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  Research Policy 39 (2010) 449–458 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect ResearchPolicy  journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/respol ‘Energy regions’: The transformative power of regional discourses onsocio-technical futures Philipp Späth a , ∗ , Harald Rohracher b a IFP – Institute of Forest and Environmental Policy, University of Freiburg, Tennenbacherstrasse 4, 79106 Freiburg, Germany b IFZ – Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture, University of Klagenfurt, Schloegelgasse 2, 8010 Graz, Austria a r t i c l e i n f o  Article history: Received 1 August 2008Received in revised form 1 December 2009Accepted 1 January 2010 Available online 19 February 2010 Keywords: Guiding visionsTransition managementMulti-level frameworkRegional governanceEnergy systems a b s t r a c t ‘Guiding visions’ play an important role in the transition management approach as a central means of mobilizing social actors and the co-ordination of dispersed agency.‘Energyregions’inAustriaareaninterestingexampleforthestrategicpromotionofsuchguidingvisionsinthecontextofregionaldevelopment.WedescribethecaseofMurau,analpinedistrictinwhichastrongactor network has been built around a vision of systematically exploiting renewable energy sources andatthesametimesavingtheregionfromeconomicdecay.Thevisiongainedmuchauthorityandhasbeeninstitutionalised at various levels of regional governance. It furthermore was supported by and playedan important role for regime level attempts to influence socio-technical change.Development and social propagation of such visions are inherently political and contested processesinvolving much strategizing and anticipation of conflict. We describe particular discursive strategiesapplied in niches – such as the combination and translation of sentiments into localised visions anddemonstrations of feasibility. These strategies can be understood as systematic attempts to supportdiscursive shifts at regime level by means of local activities, and aim to modify rather durable powerstructures.We suggest ways to analyse such discursive practices in order to orient strategic action in thecourse of such processes: analysing ‘guiding visions’ and their interference with other emerging trends;extending analyses across spatial scales (e.g. translations) and across thematic fields (e.g. convergenceof agendas); and focusing on processes of stabilisation, institutionalisation and mutually reinforcingdevelopments. © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. 1. Introduction At both national and EU-level ambitious targets have been setfor a substantial redirection of energy systems towards greatersustainability. When it comes to the translation of such generalobjectives concerning our energy future into concrete policies andpractices, however, we find not consent but much debate andcontroversy.Thisisnotsurprising,astheconcretisationandmateri-alisationofgeneralnotionsofsustainabilityintoconcretedecisions,investments and practices always proves to be a matter of politicsand social dispute (Hajer, 1995; Meadowcroft, 2005).In this paper we analyse and discuss the emergence and roleof ‘guiding visions’ in such socio-technical transformation pro-cessestowardsgreatersustainability.Inparticular,weinvestigatearegional vision building process for a sustainable energy system inanAustrian‘energyregion’anddiscussitscontributionintermsofa ∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +49 761 2033725. E-mail address:  spaeth@ifp.uni-freiburg.de (P. Späth). ‘discursive niche’ to a transition towards a sustainable low-carbonenergy system.Thereisagrowingbodyofliteraturedealingwiththetransitionof socio-technical systems towards sustainability and the systeminnovationsthisrequires.Assetoutinmoredetailintheintroduc-tory paper of this special section (Smith, Voss, Grin; introductionto this section) the dynamics of such transformation processes canbestbeunderstoodinamulti-levelperspective(MLP)ofinnovation(Rip and Kemp, 1998; Geels, 2005). This perspective distinguishes a micro-level of protected niches, functioning as test-beds for theemergence of new socio-technical constellations, a meso-level of socio-technical regimes (such as energy systems) and a broadercontext of the socio-technical landscape, which encompasses cul-tural norms, values and persistent socio-technical structures.While the multi-level perspective convincingly explains theobduracy of existing energy system configurations and thedynamics of system transitions in a historical