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Reconceptualizing niche upscaling in emerging Asia with multiscalar technological innovation systems – the case of on-site water recycling in Beijing
Christian Binz, Bernhard Truffer

Last modified: 2012-03-20


China is increasingly becoming a forerunner in environmental industries, but little is known on how its competence in cleantech sectors is built up and how this might affect future sustainability transition potentials. Transition literature argues that in developing Asia, niche experiments and niche accumulation (in addition to the typical policy interventions of Asian development states), are crucial processes for the build-up of environmental innovation (Berkhout et al., 2009). Niches are conceptualized as interacting sets of localized experiments which are connected to, or even induced by global knowledge networks. However, the relationships between interacting experiments and niche upscaling are not specified and it remains rather unclear how the proposed global-local interaction influences upscaling processes.

As an alternative to the currently prevailing focus on experiments and niche accumulation and the unclear space concept in transition literature, this paper proposes to understand upscaling processes from a spatially conscious technological innovation system (TIS) perspective (Coenen et al., 2012). We argue that the relevant processes for upscaling cannot be bound to niche processes at a priori set discrete scales, but have to be conceptualized as co-evolving multiscalar TIS structures (Binz et al. 2012) and related localized end user experiments which are conceptualized as market segments (Dewald and Truffer 2012). We develop a respective analytical framework which is based on the relational ties among TIS actors at and between different geographic scales and their activities in market segment creation.

This analytical frame is exemplified with a case study on on-site water recycling technology, based on interviews with 40 experts in Beijing, China. The case study suggests that on-site water recycling in Beijing developed in three distinguishable spatial patterns, which are characterized by specific sets of involved actors and relevant market segments. Innovative activity in Beijing switched from a nursing market segment in hotels with international TIS structures to a localized mode driven by Chinese entrepreneurs to a final stage of growing market segments in urban residential buildings and rural communities, served by both local and international TIS structures.

We conclude by discussing how the proposed framework can provide new explanations on niche upscaling in emerging Asian countries and its consequences for potential sustainability transitions in this region.