Socio-technical regimes and cupcakes

This is more abstract than a usual blog but I’m going for it on the advice of my supervisor. It’s also the day after my 26th birthday so that’s another excuse if it doesn’t make a lot of sense – fingers crossed it will.

So a new concept for readers to get your heads around – socio technical regimes. Basically this is a way of understanding some of the very significant regimes that exist which combine technology and social aspects. For example authors have described the waste water management system, the aviation sector or the energy system as a socio technical regime. There is a great description by Berkhout et al (2003) which describes the concept quite well:
They suggest that socio technical regimes offer: ‘a concept of ‘technology’ much broader than the ‘artefact’, or even the ‘technique’, by including the economic, social, cultural and institutional connotations of particular technological configurations (Ellul, 1964; Winner, 1981; Hughes, 1983; Callon, 1987; Bijker, 1995; MacKenzie, 2001). Technologies in this sense are seen as being formed by, and embedded within, particular economic, social, cultural and institutional structures and systems of beliefs. Conversely, technological configurations themselves constitute, order and change the nature of these encompassing structures. An intimate and dynamic process of structuration of technologies and their social context is seen to be at work, confirmed by case studies and examples from the history of technology (Giddens, 1984). In short, technologies are seen as “socially shaped and society shaping” (Hughes, 1987).

So there you go. And if that wasn’t a good enough description I’ll provide a picture later.

I’m interested in this concept from a transition theory perspective i.e. how we move the UK from an unsustainable fossil fuel heat system to one which is sustainable. So I focus on what actually maintains the existing regime and how to break this. This is a picture by Frank Geels in 2011 which shows the regime as the hexagonal tube in the middle section and the landscape and the external factors that can affect this.

So what about cupcakes then? Well for those of you that don’t know me that well I’m quite a keen cook at home and enjoy baking cakes occasionally. In fact someone once described my carrot cake as ‘the best cake they’d ever had’. Anyway, the Energy Policy Group at Exeter has a rota and every two weeks someone bakes. I should stress that this is not a competition. We (The EPG) only believe in competition when it used as a means to an end rather than being an end in itself and where the evidence shows that competition works.
I had offered to help Professor Catherine Mitchell with her baking week as she’s not a particularly keen cook. I like baking so this wasn’t a problem but as the day got closer and closer Catherine’s expectations were becoming a worry. There was suddenly talk of icing flowers, trips to Truro to source ingredients and the requirement for the cup cakes to be ‘pretty’. This was the result:
Lemon and blueberry cup-cakes with blueberry cream cheese icing. On the top of these were blueberries, icing flowers, wafer flowers, wafer butterflies, edible glitter, and icing gel. They were quite unnecessarily ridiculous and were truly global cupcakes. Rather than sourcing local ingredients (apart from the sugar) to make a victoria sponge (probably equally delicious) we ended up buying cream cheese, foreign wafer decorations, around 15 different types of icing pens, edible glitter made of algae, air-freighted blueberries. and so on.
So why didn’t we go local but instead make these horrendously fashionable cakes? Is this the food socio-technical regime in action? Have I simply followed fashion and social practice and gone for a pretty cake rather than a wholesome and local one? Thinking about it in this much depth I feel quite silly, I’ve never thought of myself as particularly structured by society and have never wanted to be a sheep. Don’t get me wrong, they were tasty but just unnecessary.
What does this all mean for gas transitions? If thinking about cupcakes is this complex it certainly makes potentially changing how people heat their homes look even more complex from a social perspective. I think this probably needs some more thought…….and a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

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