perspective, ourunderstandingofongoingtransitionprocessesstillisfarfromcom-plete. The MLP mainly situates transformation dynamics in theinterplay of technology variation in (temporally protected) niches 0048-7333/$ – see front matter © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2010.01.017  450  P. Späth, H. Rohracher / Research Policy  39 (2010) 449–458 and selection processes at the regime level. Recent work has addi-tionally investigated pressures from the socio-technical landscapeas a driver for regime transitions (Geels and Schot, 2007). Another focus of research is the dynamic relationship between niches andregimesandthequestionofhowsuchnichedevelopmentsaregen-erated, stabilised, translated into and linked with regime changes(Raven, 2004, 2006, 2007; Geels and Raven, 2006; Lovell, 2007;Smith,2007).SchotandGeelsidentify(amongothers)thefollowingissues for future research:- the role of visions in the process of niche formation, includingtheir influence on the positive feedbacks between changes at theniche, regime and landscape level;- thenatureandsourceofprotectionofnichesthatisconducivetoits further development, as well as the management of selectiveexposure” (Schot and Geels, 2008, p. 550). Thedevelopmentof‘guidingvisions’hasbeenidentifiedasacentralelement of governance strategies which aim at directing socio-technical regime transitions towards desired outcomes. To whatextentsuchprocessescanbeintentionallymanaged–despitetheirmulti-level, multi-actor character – is an open question central tothe critique of the transition management approach (Berkhout etal., 2003; Healey et al., 2003; Shove and Walker, 2007).In this article, we want to demonstrate how analysing theemergenceofsuchvisionsin‘discursiveniches’andtheirinterrela-tion with broader discourses about sustainable energy futures canindeedhelpusaddresssomeoftheopenquestionsabouttheongo-ing transformation of energy systems in a multi-level perspective.A close look at visions and local discourses will help us to betterunderstand how niche development and regime change is linkedwithothersocio-politicalprocessessuchasurbanorregionaldevel-opment, with other sectors (e.g. agriculture) and with policies andcontroversiesatanationallevel.Weareespeciallyinterestedintwointerrelated issues: (a) how do certain visions develop the powerto effectively coordinate action within and across different scaleswhile others dont and (b) what effects can hegemonic visions –developedinasmallregion–haveontransitionsofbroaderscope.Empirically,weexamineatransformationprocessinaso-called‘energyregion’inAustriawherecollective‘guidingvisions’playanexplicitroleinthestrategiesofactorsattemptingtoinfluencesocio-technical change. Such ongoing processes are still in flux and theoutcome and radicalness of the transformation processes can onlybe analysed in hindsight. We can nevertheless gain new empiricalinsightsabouthowsuchguidingvisionsaredevelopedanddiffusedby different groups of actors, about interrelations with discoursesat different spatial scales, and the possible role of such regionalprocesses within the multi-level dynamics of energy systemtransitions.ThefollowingSection2willreviewdifferentstrandsofliterature ontheroleofvisionsinprocessesofsocio-technicaltransformation.Section 3 is devoted to the empirical analysis of vision building processes as studied in one such energy region. We report on ourempirical insights focusing on the following four aspects:(1) How do local actors link up with (a variety of) meso-level dis-courses when ‘tailoring’ guiding visions?(2) Which principles do they follow when aligning heterogeneousnetworks of actors?(3) How is dominance in regional discourse achieved? By drawingfrom which resources?(4) Howislocaldiscoursesupportedbymeso-levelactorsandhowis meso-level discourse potentially influenced?We will embed the development of guiding visions for a particu-lar ‘energy region’ into the multi-level process of energy systemtransformationinAustriaanddiscusstheirpotentialroleinatran-sition of the Austrian energy system towards sustainability. In theconclusions we finally aim at a more differentiated view of thedevelopment and functions of guiding visions in socio-technicaltransformationprocessesandaskhowtheymightbebetterunder-stoodandmoreeffectivelyinfluencedinordertoshapetransitionstowards sustainability. 