The role of experiments in sustainability transitions: a systematic literature review

F. Sengers, A.J. Wieczorek, R.P.J.M. Raven

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOtherAcademic


Not only are notions of ‘experimentation’ central to transitions thinking, they are also amongst the few innovative key-elements that makes this line of thinking so unique within the wider context of and social change and policy theory (Meadowcroft 2011; Van den Bergh 2011). More specifically, the sustainability transitions literature argues that experiments harbor important seeds of change that may lead to the transformation of the way in which human needs are met. As a precious yet-to-germinate flower of sustainability, the novel- or alternative sociotechnical configuration embodied within an experiment is applied and tested in real-life conditions to learn about (and aid to achieve) a possible future situation. The eventual promise is that, if it works well enough in the real world and if it is upscaled successfully, the experiment adds to the momentum to the emerging sociotechnical configuration and helps transform (or overthrow) the unsustainable incumbent system or regime through which a particular human need or societal function is currently met. This much, at least, is clear if we look at the literature on experimentation in the burgeoning field of sustainability transitions. Still unclear, however, is how exactly an experiment contributes to the very process of upscaling and how the role of experiments is best conceptualized in relation to the profound transformations they are geared to bring about. In this review paper we turn to the sustainability transitions literature for answers. An initial overview of the most important contributions presents us with many partial possible answers and observations. The first observation is that transition scholars have made use of an array of vantage points and conceptual handles to engage with the process of experimentation, such as the framework of the Multi-level Perspective (Geels 2005) or the governance approaches of Strategic Niche Management (Kemp et al. 1998; Raven 2005) and Transition Management (Loorbach and Rotmans, 2006). The second observation is that a set of dedicated terms and concepts has been coined to deal with specific types of experimentation. Examples include: niche experiments (Hoogma et al. 2002), sustainability experiments (Wieczorek et al. 2014); transition experiments (van den Bosch 2010) or urban climate change experiments (Castan Broto and Bulkeley 2013). The third observation is a range of different roles envisaged for the experiments in relation to sustainability transitions. For example, niche experiments are meant to stimulate niche creation by means of three nurturing strategies: expectations alignment, learning and network formation (Verhees, et al, 2014). Transition experiments are meant to stimulate a transition (not necessarily of sustainability nature) by means of broadening, deepening and upscaling strategies (van den Bosch, 2010). Urban climate change experiments are purposive interventions, in which there is a more or less explicit attempt to innovate, learn and gain experience in the context of urban climate governance (Bulkeley and Castan Broto, 2012) Given the centrality of the concept of the experiment within sustainability transitions field, we believe that reviewing it warrants a more thorough and systematic approach. Following the guidelines of a systematic literature review (Petticrew and Roberts 2006) our efforts are therefore conducted according to carefully specified search process (all the peer-reviewed publications on the Sustainability Transitions Research Network publication list explicitly about experimentation), data extraction methods (each paragraph in the selected publications geared to add to the field’s conceptualization of experiments) and data presentation (a systematic overview of various notions of experimentation, including their ontological foundations, topical- and discursive focal points and examples). And, most importantly, our literature review is conducted with a defined research question in mind: How have scholars in the field of sustainability transitions conceived of and addressed the concept of the experiment and its role? To set the boundaries necessary for this kind of systematic overview, our enquiry about experimentation will be limited to publications within the field of sustainability transitions. Over the last decade this emerging field has given rise to a fairly cohesive and integrated community of scholars, who meet each other at workshops and conferences, and read and cite each other’s work (Chappin and Ligtvoet 2014). While much conceptual debate here has centered on carefully scrutinizing the field’s approaches and key-frameworks of the Multi-level Perspective (Genus and Coles 2008; Geels 2011; Raven et al. 2012), Transition Management (Shove and Walker 2007; Rotmans and Kemp 2008; Shove and Walker 2008) and Technological Innovation Systems (Bergek et al. 2008; Geels et al 2008; Markard and Truffer 2008), far less systematic attention has been paid to discussing core concepts as such (e.g. what ontologies underpin their conceptualization? How is the concept operationalized historically from different scholarly backgrounds? To what extent are different variations of the same term compatible with one another?). Recent contributions have re-conceptualized other key transitions concepts like ‘regime’ (Holz et al. 2008), ‘protection’ (Smith and Raven 2012) and ‘destabilization’ (Turnheim and Geels 2013), but the notion of ‘experimentation’ has thus far eluded such careful recent scrutiny. Especially at a time when important new conceptual contributions on experimentation are stacking up (e.g. see Berkhout et al 2010; Castan Broto and Bulkeley 2013; Wieczorek et al. forthcoming), when our rapidly growing scholarly community is moving out of its initial innovation studies niche to have an impact on the broader field of sustainability research (Geels 2013), and when more researchers from other fields of enquiry (e.g. geography) and other parts of the world (e.g. Non-OECD countries) are moving in, we feel that there is now more than ever a need provide a clear and up-to-date overview of the research that has been conducted in our field under the banners of the experiment. After describing the methodological approach, the paper first presents a narrative to trace the roots of thinking about experimentation through time and highlight where different conceptual variations of the notion come in and branch off as well as what the various narratives suggest about the specific role of experiments (crystallized in table 1 and figure 1 below). The paper then proceeds by identifying a number of key trends that become apparent when we compare the initial scholarly work on experiments to more recent efforts. Among other things, the shift from government to governance manifests itself in the kinds of experiments investigated: today there is less attention for state actors and big corporations and more focus on civil society and local governments as actors connected across geographical scales. There is also growing attention for emerging economies and urban settings. And there is an ever increasing desire to move away from individual case studies in favor of the examination of clusters of projects, sometimes culminating systemic efforts such as the creation of databases of experiments. Based on these current trends and developments in the research on experimentation, the paper concludes by arguing for number of promising avenues for further exploration.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Eventconference; IST; 2014-08-27; 2014-08-29 -
Duration: 27 Aug 201429 Aug 2014


Conferenceconference; IST; 2014-08-27; 2014-08-29

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'The role of experiments in sustainability transitions: a systematic literature review'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this