Sustainability transitions and responsible innovation


About this course

Contemporary societies face persistent problems - such as climate change, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss - that require transformations in how human needs for mobility, energy or shelter are provided. These systems of provision are undergoing unprecedented pressures and changes, well beyond incremental improvements in efficiency and performance. Instead, multiple radical innovations, both technical and social, have to be combined in novel configurations, which involves considerable uncertainty. At the same time, rapid developments, e.g., in renewable energy technologies, artificial intelligence, automation, and material sciences, bring forth new opportunities and threats.

As radical innovations are increasingly expected to contribute to these ‘grand challenges’, it is critical to understand whether and how they may enable changes to our societies’ systems of provision. But innovations are not developed in a vacuum – they interact with existing systems and societal structures (e.g., values, mindsets, economic paradigms) – sometimes leading to surprising outcomes and dire consequences for society and the environment (reinforcing persistent problems, inequalities and injustices). For this reason, governments are embracing the notion of ‘responsible innovation’ to anticipate and address their ethical and social consequences, hoping to stimulate the positive sides of innovation and avoid the negative ones. However, it is debatable which ethical principles should guide responsible innovation and how such innovation processes can be organized.

Furthermore, implementing socio-technical change is not a straightforward or predictable process. Structural changes or system innovations are complex, long-term processes with highly uncertain outcomes. Important factors are the resistance to change of existing systems (known as path dependency or lock-in) and the influence of societal processes, including acceptance by users or civil society. Innovation studies have pointed to the importance of experimentation, collaboration and learning in the development of such radical innovations.

This course, therefore, combines two perspectives: sustainability transitions and responsible innovation, to explore multiple aspects of the question of “how to assess, navigate and accelerate socio-technical change processes, ethically and responsibly, to address contemporary sustainability problems?”.

The course is organized as such:

A theoretical part with lectures (2h/pw): Transition approaches and concepts, including spatial multi-level perspective, transnational linkages, experimentation, environmental justice, power theories, and transformative policy as well as theories of responsible innovation within ethics of technology, environmental and business ethics to analyze the moral aspects of responsible innovation;

A practice-oriented group work (2h/pw): This part introduces the application of tools for transitions and responsible innovation for sustainability. Student groups will analyse empirical cases in depth to learn to analyse, evaluate and critically reflect on innovation processes. The students will work with various aspects of selected cases all along the course.

The lectures and group work will provide opportunities to discuss the results and get feedback from the lecturers and peers.

Additional information assumed previous knowledge:
Knowledge of the transitions frameworks is recommended, e.g. as taught in 0SV40, or students can also read basic literature in their own capacity:
Elzen and Wieczorek, 2005 on general transitions: Elzen, Boelie & Wieczorek, Anna J. (2005). Transitions towards sustainability through system innovation. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6 SPEC. ISS.), 651-661.
Geels, 2002 on MLP: Geels, F.W. 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case study. Research Policy 31(8/9): 1257–74
Kempt et al, 1998 on SNM: Kemp, R., J. Schot, and R. Hoogma. 1998. Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: the approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 10, (2): 175–96.
Loorbach et al, 2017, Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42:599-626.
Knowledge of ethics of technology is recommended, e.g. as taught in USE Base 0SAB0 or students can also read basic literature in their own capacity: Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers (2011). Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, First Edition. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Learning outcomes

After the course, students are able to:

  • Interpret and describe the dynamics of systemic, radical and responsible innovation for sustainability;
  • Diagnose the implications of past and unfolding system changes.
  • Evaluate different theories and frameworks concerning transitions and responsible innovation.
  • Propose novel approaches to systemic change incorporating ethics and vice versa.
  • Reflect on how to navigate and accelerate systems change, ethically and responsibly, to address persistent societal problems.

Required prior knowledge

You must meet one of the following collections of requirements

  • Collection 1
  • Completed Final examination Bsc program
  • Collection 2
  • Completed Pre-Master

Link to more information

If anything remains unclear, please check the FAQ of TU Eindhoven.


  • Start date

    2 September 2024

    • Ends
      27 October 2024
    • Term *
      Block GS1
    • Location
    • Instruction language
    • Register between
      15 Jun, 00:00 - 25 Aug 2024
These offerings are valid for students of Wageningen University