2. The role of ‘guiding visions’ in socio-technical change –elements of a conceptual framework In which ways are socio-technical transformation processesinfluenced by visions of future system states and to which extentcan such processes be intentionally influenced by certain actors?Howdosuchvisionscorrespondwithactualsocio-technicalrecon-figurations and new actor networks? How do they stabilise andshape niche-regime interactions and link these interactions withsocial processes outside of the niche or regime? These questionsare crucial for the debate of sustainability transitions and so farhave not been satisfactorily answered. During the last 15 years,various fields of research have developed a renewed interest inthe role of visions and coalition building in bringing about polit-ical,technologicalandorganisationalchange.Discursivestrategiesregained recognition as an important explanatory factor in pol-icy studies, and at the same time studies on the social shaping of technology were influenced by a new appreciation of the role of expectations and guiding visions – or ‘Leitbilder’ as it was termedin the German debate. With regard to the question (a) of howvisions become influential, we will resort below to several debatesin techno-science and policy studies. The question (b) concerningeffects of regional discourse on broader transition dynamics willthen be debated primarily with reference to the multi-level per-spective which is essential to the literature on system innovationsand socio-technical transitions.  2.1. Guiding visions and ‘Leitbilder’ in technology development  The concept of ‘Leitbild’ (literally ‘guiding image’), introducedbyMeinolfDierkesandcolleaguesintheearly1990s,soonbecameamajortermofthescientificdiscourseontechnologydevelopment(Technikgenese) in Germany and beyond (Dierkes et al., 1996).‘Leitbild’ refers to cognitive and discursive constructs decisive fortheco-ordinationofthebehaviourofthevariousactorsinvolvedinthe development of technology. Leitbilder are expected to bridgelanguage problems across a lay/expert divide or between differ-entprofessionalknowledgecultures(MambreyandTepper,2000).The extent to which these visions are open to differing individualinterpretations consequently is a crucial feature.The Leitbild approach, although developed with rather highambitions, did not convincingly specify the possibilities and pre-conditionsfortheintentionaluseandpromotionof‘guidingvisions’in what necessarily are messy, multi-level, multi-actor processes.Fromananalyst’spointofview,assessingthetransformativepoten-tial of guiding visions  in the making   will always be much moredemanding than the  retrospective  reconstruction of ‘the making of heroes’(Borupetal.,2006,p.290)orof‘failed’visions(Brownetal., 2000; Geels and Smit, 2000). The Leitbild approach has been criti-cised mainly for underrating struggles about discursive hegemonyand authority. Grin and Grunwald (2000) f or example expressed scepticism about managerial ambitions to use visions as a ‘steer-ing device’ by reminding us of some important facts: while sharedvisions are indeed always involved in shaping the development of socio-technical systems, they are themselves closely bound to theslow metamorphosis of the normative and discursive landscapethey are embedded in. Therefore they can hardly be ‘shaped’ and  P. Späth, H. Rohracher / Research Policy  39 (2010) 449–458 451 strategicallyusedbysingleactorsbutrathertendtoreproduceandstabilise the status quo.Out of similar concerns with pertinent practices of technologyassessment, the approach of ‘constructive technology assessment’aimsatanopeningupofdiscourseandacriticaldiscussionofsuchvisions by different actors in new arenas, bringing in new per-spectives formerly excluded from the relevant processes of visionbuildingandtherewithinducingachangeinthecourseofthevisiondevelopment (Rip et al., 1995). However, creating new arenas for deliberationdoesnotguaranteeincreasedreflexivityofthepoliticsof visioning. Besides, important questions about the legitimacy of institutionaldesigninthisregardremainunanswered(Grin,2000).  2.2. Visions in the transition management approach Thegovernanceapproachof‘transitionmanagement’–asdevel-oped and implemented in the Netherlands during the past twodecades – is concerned with the shaping of socio-technical sys-teminnovationbysystematicallycreating‘transitionarenas’whichbring about directed pressure on certain socio-technical regimes.In this perspective the term ‘guiding vision’ depicts an instru-ment in an agenda building process with regard to long-termpolicy goals and transformation strategies. The transition man-agement approach stresses the importance of ‘guiding visions’as a means of coordination: “transition management is based onlong-term visions which function as a framework for formulat-ing short-term objectives and evaluating existing policy. If theyare to adumbrate