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The SNM theory supports the introduction of sustainable innovations
(Raven, 2005) trajectories by creating the so-called niches (Geels and Schot, 2007). As Schot and
Geels (2008) argued, properly constructed niches can act as building blocks for
broader societal changes towards sustainable development. Seyfang and Smith
(2007) distinguished two types of niche innovations: market based and
grassroots. They argued that market based innovations differ from grassroots
innovations in context (market vs social economy), driving force (profit vs
social need), niche (market rules vs values), organisational form (firm vs
diversity of organisations), and resources (commercial oriented vs diverse
non-profit funding). For this study, we will refer to grassroots niche
innovations.

Within SNM, three
sociotechnical levels can be used (landscapes, regimes and niches1),
which can be applied in a multilevel perspective (Grin et al., 2010; Geels,
2002). Tensions in regimes, such
as energy security issues, cast niche solutions in a positive light, thereby
attracting interest from policy-makers and businesses in the regime. Niche
development is therefore seen as a necessary (but insufficient) condition for
the wider diffusion of innovative ideas and practices. Raven (2005) explored
the interaction between niches and regimes and concluded that although niche
processes are still important for a niche’s probability of success, this also
depends on the opportunities the regime offers.

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Schot and Geels (2008)
identified three areas of activity which constitute effective niche-building
looking at the conditions under which niches become influential: expectations
and visions, networks and learning. Firstly,
the articulation of expectations and visions of high quality by the
participating actors, particularly when they are robust and shared by many
actors, give direction and legitimacy to the niche. Secondly, a growing social
network, including all relevant types of actors within the niche, both creates
opportunities for stakeholder interaction and a micro market that provides the
resources necessary for experimentation and temporary protection (Witkamp et al.,
2011). Third, and most important, are the learning processes at multiple
dimensions. Learning processes should not be limited to first-order learning,
that is, the gathering of facts and data, but should also comprehend second
order learning, which is directed at changing cognitive frames and assumptions
(Schot and Geels, 2008). SNM argues that the better these three processes and
their interactions are managed, the greater the chance that the niche can develop
into a market niche, transforming or becoming a viable alternative to an
existing regime (Witkamp et al., 2011).

As can be seen in Figure 1, there are four main phases in the development
of shared technological knowledge: a local phase (a set of isolated project),
an inter-local phase (a niche level emerges where projects share knowledge and
experiences), a trans-local phase (where actors play a role in developing
interest to manage external expectations and local knowledge is systematically
fed ‘up’ to constitute the aggregated learning required at niche level) and a
global phase (where we see greater institutionalisation and standardisation of
practices in the field with niche standards shaping local practices, therefore becoming
a stable regime).

 

(Insert Figure 1 here)

 

Yet, there are some
problems with the SNM theory. According to Seyfang et al. (2014), there is
evidence of under-theorised relations between located socio-technical projects
and the emergence of an abstracted, niche-level identity and interest (Schot
and Geels, 2008). This is problematic in terms of explaining niche development:
how do community projects reinterpret, reinvent yet reinforce the generic norms
constituting a niche?. Moreover, theory is vague as to the precise roles of
projects in niche-building, and the specific manner in which niches influence,
coordinate and frame local projects, contributing to wider diffusion. Seyfang
et al. (2014) also argued that the SNM theory simplifies a complex plurality of
socio-technical configurations (i.e. community-led initiatives) into unrealistically
homogenous niches working against a similarly problematic conceptualisation of a
homogenous regime. Despite these criticisms,
we believe that the SNM model provides a useful starting point to evaluate whether
a niche management created from a HEI can contribute to niches helping them to
share values and networks, and particularly using the case study of the PCIS in
Colombia.

1 Landscape can
be defined as exogenous events and trends that shape niche-regime dynamics. While
regime is understood as a relatively stable and aligned set of rules directing
the behaviour of a set of actors along the trajectory of incremental
innovation, niches are conceived as protected spaces where novel sociotechnical
configurations are established (often as a direct response to an unsustainable
regime), experimented with, and developed, away from the normal selection
pressures of the regime (Smith and Raven, 2012).

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