I know what they are going to do). A complex society such as ours is characterized by the fact that systems of rules seem to be leading a life of their own. So many interactions must be coordinated with each other that there is little room left to play with the rules. But that does not exclude change. There are plenty of options for people to express their discontent with certain rules. Or in terms of Hirschman, raise your voice. Within the domain of politics you can protest, vote for another party, join a movement and so on. As a consumer you can buy another product, as a producer you can try to put an innovation on the market. As a citizen you can develop all kinds of initiatives, write a letter to the newspaper, start an energy collective with the neighborhood.

Not only are there many strategies that you can follow to express your dissatisfaction with rules. You can also have all kinds of motivations to change the rules. Dissatisfaction, conviction, the wish to become rich, it is all possible. These strategies and motivations of actors within and outside of the established institutional order to start sustainability initiatives must be identified and classified.

The result of such responses is that the rules will eventually change. Not always exactly the way everyone wants it, but still it is change in the right direction. New legislation, new technologies, new interests. We have seen it time and time again in the most recent years.

This view of regimes as rules suggests a circular model instead of a replacement model in which fixed rules lead to protest that gives cause to change the rules, those new rules will again lead to discontent, and the whole game can start again.

All in all, Hirschman’s empirical, open mind seems to be necessary to see which patterns of action can contribute to the sustainability transitions that are necessary. Like no other scholar, he has described how the discontent of an individual or group can lead to protest that can set off changes. This seems like a good starting point: look at all forms of protest against the rules and see how they lead to the change of rules and maybe we can learn something from it.

Further reading:


Adelman, J. (2013). Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Princeton University Press.

Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8–9), 1257-1274. doi:10.1016/s0048-7333(02)00062-8.

Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Harvard university press.

Hirschman, A. O. (1981). Essays in trespassing: Economics to politics and beyond. CUP Archive.

Pesch, U. (2015). Tracing discursive space: Agency and change in sustainability transitions. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 90, Part B(0), 379-388. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2014.05.009.

Rogers, E. M. (2010). Diffusion of innovations. Simon and Schuster.

Rostow, W. W. (1959). The stages of economic growth. The economic history review, 12(1), 1-16.

Rotmans, J., Kemp, R., & Van Asselt, M. B. A. (2001). More evolution than revolution: transition management in public policy. Foresight, 3(1), 15-31.


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