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Scaling urban sustainability experiments: Contextualization as an innovation

Peng, Yuan, Wei, Yujian, Bai, Xuemei
Journal of cleaner production 2019 v.227 pp. 302-312
case studies, cities, learning, sustainable development, China
Research shows urban sustainability experiments are critical for sustainability transition in cities and beyond, especially when they are multiplied in other contexts and upscaled. Even with a growing body of literature on sustainability experiments, little is known on how these experiments travel to and are contextualized in other contexts. Here we attempt to fill this gap, taking the adoption and proliferation of Energy Performance Contracting (EPC) in Shanghai as a case study. First, based on the system innovation literature, we identify the critical components that characterize the innovative practices. We then examine the contextualization process of EPC in Shanghai using this characterization. Finally, we identify and compare some innovative elements that emerged during the contextualization with those in the original contexts from which Shanghai learned. We argue that post experiment adoption and contextualization requires mobilization and realignments of actors, resources, and institutional arrangements within the process of learning, which involves much more than simple duplication and often with distinctive outcomes, thus in many ways is an innovation in itself. Innovation in post experiment contextualization is supported by various “horizontal linkages” with the original experiment, which include information/knowledge transfer and learning via actor interactions across experiments, but the focus of learning shifts from external (i.e. from the original context) to internal (i.e. within the new context) during the contextualization process. These findings contribute to an in-depth understanding of how innovation can transfer across cases, which is a significant gap in current system innovation literature, and may inform practice in terms of how to facilitate the scaling of experiments to achieve sustainability transitions.