How to Proceed: Three Key Questions for Future Transition and Innovation Research on the Local Level

Why Considering the Local Level At All?

In our view, there is high potential to improve our understanding of local transition processes when considering the literature of the three theoretical approaches. In order to do that, we first need to understand the role of the municipal level for local energy transitions and, more specifically, the role of local innovation, community involvement, and collective action.

There are a number of arguments and conditions why and how the local level should be of relevance for the analysis of innovation. Firstly, as Aranguren et al. (2010) argue, economic production and consumption takes place in close proximities on the local level. Local knowledge is strongest within the respective community network, allowing its members to craft highly adapted rules and structures in order to reach a common goal (Andersson and Ostrom 2008). Secondly, as local citizens are directly affected by local problems (e.g. environmental pollution or economic downturn) and societal changes (demographic transition or structural changes), there is a strong motivation for communitive action among the citizens and local actors. Thirdly, local citizens are also confronted, positively and negatively, with the consequences of political decisions or investment in local infrastructures but also have local expertise and an understanding of these decisions’ impact on their close environment. Therefore, they have an incentive and the means to provide more effective solutions to community challenges then a top-down centralized government (Andersson and Ostrom 2008).

Critical evaluations of approaches promoting local governance as a story of success draw a more differentiated conclusion (Andersson and Ostrom 2008; Kokx and van Kempen 2010). In fact, strong social networks, and predefined and consistent institutions on the local level can actually lead to gated communities, generally limiting the ability to adapt and integrate new external information. Partnerships that arise between public and private actors within these closed networks are not necessarily mutual or equally balanced in terms of bargaining power. They often lack a common understanding of responsibility and might even encourage mistrust among its members (Kokx and van Kempen 2010). As a consequence, we find mixed evidence on whether decentralization of political responsibility from the regional and national to the local level as well as from public authorities to private actors actually leads to better outcomes (Andersson and Ostrom 2008). One reason for this might be that local initiatives and community development relies on selforganization and focuses on highly complex issues. Both increase the costs for individual actors to invest in community activities with consequences that are highly uncertain and bear the risk of failure, especially when the access to expert knowledge is limited. Close networks not necessarily support cooperation but might only reproduce unbalanced power structures and social conflicts within the community making collective actions impossible. Thus, we may conclude that there is a number of obstacles on the local level for successful transition processes and innovation to occur.

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