An Interlude: Forum for the Future’s System Innovation Animation

In my first entry, I wrote that the main motivation to start this blog which I have been planning for a long time came from Forum for the Future‘s new strategy about system innovation. Last week they have released a short animation announcing this new strategic move and explaining what system innovation is. I found the animation to be concise, clear and to the point. Of course, whenever a complex topic is simplified for the sake of making it easy to understand, there is selective elimination of certain aspects of the topic which make it complex (and which generally constitute the essence of the topic). But for this very reason, I think the animation is very effective. The main messages given in the animation are completely aligned with those messages us ranty academics have been trying to get through to the public, businesses and governments for a long time. The difference is, we write pages and pages long of reports, journal articles, books etc which none of these stakeholders can be bothered to read (even if they would bother and even if they had time, most often than not they don’t have access to the material) and these guys come up with a short animation which is fun to watch and not full of perplexing scientific jargon. Another important determinant of effective communication is of course the timeliness of the message. Governments, organisations and individuals are starting to realise that the sustainability issues are far more complex than we once thought them to be and there is definitely a need to move beyond single-issue-focused optimisation approaches. I’d like to share this animation here for two reasons. First, simply because I’d like to spread it so that more people will hear about system innovation. Second, using it as an inspiring spark for me, I’d like to ask some questions I have in my mind about how best to approach system innovation (which I’ll leave to my upcoming entries).

So, here’s the animation:

To recap, the main messages in this animation are:

1. Although there have been efforts to achieve sustainability for a long time, unsustainability prevails (my addition: in fact, the indicators tell us that it’s worsening at great pace);

2. In order to achieve sustainability, instead of focusing on individual elements (products, services, companies, etc) we need to focus on systems (my addition: well, sustainability is a property of systems and not of individual system elements, so please, no more “this is a sustainable product”, “we are a sustainable company” nonsense);

3. Focusing on systems requires collaboration of all involved stakeholders (my addition: well, practically every single one of us);

4. To achieve system innovation, measurement and analysis, futures thinking and futures inquiry tools, and, creativity and innovation tools are needed (my addition: this corresponds to the three types of knowledge needed for systemic interventions: 1. Systems knowledge; 2. Target knowledge, and; 3. Tranformation knowledge (Wiek, Binder & Scholz, 2006)).

5. FFF proposes to start their system innovation adventure focusing on three sectors: food, energy and finance.

References I used in this post:

Wiek, A., Binder, C., & Scholz, R. W. (2006). Functions of scenarios in transition processes. Futures, 38(7), 740-766.

What is system innovation for sustainability?

System innovation is defined as “a transition from one socio-technical system to another (Geels, 2005, p.2)”. Some historical examples of system innovation are the transition from sailing ships to steam ships, the transition from horse-and-carriage to automobiles, and the transition from piston engine aircrafts to jetliners in American aviation (Geels, 2002a, 2002b, 2005). Much more profound examples of system innovation are agricultural revolution and industrial revolution, both of which fundamentally changed how the society operates. The society is currently experiencing another profound system innovation determined by the rapid development and diffusion of information and communication technologies. Since system innovation is a transformation which takes place at the wider societal context, it covers not only product and process innovations but also changes in user practices, markets, policy, regulations, culture, infrastructure, lifestyle, and management of firms (see, for example, Berkhout, 2002; Geels, 2006; Kemp and Rotmans, 2005; Sartorius, 2006).  In other words, system innovation occurs when the societal system functions differently and thus there is a requirement for fundamental structural change (Frantzeskaki and De Haan, 2009).

Historical examples of system innovation differ from system innovation for sustainability simply by not having a predefined and desired output. On the contrary to historical examples, endeavours to achieve system innovation for sustainability has a desired outcome: sustainable socio-technical systems. This raises questions about what sustainability means, how sustainability of a system can be achieved, what characteristics socio-technical systems have and how can we change socio-technical systems. Answers to these will be investigated in my upcoming musings. But next, I’ll write about the history of system innovation, how it all started and where it is now.

References used in this post:

Berkhout, F., 2002. Technological regimes, path dependency and the environment. Global Environmental Change, 12(1), 1-4.

Frantzeskaki, N., De Haan, H., 2009. Transitions: Two steps from theory to policy. Futures, 41(9), 593-606.

Geels, F. W. 2002a. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8-9), 1257-1274. Retrieved May 20, 2007 from ScienceDirect.

Geels, F. 2002b. Understanding the Dynamics of Technological Transitions: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Unpublished Ph.D., University of Twente, Twente.

Geels, F. W., 2005. Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Pub.

Geels, F. W., 2006. System innovations and transitions to sustainability: challenges for innovation theory. Paper presented at the SPRU 40th Anniversary Conference,11-13 September 2006.

Kemp, R., Rotmans, J., 2005. The Management of the Co-evolution of Technical, Environmental and Social Systems, in: Weber, M., Hemmelskamp, J. (Eds.), Towards environmental innovation systems. Berlin, New York: Springer, pp. 33-55.

Sartorius, C., 2006. Second-order sustainability–conditions for the development of sustainable innovations in a dynamic environment. Ecological Economics, 58(2), 268-286.


Starting a blog about system innovation for sustainability has been on my agenda since I finally finished my PhD in December 2010. But life has taken over and I got busy with lecturing and carrying on with research. The motivation to finally start this blog has come from Forum for the Future (a UK-bsed charitable organisation which works with business and government to create a sustainable future) launching its new strategy a couple of days ago. This is a sign that finally system innovation is becoming a topic of agenda for those other than us academics. This means that there’ll be more talk and walk about it, that finally politicians, company reps and even our neighbours will hear about it, and that there’ll be some exciting action and discussion among self-organising sustainability-enthusiast communities towards taking part in achieveing system innovation. Well, maybe not that fast… But I see FFF’s new strategy as a big step towards a higher-level understanding of what sustainability is, and how it can be achieved by the society. My aim to start the blog is to share my (past and hopefully future) learnings and insights about system innovation with those interested and to learn from them hoping that this blog will enable enlarging my network which is currently limited to the academics working in this area. My interest in system innovation, as much as being driven by my academic research agenda, also stems from a deep and very human desire to influence change towards co-creating a sustainable and desirable future. So, yay!