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Second-order sustainability - conditions for the development of sustainable innovations in a dynamic environment

: Sartorius, C.


Ecological economics 58 (2006), Nr.2, S.268-286
ISSN: 0921-8009
Fraunhofer ISI ()
sustainability; innovation; path dependency; Lock-in; uncertainty; indicator

In particular radical innovations can be important means to achieving improved sustainability. Due to the existence of path dependency and lock-in, however, the transition from one technological trajectory to another, more sustainable one is often impeded by significant barriers. Fortunately, these barriers are by their nature subject to substantial changes in time; so, it makes sense to carefully distinguish between periods of stability (showing high barriers) in which the given trajectory can hardly be left and periods of instability (characterized by low barriers) where a new trajectory can be reached more easily. The latter distinction matters since sustainable innovations often rely on governmental regulation and the economic burden arising from this regulation will be much lower in periods of instability. Moreover, due to the complexity and dynamics of change in their respective environments, innovations are generally associated with fundamental uncertainty such that it becomes impossible to predict the degree of sustainability yielded by specific innovations in the longer run. Under these circumstances, it is essential to facilitate the change between trajectories and to allow for the possibility to select between a variety of alternative trajectories within a process of trial and error. Sustainability as viewed from this evolutionary perspective is therefore better understood as the general capability to adapt, that is, to readily change from less to more sustainable technological trajectories. Since the latter kind of sustainability determines the conditions under which the former kind (i.e. sustainability related to a specific technology) can be achieved, the two kinds are respectively called second-order and first-order sustainability.
Finally, a series of determinants (and corresponding indicators) from the techno-economic, political, and socio-cultural sphere is identified which, after proper measurement and weighting, allow for making an assessment whether and when the incumbent industry is sufficiently destabilized and the political system rendered sufficiently favorable to the new, more sustainable technology such that a transition to the preferred trajectory is possible without too much effort.