Shocks, institutional change, and sustainability transitions

Shocks such as wars, financial crises, and environmental disasters, play an important role in influencing the direction of sociotechnical systems such as energy, food, and mobility. We develop understandings of the effects of shocks on systems through the concept of imprinting, which looks at how the different conditions of a time-restricted period of a shock can bring about rapid changes in sociotechnical systems with long-lasting changes. We explore this concept through analysing two shocks and effects on the energy system: World War II and the 1973 Oil crisis. Prospective sustainability transitions will be effected by shocks such as climate change impacts and conflicts and thus understanding the long-term effects of shocks through imprinting will be a useful additional perspective.

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The role of exogenous shocks in influencing transition processes is of significant interest to a wide variety of research in sustainability science (SS). Such events disturb and interrupt path-dependent processes in sociotechnical systems. Sometimes this can lead to radical departures from existing trajectories, while at other times existing systems can be more resilient, adapting, or reconfiguring in response to a shock. In this paper, we explore the role that exogenous shocks can have on institutional change. The sustainability transition literature, as shaped by the multilevel perspective, has usually focused on shocks as windows of opportunity (WoO) where alternatives can break through due to strategic action. We offer the perspective of imprinting, which places primary attention on shocks leading to immediate and irreversible institutional change with long-term consequences. The usefulness of this concept is explored by examining the impact of two major shocks to the energy system: World War II and the 1973 oil crisis. It is concluded that the imprinting concept enables analysis that is attentive to how the underlying institutions of a system can be rapidly and deeply altered by the dynamics of exogenous shocks. It is argued that imprinting is an important complementary concept, next to windows of opportunity, for sustainability science research aiming to understand the period of turbulence we are living through.

Authors: Phil Johnstone and Johan Schot

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