Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for the Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

Learning from the past

16.06.2017 | Rick Hölsgens

In recent years, the study of the transition towards a more sustainable economy has taken up momentum. Transitions are/have to be set in motion by innovations. An international sustainability transitions community has emerged in a relatively short amount of time. The academic, but also political, debate embraced the notion of transitions as a necessity for a more sustainable future. Interestingly, although the literature on transitions to sustainability has been initiated for a great deal by historical case studies, in particular by Frank Geels and Johan Schot and colleagues, most debates on the transition to sustainability have largely turned their backs to historical approaches. This is understandable as sustainability challenges almost by definition look at the current situation and the (near) future. However, it is also regretful as a lot can be learned from historical trends and cases.

The first thing we have to admit when acknowledging that we can learn from the past is that sustainability challenges are not a recent phenomenon. Sustainability challenges are of all time and the (academic) literature on historical sustainability challenges is growing, but oftentimes these debates occur outside the transitions community. The second thing to admit is that history is full of useful lessons and that we should be more conscious about these lessons and should integrate them in the current debates on the transition to sustainability. This also implies that the study of sustainability transitions needs to be interdisciplinary and should include social and economic historians.

How can a historical view contribute? Firstly, it helps to get a better view of what the challenges for sustainable innovators are. We know from the theoretical work on transitions that change is obstructed often by conscious and unconscious structures (regimes) that have been formed and are being formed and maintained by path dependencies. In order for a sustainable innovation to be able to grow, to replace the old (unsustainable) system, and thus to constitute or initiate a transition, the innovation has to compete with the regime. Diffusion barriers are regularly mentioned by innovators as hurdles to grow the innovation.[1] In order to understand where these barriers come from, it is not enough to look at the current situation, it is also necessary to look at how they emerged. A historical view analyzing the long-term trajectories helps to understand how, and especially why, a regime materialized the way it did. Awareness about this helps to identify possible weaknesses which may provide valuable lessons for the innovators. It also helps the innovator to understand the complexity of the transition and of the existing structures better, which in turn can provide valuable information for strategy development by the innovator.

The second, more indirect way, in which a historical approach can be beneficial to innovators aiming at increasing sustainability, is by in-depth analysis of historical transitions. Databases such as CASIPEDIA with its Actions and Ideas Banks can provide many new insights for sustainable innovators. However, the main advantage of the study of historical diffusions of innovations is that they provide a full picture from the moment of invention till the mainstreaming of the innovation. This provides insights in the success factors of other innovations. However, equally important probably for sustainable innovators, is that such historical analyses should also address barriers, blockages, and possibly also completely failed innovations. Learning from the mistakes (or external obstructions causing failure) of other cases may be even more powerful than just reading about what went well. A secondary advantage of the study of the diffusion of innovations from the past is that it provides the possibility to assess the effects of the transition. Sustainability transitions may be prone to rebound effects, and undesirable and unexpected side-effects may always occur; awareness about how these effects can work out (illustrated by historical examples) may sensitize innovators to this possibility and could support them in making sure their innovation is truly sustainable, also in the long run.      

It can therefore be beneficial to further support sustainable innovators by providing them with more historical insights relevant to their own case. At the same time, a closer collaboration between the disciplines of social and economic history, sustainable innovation research, and sustainability transitions will strengthen all three of the disciplines and will make their contribution to the transition to a more sustainable economy stronger and more valuable.  



[1] See for instance the manifold barriers identified and collected in the CASI Ideas Bank (; see also the Comparative Analysis (Mapping 1) from the project SI-DRIVE by Howaldt et al. (2016), available here:

Relevant themes: Sustainable innovation
Relevant tags: History, Sustainability Transitions; Interdisciplinarity, Sustainability


  • Rick Hölsgens - Technische Universitaet Dortmund/Sozialforschungsstelle (Technical University of Dortmund), (TUDo)

    Rick Hölsgens