Sub-theme 34: Organizing the Generalisation of Distributed and Decentralized Technological Innovations

Douglas K.R. Robinson
Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, France
Wouter P.C. Boon
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Neil Pollock
University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Managers and sociologists of innovation over the past decades have analysed the dynamics of emergence and diffusion of innovations, often focusing on individual firms (Rogers, 1983; Van de Ven & Poole, 1995). Critics of diffusion theory have pointed out that the diversity of innovation types, the various and distributed contexts of innovation outside of firms and motivations for innovation and diffusion have been poorly served (Sovacool & Hess, 2017). Little has been said on new models of emergence, diffusion and embedding that capture this diversity.
This sub-theme focusses on distributed and decentralised innovation. Such innovations include distributed R&D, distributed forms of manufacturing such as 3D printing as well as distributed forms of markets (social media and sharing platforms). This innovation type also covers grassroots and user innovation, such as urban farming, farm-based innovation, civic energy communities; niche experiments that have the potential to replace wider regimes; and innovations for small or niche markets.
Whilst innovation studies has done well in understanding the early stages of emergence and embedding and normalisation of new options into society (Dewald & Truffer, 2011) the critical intermediary phase of transforming a novel option into a mainstream option has received less attention. We label the period of generalisation: the active creation of processes and structures to transform a novel option into a stable alternative to the incumbent. Whilst this is a challenge for traditional knowledge intensive industries, it is a major challenge for distributed and decentralised innovation activities.
This organizational tension between (a) the need for organising and facilitating generalisation and (b) the distributed and decentralised nature of these innovation types outlined above, is the crux of this sub-theme. We invite contributors to explore this tension by building on generalisation studies that have been put forward in several scientific fields, including transition management, organizational and institutional theories, and the field of science and technology studies. For example, the field of transition management (Geels, 2002) where socio-technical niches are created as “transition experiments” with an aim to induce learning, build knowledge, and stimulate upscaling to allow time for “matching” and to compete with existing regimes (Johansen & van den Bosch, 2017).
The next stage in this transition is the moving out of the “protected space” by the novel option through redefining and restructuring (Smith & Raven, 2012). From organizational and institutional theories there is a focus on the creation of markets shedding light into generalisation. For example, Fligstein and Calder (2001) define four necessary rules that are embedded in society and which underlie the transformation of new technologies into the mainstream. They label these “market infrastructures” as: property rights, governance structures, rules of exchange, and concepts of control.
In Science and Technology Studies, Delemarle and Larédo (2014) take one step further by mobilising Callon’s approach of the “framing and overflowing” of markets (Callon, 1998). In this stream of research, markets need framing, and framings require infrastructures: which are defined as a set of rules (what actors are allowed to do), of norms (what they ought to do) and of values (what they want to do). Scholars looking at orphan diseases and user-led innovation have focused on “spaces” for configuring of new emerging fields (Rip & Joly, 2012) and institutionalisation processes through “scaling up” and “scaling out” (Pachico & Fujisaka, 2004). In this stream of innovation studies, the breaking down of existing routines and practices goes hand in hand with the creation of new routines and practices, what has been labelled as deinstitutionalisation and deep institutionalisation.
To address this academic challenge, the sub-theme invites conceptual and empirical papers, to explore organizational aspects of generalisation for distributed and decentralised technological innovations. We encourage, but do not restrict, contributions that relate to the following:

  • Generalisation dynamics relating to market devices and infrastructures, which shape the rate, direction and potential outcome of generalisation.

  • Generalisation requires the transformation of existing norms, values and routines, which take place through interaction and coordination of multiple actors in organised spaces. The notions of hybrid forums in sociology (Callon, 1998) and arenas in political science (Kuhlmann, 2001) are illustrative of these organised spaces.

  • Forms of institutional entrepreneurship (Maguire et al., 2004) that catalyse and direct generalisation processes.

  • Processes of knowledge circulation concerning distributed and decentralised technological innovations, organizational structures that facilitate knowledge exchange and the interplay of user-producer interactions during this process.