transitional pathways, these visions must beappealing and imaginative and be supported by a broad range of actors” (Rotmans and Van Asselt, 2001). An important innovation oftheapproachistheestablishmentofnewarenasfordeliberation,the so-called ‘transition arenas’, bringing together knowledge-able and visionary experts and stakeholders who are supposed todevelopnewsolutions,consensusandlong-termstrategiesforbothsystematic and radical transition processes. “Based on the com-mon problem perception and the shared sustainability vision a joint transition-agenda can be designed ( . . . ). It coordinates actionbetweenmutuallydependentactors.Coordinationisthusachievednot only through markets but also through collective choice andnew institutions” (Kemp and Rotmans, 2004, p. 149). This idea has been criticised for too optimistically portrayingthe process of vision formation as a per se constructive process– overrating the potential for learning and underrating the prob-ability for a clashing of interests. How exactly such guiding andbinding visions can be developed, shared, made influential anddefended against deconstruction has not been thoroughly con-ceptualised for a long time nor has it been studied empirically.Evolutionary language did not take analysis very far: “based on aprocess of variation and selection new visions emerge, others dieout and existing visions will be adjusted. Only during the course of the transition process the most innovative, promising and feasibletransition visions and images will be chosen” (Kemp and Rotmans,2004, p. 148).Berkhout and Smith et al. consequently demand transitionresearchers “to be more reflective, explicit and specific about theroleofdivergentinterestsandpowerinthisessentialfirststep(thebuilding of support and expectations around a vision) in the tran-sition management process” (Berkhout et al., 2003, p. 15). They also question the two fundamental yet implicit assumptions madein much of the transition management literature, “that a guidingvisionisfunctionaltoregimechangeandthatitispossibletoiden-tifyexanteavisionwhichmaythenbefollowedwithrealprospectsof success” (Berkhout et al., 2003, p. 13). Onlyinrecentyearshavethe‘functionsofguidingvisions’beensubject to more thorough conceptualisation (Smith et al., 2005;Genus and Coles, 2008). Smith et al. for example distinguish fivefunctions: visions (1) map a ‘possibility space’, (2) function as aheuristic,(3)provideastableframefortargetsettingandmonitor-ing progress, (4) serve as a metaphor for building actor networksand (5) offer a narrative for focusing capital and other resources.With regard to the factors that make the visions influential, Smithet al. stress a vision’s degree of ‘interpretative flexibility’, the fitwiththe“culturalandpoliticalcontext,inwhichitispropounded”andthebackingbyinfluentialandcrediblesupporters(Smithetal.,2005, p. 1506–7).Recent accounts of the transition management approach doacknowledge the general dilemmas of any attempt to ‘steer’ or‘manage’ societal change by a discursive process in ‘transition are-nas’ (Kemp et al., 2007, p. 316–20; Loorbach, 2007, p. 141ff). But the question, under which conditions workshops with a heteroge-neoussetofactorscanactuallyresultin consensual guidingvisions(Berkhout,2006;ShoveandWalker,2007)andtowhichextentthis is necessary, remains unanswered. Many case studies have beenillustratinghowcertainvisionsofasocio-technicalfuture–thoughembraced by powerful actor networks – can in fact be stronglyand effectively opposed by other actors with differing world views(Callon,1986;Brownetal.,2000).Thisfeatureofthegenerallycon- tested nature of visions seems nevertheless still to be downplayedby at least parts of the literature on transition management.On the other hand, visions and discourses can develop ina remarkably consensual way. Lovell et al. (2009) f or example observed a convergence of discourses and policy agendas on cli-mate change and the transformation of the energy system in theBritish debate, resulting in an astonishingly smooth shift in pol-icy paradigms, at least at a rhetorical level. Our analyses of several‘energy regions’ – drawing on discourses of sustainable energy aswellasofruraldevelopment–pointinasimilardirection.Conflictsmayneverthelessappearintheprocessoftranslatingsuchgeneralvisions into concrete socio-technical configurations.The direction of socio-technical change is obviously a result of complexmulti-leveldynamicsinwhichactorsstrategicallyaimforinfluence or even hegemony. Success in these games does not onlydepend on power in its structural forms. Rather, as our case willshow, there is significant leeway for the various actors to increasetheir authority, to create legitimacy, in sum: to gain influence andpower via several discursive strategies. For a more thorough con-ceptualisation of such dynamics, we will therefore also draw fromdiscourse-oriented studies of policy making and politics.  