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Technical standards as a strategic tool to restrain radical innovation?
Magda Smink

Last modified: 2012-03-26


The transition to a sustainable energy system requires technologies that are often radical in nature: they are innovations that build upon a substantially different core technology. Technological Innovation Systems and the Multi Level Perspective have contributed to understanding the system level mechanisms of such transition processes. However, they largely lack insight into the behavior of individual actors in the system.

Especially the behavior of actors with vested interests, so-called incumbents, merits attention. They are known to have difficulties in embracing radical innovations, which may be competence destroying for them. Therefore, they are expected to engage in strategic behavior to safeguard their interests. One way in which incumbents can protect their interests is through standardization. Standards provide the technical quality and safety specifications that a product needs to fulfill to be accepted to the market, as well as how these specifications should be measured.

This research focuses on the role of technical standards in sustainability transitions, and especially how standards may serve as a strategic tool for incumbents to restrain radical innovation. Many standards are set by Standard Development Organizations, such as the CEN in Europe. The stakeholders that assemble in CEN’s committees are mostly  company experts, and generally decide on the basis of consensus. Incumbent firms are overrepresented. This institutional set-up allows for strategic maneuvering by powerful actors.

The effects of standards are significant. By their specifications they shape the (emerging) market. Strict quality or safety standards can raise the production cost of a product or even exclude it from the market. Standards also affect the relative competitiveness of firms, depending on their respective products’ performance.

In this paper we specifically analyze the role of standards in incumbent strategies in the fields of biogas, biodiesel and LED lighting. A comparative case study design will be used.