Social science research on the destabilisation and phase-out of socio-technical systems
The WAYS-OUT project addresses questions related to the destabilisation of socio-technical systems in a multi-disciplinary way, by mobilising a plurality of approaches and perspectives. In order to practically bridge between a plurality of analytical approaches, research activities have been broken down thematically and organised in 6 Task Forces within which day-to-day research is carried out.
TF1: Theory and analytical framework
This Task Force is concerned with elaborating the key conceptual and methodological tools for the project. Main activities concern the exploration of existing social science literatures on the topic, the development of an overarching conceptual frame focussed on the mechanisms of destabilisation and the formulation of ideal-typical destabilisation pathways, and methodological protocols for case development and their comparisons.
The WAYS-OUT project adopts a working definition of socio-technical system destabilisation as:
“a longitudinal process by which otherwise relatively stable and coherent socio-technical forms (systems, regimes, institutional arrangements, sets of practices or networks) become exposed to challenges significant enough to threaten their continued existence and their ‘normal’ functioning, triggering strategic responses of core actors within the frame of existing commitments (preservation) and in certain circumstances away from such commitments (transformation).” (Turnheim, forthcoming)
As a result, examining destabilisation process requires attention to:
- established socio-technical configurations and the determinants of their relative stability, possibly by reconstructing their stabilisation trajectories and identifying sources of lock-in
- the variety of and evolution of pressures bearing upon established systems, and possibly their articulation over time into destabilisation pressure fronts
- the response strategies deployed by central actors, which may include denial, defence, diversification, renewal or exit.
- changing commitments to reproductive activities and rulesets, which are likely to be oriented by preservation or transformation logics.
TF2: Socio-technical case studies
This Task Force is concerned with developing socio-technical case studies, and is the empirical backbone of the project. A number of destabilisation cases have been selected in different sectors (energy, mobility, agri-food), geographical and historical contexts. Case selection also aimed to maximise the variety of destabilisation patterns to be observed, include cases of decline, partial decline, and continuity, more or less rapid decline, more or less managed decline and more or less just decline.
Ongoing empirical work includes cases on rail, flight, coal, nuclear, meat, pesticides, and wine.
TF3: Socio-technical scenarios
This Task Force is concerned with the anticipation of futures related to the destabilisation, decline or phase-out of socio-technical systems. Combining knowledge about past and ongoing development trajectories in focal systems with knowledge about key destabilisation mechanisms, the research activities aim to map out plausible futures and decision points, in a co-construction setting mobilising actors from relevant social groups in workshops. Planned applications concern pesticides reduction and low-carbon scenarios.
This Task Force is concerned with exploring the extent to which system destabilisation has and can be modelled through numerical methods. Activities include 1) a state of the art of the modelling of destabilisation, decline and phase-out interventions, and 2) an exploration of the opportunities for addressing destabilisation processes in modelling strategies.
TF5: Strategic Intervention and Evaluation
This Task Force is concerned with examining the processes and outcomes of strategic decision-making in destabilisation contexts. This concerns organisational decision-making in the face of destabilising pressures as well as the deliberate governance of destabilisation such as the planned phase-out of systems. Research activities seek to examine the arenas within which phase-out and reduction objectives are being formulated, the processes by which the formulation of reduction expectations are objectives make their way into decision-making, as well as the effects of such strategic decision-making on the actual trajectories of focal systems.
TF6: Knowledge, Expertise and Reflexivity
This Task Force is concerned with understanding how established forms of knowledge and expertise respond to destabilisation contexts. Research activities are oriented towards exploring the epistemic dimension of destabilisation processes. By focussing specifically on established forms of knowledge and expertise in numerical modelling communities (energy systems modelling, agriculture and food systems modelling), the objective is to understand the conditions under which existing modelling ecologies may themselves be destabilised and to trace the journey of destabilising concepts in these ecologies.