  • The interplay between diffusion and institutionalisation. Colyvas and Jonsson (2011) regard processes of diffusion and institutionalisation as confounded and call for studying them distinctively. Following these authors, we are interested in sequentiality of diffusions and institutionalisation, and whether these processes are distinctive for different fields and types of products.



  • Callon, M. (1998): “An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology.” The Sociological Review, 46 (Special Issue), 244–269.
  • Colyvas, J.A., & Jonsson, S. (2011): “Ubiquity and legitimacy: Disentangling diffusion and institutionalization.” Sociological Theory, 29 (1), 27–53.
  • Delemarle, A., & Larédo, P. (2014): “Governing radical change through the emergence of a governance arrangement.” In: S. Borrás & J. Edler (eds.): The Governance of Socio-Technical System: Explaining Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 159–186.
  • Dewald, U., & Truffer, B. (2011): “Market Formation in Technological Innovation Systems – Diffusion of Photovoltaic Applications in Germany.” Industry and Innovation, 18 (3), 285–300.
  • Fligstein, N., & Calder, R. (2001): “Architecture of markets.” Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences series. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Geels, F.W. (2002): “Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study.” Research Policy, 31 (8-9), 1257–1274.
  • Johansen, F., & van den Bosch, S. (2017): “The scaling-up of Neighbourhood Care: From experiment towards a transformative movement in healthcare.” Futures, 89, 60–73.
  • Kuhlmann, S. (2001): “Future governance of innovation policy in Europe – three scenarios.” Research Policy, 30 (6), 953–976.
  • Maguire, S., Hardy, C., & Lawrence, T.B. (2004): “Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields: HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy in Canada.” Academy of Management Journal, 47 (5), 657–679.
  • Pachico, D., & Fujisaka, S. (2004): Scaling Up and Out. Achieving Widespread Impact through Agricultural Research. Economics and Impact Series, Vol. 3. Cali, Colombia: CIAT.
  • Rip, A., & Joly, P.-B. (2012): Emerging Spaces and Governance. A position paper for EU-SPRI,
  • Rogers, E.M. (1983): Diffusion of Innovations, 2nd ed. New York: The Free Press.
  • Smith, A., & Raven, R. (2012): “What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability.” Research Policy, 41 (6), 1025–1036.
  • Sovacool, B.K., & Hess, D.J. (2017): “Ordering theories: Typologies and conceptual frameworks for sociotechnical change.” Social Studies of Science, 47 (5), 703–750.
  • Van de Ven, A.H., & Poole, M.S. (1995): “Explaining development and change in organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 20 (3), 510–540.

Douglas K.R. Robinson is a CNRS research fellow/civil servant working at the Laboratory of Interdisciplinary Studies of Science, Innovation and Society (LISIS), Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, France. He is also honorary research fellow of the Institute for innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, UK. Originally trained as a physicist and space scientist, Douglas has been both researcher and consultant focusing on the emergence of breakthrough technologies and their transformation into working technologies in society. A large part of his work is connecting academic research with real-world problems, through engagement exercises, multi-stakeholder technology assessment and strategy building and the development of policy relevant intelligence.
Wouter P.C. Boon is an Assistant Professor in Innovation and Life Sciences at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands. His theoretical focus is on the role of user innovations, user-producer interactions, regulation and knowledge production in emerging technology fields. In this context, Wouter he conducted research projects on governance of emerging health technologies (e.g. on the future of genetic testing), technology transfer practices in academic hospitals, regulation of pharmaceutical and medical device products (e.g. reimbursement and pharmacovigilance), patient participation in innovation processes, and public-private partnerships in R&D programs aimed at the grand challenges.
Neil Pollock is Professor of Innovation and Social Informatics and Director of the Doctoral Programme at University of Edinburgh Business School, UK. Neil, who was originally trained in computing, is a founding member of the Edinburgh Social Informatics Cluster and the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI). He is primarily known for his interdisciplinary research on IT that sits at the intersection between science and technology studies, information systems, innovation studies and economic sociology.