Socio-Technical Transition as a Co-Evolutionary Process: Innovation and the Role of Niche Markets in the Transition to Motor Vehicles
Birky, Alicia Kim
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Significant reductions in greenhouse emissions from personal transportation will require a transition to an alternative technology regime based on renewable energy sources. Two bodies of research, the quasi-evolutionary (QE) model and the multi-level perspective (MLP) assert that processes within niches play a fundamental role in such transitions. This research asks whether the description of transitions based on this niche hypothesis and its underlying assumptions is consistent with the historical U.S. transition to motor vehicles at the beginning of the 20th century. Unique to this dissertation is the combination of the perspective of the entrepreneur with co-evolutionary approaches to socio-technical transitions. This approach is augmented with concepts from the industry life-cycle model and with a taxonomy of mechanisms of learning. Using this analytic framework, I examine specifically the role of entrepreneurial behavior and processes within and among firms in the co-evolution of technologies and institutions during the transition to motor vehicles. I find that niche markets played an important role in the development of the technology, institutions, and the industry. However, I also find that the diffusion of the automobile is not consistent with the niche hypothesis in the following ways: 1) product improvements and cost reductions were not realized in niche markets, but were achieved simultaneously with diffusion into mass markets; 2) in addition to learning-by-doing and learning-by-interacting with users, knowledge spillovers and interacting with suppliers were critical in this process; 3) cost reductions were not automatic results of expanding markets, but rather arose from the strategies of entrepreneurs based on personal perspectives and values. This finding supports the use of a behavioral approach with a micro-focus in the analysis of socio-technical change I also find that the emergence and diffusion of the motor vehicle can only be understood by considering the combination of developments and processes in multiple regimes, within niches, and within the wider technical, institutional, and ecological complex (TIEC). For the automobile, the process of regime development was more consistent with a fit-stretch pattern of gradual unfolding and adaptation than one of niche proliferation and rapid regime renewal described in the literature.