No. 44




How to Redesign Socio-technical Systems?

08 December 2021


RiTo No. 44, 2021

  • Margit Keller

    Margit Keller

    Associate Professor in Social Communication, Head of Institute of Social Studies, Deep Transitions Project Principal Investigator, University of Tartu

  • Triin Vihalemm

    Triin Vihalemm

    Professor of Communication Studies, Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu

Simplified views like “the new technologies will solve all problems” or “we will raise the awareness of consumers” are not enough for meeting the ecological and social sustainability challenges faced by our society.

Society can be analysed as a combination of socio-technical systems that function for a longer period under definite rules. They develop constantly, but they also get stuck in path dependence. Regulations, markets and business models, production and technology, as well as the habits and cultural values and norms of the consumers are interconnected in the systems. Estonia’s energy system has been based on centralised power stations working on oil shale, monopolised transmission and distribution networks, and electricity that is always available to consumers. Estonia is facing the question of how to change this in a reasonable and realistic way in order to reduce its carbon footprint. How can it be done so that social injustice would not be increased? The simultaneous radical transformation of several socio-technical systems of society – energy, transport, urban planning, etc. – is called the Deep Transitions. Although such a process cannot be driven from a single cabin, the changes can be steered towards more or less the same direction by using technological, economic, political, social and cultural innovations. The framework of six intervention points can be used for that: accelerating the development of niches, i.e. technological and social innovations, consciously disrupting the existing system and mitigating its negative side effects, coordinating the interaction of several systems, and participating in the shaping of general external conditions or the landscape (e.g. international agreements and norms, public debates, etc.). In spring 2021, the Deep Transitions research group of the University of Tartu conducted the so-called Delphi study or an expert survey on the energy systems of Estonia. Here, we focus on two main topics: accelerating the development of niches (incl. stimulating the intermediaries necessary for that) and the interaction of several systems on the background of a wider context. Promoting the diversity of niches, or technological and social innovations, and a comprehensive framework for their assessment and selection are the preconditions for the development of innovation. It is important that enough alternatives that take into account our particular environment and needs would emerge in Estonia, and that the establishing of mediating organisations, which are capable of encouraging the representatives of different disciplines to talk to each other and also manage conflicts, would be supported. The transition is not just a topic for a narrow circle of decision-makers. In order for sustainable way of life to take shape, there must be no taboos in the public debate, e.g. the issues relating to the limits of sufficiency needed for sustainable consumption; the assessment of the so-called life-cycle based impact of products, services, buildings and any other lifestyle decisions; the role of civil society in the energy transition, etc.