Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

RESEARCH | Socio-Technical Systems

The first of a series of posts introducing core themes in sustainable transitions, drawing from my PhD research examining relationships between sustainable transitions, regional planning and infrastructure systems.

The interaction of society and technology has been the subject of several schools of research and theory, including social studies of technology, social construction of technology and large technical systems, recognising that technologies are socially shaped or constructed. These all interrelate in that they identify a dynamic and dependent relationship between society and technology. That is, society and technology are not only highly dependent but also co-evolutionary. Socio-technical systems are agglomerations of artefacts, cultural, social, technological and organisational infrastructures, investments, regulations and processes. Socio-technical systems thinking is also applied to organisational development in recognition of the complex relationship between people and technology in organisations. The co-evolution of technology, society, and the relationships between them shapes complex socio-technical systems.

Geels (2004, p 900) argues that socio-technical systems encompass production, diffusion and use of technology in order to meet diverse societal functions and needs. Socio-technical systems are understood

in a somewhat abstract, functional sense as the linkages between elements necessary to fulfil societal functions (e.g. transport, communication, nutrition). As technology is a crucial element in modern societies to fulfil those functions, it makes sense to distinguish the production, distribution and use of technologies as sub-functions. To fulfil these sub-functions, the necessary elements can be characterised as resources. ST-systems thus consist of artefacts, knowledge, capital, labour, cultural meaning, etc.

Geels applies evolutionary economics to argue that social groups or actors carry and reproduce technological systems. Social practices are intrinsically connected to and constitutive of technological systems and through which rules, regimes and institutions constrain and enable social actors. Systemic and network relationships co-evolve with society and technology, including policy and institutional change

Sustainable transitions theory and research are attentive to large technical systems or socio-technological systems, which are formed through the interdependence and interaction of society and technologies, often as a system of systems. This includes infrastructure systems, such as transport and energy, as well as systems of production and consumption, such as food and health systems. In distinguishing the differences between infrastructure systems, socio-technological systems, and infrastructure, Frantzeskaki and Loorbach (2010) propose that infrastructure systems are a type of socio-technological system or large technical system and, given their networked and complex nature, are better described as ‘infrasystems’. Infrastructure refers to the hardware, the material elements of infrastructure systems, and infrasystems refers to both the hardware and software of the infrastructure system comprised of and mutually constituted by material, institutional and social elements and relations.

My specific interest in socio-technical systems lies in how urban and regional planning addresses infrastructure systems or large technical systems. Much of our experience of and relationship to cities and regions is shaped by infrastructure systems. Socio-technical systems, particularly large technical systems like infrastructure, exert significant force in socio-technical and spatial relations. They often anchor systems through stability and predictability – and this has impacts for policy and planning. Infrastructure systems are not homogenous and demonstrate significant variation and impacts across sectors. Markard (2010, p. 14) proposes that infrastructure sectors display six characteristics: “a high degree of capital intensity, long lifetimes of physical assets, an often dominant role of public utilities, intensive [and] sector-specific regulation and a high degree of systemness”. Large technical systems and socio-technical systems theory affirm three main patterns in infrastructure systems: distributive (from central node to user), accumulative (from users to central node) and communicative (multidirectional network flows). The large technical systems perspective acknowledges the burden infrastructure places on the environment and the issues it poses for sustainability and sustainable development. The expansion of infrastructure systems results in “ever deeper ecological penetration” and adverse effects on ecological metabolism and natural systems (Joerges, 1988). These large technical systems are often resource intensive and impose significant socio-ecological impacts.

Monstadt (2009) describes networked infrastructure systems as ‘ambivalent’ bearing both causes and solutions to environmental issues and resource scarcity. While environmental impact assessments and the like are integrated in infrastructure procurement and delivery processes, these do not provide the basis for deeper consideration of the interrelationship between infrastructures and environment that can lead to enhanced consideration of ecological and metabolic impacts and new evolutionary paths for infrastructure systems. With a tendency towards optimisation and materiality for eco-efficiency and eco-modernisation in redressing the socio-ecological impacts of these systems, radical reconfiguration and transformation of these systems through decentralisation of energy networks and alternative designs of other infrastructures is not common.