2.3. Guiding visions and discourse coalitions in policy studies Obviously,rhetoricandthepro-activecreationofstorylinesandvisions has always been an important means of politics. Discursivestrategies certainly modify a given distribution of power – as theinfluence of actors e.g. on the shaping of visions depends on manymore factors besides formal power and democratic legitimacy.Strange enough, for many decades, the importance of discursivestrategies has been largely neglected as an explanatory factor bypolicy studies. But from the 1970s onwards, the role of ideas andvisions has been rehabilitated as an independent factor vis a vise.g. interests (Dryzek, 1990; Fischer and Forester, 1993; Campbell,1998, 2002; John, 1998).Especially Maarten Hajer pointed out how important it isto understand the subtle discursive dynamics at the ‘breedinggrounds’ of potentially guiding visions when we want to under-stand e.g. the different routes that environmental politics took indifferent European countries (Hajer, 1995). What counts in the game about ‘discursive hegemony’ is not so much formal demo-cratic legitimacy but other forms of ‘authority’ and the resourcesanalliancecangainaccessto.Hajerdevelopedaframeworkfortheanalysis of such ‘discourse coalitions’ and how they are promot-ingparticularvisions,puttingspecialemphasisonthestrategiesof   452  P. Späth, H. Rohracher / Research Policy  39 (2010) 449–458 actors to win others to support their storylines. “The dynamics of this argumentative game is determined by three factors: credibil-ity, acceptability, and trust. Credibility is required to make actorsbelieveinthesubject-positioningthatagivendiscourseimpliesforthemandtolivebythestructurepositioningsitimplies;acceptabil-ity requires that position to appear attractive or necessary; trustrefers to the fact that doubt might be suppressed and inherentuncertaintiesmightbetakenforgrantedifactorsmanagetosecureconfidence either in the author (whether that is an institute or aperson) e.g. by referring to its impeccable record, or in the practicethrough which a given definition of reality was achieved, e.g. byshowingwhatsortofdeliberationswerethebasisofagivenclaim”(Hajer, 1995 p. 59).  2.4. The role of visions in multi-level contexts Hajer’s analytical framework of ‘discourse coalitions’ hasalready been fruitfully linked with the ‘multi-level perspective’ ontransition processes (Smith et al., 2005; Smith and Kern, 2009;Lovelletal.,2009).Withregardtotheinteractionsofdiscoursesandvisions at various levels and the ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘translation’ of innovationsfromnichestoregimes,wehavetobeespeciallyawareof the specific contexts, settings and types of regime transforma-tionprocessesassetoutintheworkof Smithetal.(2005)andGeels and Schot (2007).Asthecaseofenergyregionswillillustrate,weneedtoparticu-larly address the interplay of guiding visions and policy objectivesin different arenas of discourse and governance. As the niche-regime relations found in reality can be very complex, it is oftendifficult to relate particular discursive developments to the basicniches-regime-landscapemodel.Nevertheless,severalsuggestionshavebeenmadetodevelopthemodelofthemulti-levelperspectivefurther with regard to complex multi-niche/multi-regime interac-tions (Geels and Raven, 2006; Raven and Verbong, 2006). Some authors also pay particular attention to the role spatial scales canplay in MLP dynamics (Raven, 2007; Lovell, 2007; Smith, 2007;Trufferetal.,2008;Truffer,2007;HodsonandMarvin,2009).Giventheidiomof‘localniches’intheMLP,oneneedstobecarefulnottosimplyequatethelevelsoftheMLPwithspatialscales.Thelevelsof the MLP can in fact be better conceptualised as levels of structura-tion. Discourses – as far as they are constraining actors behaviourand in consequence their attempts of   structuring   – are then to belocated at a meso-level of society, and some argue they thereforebelong to the regime level (Geels, 2005; Grin, 2008). The relation- ship of niche activities (including individual discursive practices)to the regime (in our case the socio-technical regime concerningenergy)isthenequallingtherelationshipof‘laparole’to‘lalangue’in the terms of the French linguists or of ‘policy innovation’ (as theachievement of policy outcome by agents in interaction) to ‘policyarrangement’ (as the positioning of agents in arrangements medi-atedbyrulesandresources)inthewordsof ArtsandVanTatenhove(2004) (see also Smith, 2007). Inthefollowingcasestudyofenergyregions,wewillempiricallyinvestigatetheformationandtranslationprocessofregionalenergyvisions and their interrelation and interaction with discourses andactor coalitions at different levels. 