A State of Innovation - The Role of Government in the Design and Orchestration of Sustainability Transitions

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Pressing environmental issues are provoking responses from a broad range of stakeholders seeking to transition to more sustainable alternatives. The scale and complexity of these transitions are driving dramatic changes in models of collaboration, often resulting in the formation of networks of unlikely partners. Simultaneously new actors such as government are emerging to play influential roles typically at an early stage of these transitions. Deploying a qualitative research method involving comparative case studies, the objective of this research is to investigate the role of government in facilitating sustainability transitions across three early stage innovation networks or 'strategic niches'. Drawing on theory from network orchestration and innovation systems, the data is gathered from 41 semi-structured interviews with a diverse range of stakeholders. The research investigates how government shapes niche design and orchestrates innovation within the niches. The role of innovation intermediaries is also explored. The findings shed new light on key aspects of strategic niches and the role of public actors in network design and orchestration. Motivations for niche emergence vary enormously but are strongly influenced by the business case and shaped by the contextual setting. Government exerts considerable positive influence on network design and positioning, attracting new members, engaging existing members more deeply and creating a culture of autonomy and collaboration. Further, a more dynamic model of knowledge exchange emerges facilitated by government and revolving around collaboration, network stability and the establishment of learning mechanisms. Intermediaries emerge as critical actors in the early stages of niche development, with government identified as the primary source of innovation support in the networks, facilitating and empowering local actors at the grassroots. Other non-governmental intermediaries also play important roles at key phases of the projects. These findings provide new insights into government's role related to network management, knowledge sharing and intermediary functions fundamental to the creation and emergence of strategic niches. The research carries theoretical and practical implications for all spheres of government in terms of the formulation and deployment of innovation policy for strategic niches, as well as the potential for non-financial support such as capacity building in a local context. At a practical level, a more nuanced view is unearthed of the roles and activities of government as a network orchestrator and intermediary, challenging the dominance of the firm as the primary source of innovation. Importantly, the findings emphasise and consolidate government's position as a critical actor in sustainability transitions.
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