Because infrastructure systems are so costly and long-lived (and much has been written about infrastructural obduracy), urban and regional planning has a role to play in conditioning social and spatial dynamics associated with these systems over time and confer resources and services. As infrastructure patterns and configurations are spatial, they develop as part of complex urban and regional relations. Planning plays a role in both inhibiting and enabling change in these systems; and particularly due to a propensity to affirm existing socio-technical systems and spatial relations. The planning and design choices made in developing infrastructure systems are comprised of, and formative of, relationships that shape developmental and spatial pathways.

Large technical systems theory and studies refers to extensive, complex and massive systems of technology or ‘big technology’, such as infrastructure, which is ordinarily suggestive of networks. Such large systems are agglomerations of cultural, social, technological and organisational infrastructures and processes. Their ‘bigness’ also means that they involve high level decisions and negotiations on multiple social and spatial scales. The literature on large technical systems recognises that an assemblage of diverse elements comprise an interacting system that enables a society to function. Drawing on the large technical systems approach, Willems et al (2016) identify four stages of infrastructure development: establishment, expansion, maturity and renewal. The last stage presents windows of opportunity to address societal and environmental issues, engage with niche innovations and explore new pathways.

Cities and regions face adaptive challenges as infrastructure systems are dependent on diverse land uses, market dynamics and urban forms which are also difficult to change. Such challenges can fall to regional and urban planning to navigate, often coordinating and linking across diverse and disparate policy priorities in a system of multi-level governance, as is the case in Australia. Infrastructure systems have experienced widespread policy reforms including privatisation, market shocks and deregulation that impact sustainability, planning and delivery. While urban and regional planning is equipped to normatively address spatial problems, it is not especially adept at technology. It seems that planning relinquishes agency to technology – from analogue to digital technologies and networks – on the presumption of infrastructure as an engineered object occupying or intervening in space rather than entangled in a broad range of social, technological, economic, governance and ecological relationships.

Infrastructure systems are anchored in modernist and capitalist progress and growth narratives where they also play a significant and symbolic role in globalisation. Infrastructures act in networked, political and urban environments and are enmeshed in the construction and transformation of cities, regions and nation states. Because of the material, relational, political and socio-ecological role they play in industrial or urban metabolism, Monstadt (2009, p. 1926) proposes that major socio-ecological threats “can only be tackled through the transition of existing infrastructures”. Risks include the lack of alignment between policies and the condition of the infrastructure system, and the impacts of neoliberalism on market and system fragmentation (or splintering). This is particularly evident in Australia in relation to coal fired power stations at the end of their life where renewable energy is emerging as a superior and viable replacement but policy is failing to respond sufficiently. These tensions also emerge during disruptive dynamics, as is currently underway as smart technology interfaces with analogue technologies resulting in different types and configurations of services e.g. ‘mobility as a service’ (MaaS). Infrastructure systems are non-linear processes that involve significant variability and uncertainty in which those attributes are resources for productive debate, negotiation and innovation. A central argument in socio-technical systems and transitions thinking is that unless these infrastructure systems transition or transform, the socio-ecological problems in which they are implicated, and of which they are catalytic, will not only be ongoing but also escalate. Socio-technical systems perspectives are necessary for urban and regional planning for the creation of sustainable pathways in cities and regions.

Cited Works

Frantzeskaki, N., & Loorbach, D. (2010). Towards governing infrasystem transitions. Reinforcing lock-in or facilitating change? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 77(8), 1292–1301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2010.05.004

Joerges, B. (1988). Large Technical Systems: Concepts and Issues. In R. Mayntz & T. P. Hughes (Eds.), The Development of Large Technical Systems. Frankfurt.

Markard, J. (2010). Transformation of Infrastructures: Sector Characteristics and Implications for Fundamental Change. Third Annual Conference on Competition and Regulation in Network Industries. https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)IS.1943-555X.0000056

Monstadt, J. (2009). Conceptualizing the political ecology of urban infrastructures: Insights from technology and urban studies. Environment and Planning A, 41(8), 1924–1942. https://doi.org/10.1068/a4145

Willems, J., Busscher, T., Hijdra, A., & Arts, J. (2016). Renewing infrastructure networks : new challenge , new approach ? Transportation Research Procedia, 14(0), 2497–2506. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trpro.2016.05.322





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