3. Experimenting with new socio-technical configurationsin an Austrian energy region ‘Energy regions’ have been set up and put forward by regionalinitiatives in Austria since the early 1990s (Alber, 2009). Their aim is to develop coherent visions for the region’s energy futureand to translate them into practical strategies focusing at anexploitation of regional renewable energy potentials. Towardsthis end participatory processes of visioning and target settinghave been initiated, involving various ‘stakeholders’ i.e. profes-sionals from relevant businesses, experts in administration andnon-governmental organisations, and often also engaged citizens.These regional initiatives combine (a) the formulation of a col-lective vision and target setting with (b) the strategic formationof actor networks comprising stakeholders from different parts of society and (c) the attempts to implement the guiding visions inthe local socio-technical context.Our analysis is based on primarily one out of four case studiesin Austrian ‘energy regions’ of a size between 30,000 and 270,000inhabitants. Apart from documentary analysis, we interviewed 32persons (mainly ‘activists’ in the four regions but also administra-tive bodies at different levels, etc.) to document different views ontheindividualprocessesandtodiscusstheadequatesetupandsup-portofsuchinitiatives.Inaseriesofworkshopsmajorplayersfromthe four regions together with an interdisciplinary team of experts(regional development, communication, social sciences) reflectedontheirexperiencesanddevelopedimprovedindividualstrategiesfor networking and communication (Späth et al., 2007).We asked particularly for crucial preconditions of the widelyperceived success of some energy regions in Austria: how havevision building processes been set up, how have ‘guiding visions’been developed, transformed to a regional agenda and stabilised?What is the institutional context of ‘energy regions’ and whichactor configurations are at the basis of vision development andimplementation?Andmostimportantly,canguidingvisionsreallycoordinateconcretedecisionsandimpactontechnicalchangeonaregional level?Inthefollowingsectionweexemplarilyanalysethesetupofoneof the four energy regions studied.  3.1. The ‘Energy Vision’ of Murau Murauisarural,alpinedistrictinUpperStyria.Itissparselypop-ulated by roughly 31,000 inhabitants. The net loss of inhabitantsover the last decade exceeded Styrian average ( − 2.4% in total from1991–2001). It is located around a rather peripheral alpine valleyand is in large parts covered by forests. In terms of potentials forrenewable energy provision, the most dominant factor is an enor-mous stock of wooden biomass from the largely privately ownedforests. The topography furthermore provides several opportuni-ties for small-scale hydropower and wind-farms.Since the region is characteristic for many peripheral alpineregionswitharatherdireeconomicoutlook,theMurauexamplefora development strategy based on bio-energy has by now inspiredmany more processes in deprived regions all over the country.In 2003, the head of the regional energy agency of Upper Styriatogether with a professional facilitator of participatory processesstarted an initiative to develop and implement the “Energy VisionofMurau”.Theprocesswasstartedoffbybringingtogetherasmallcircle of energy activists. They developed the first idea of creat-ing a broader process of participation in order to kick-off, facilitateand coordinate the implementation of various projects for renew-able energy and energy efficiency in the region. A central aspectof their idea was to embed the renewed interest in biomass heat-ing into a more comprehensive approach of energy system changeand regional development and to create synergies between andlegitimacy for a variety of agendas and projects.  3.1.1. The “Murau Energy Objectives for 2015”  The initiators invited organisations, companies and citizens of the region to a series of workshops. In the beginning 30 people,mostlyrepresentinglocalenergyrelatedorganisationsparticipatedin the process. They articulated their ideas about how the specificsituation of the region relates to general visions and objectives

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