The role of intermediaries in low carbon transitions – Empowering innovations to unlock district heating in the UK

The literature on socio-technical transitions considers how technological innovations can be established within the context of an incumbent regime that is often resistant or inflexible to change. Strategic niche management is an approach to catalysing a transition to a new regime using protected ‘niche’ spaces to enable development and experimentation with an innovation. Intermediary actors play an important role in establishing these niches as they facilitate knowledge sharing and build the wider networks and systems needed to support an innovation.

The influence of intermediaries within socio-technical transitions and strategic niche management is still an under-researched area. In this paper, we use a decision theatre research process to collect empirical evidence from a range of local stakeholders involved in establishing new district heating projects in the United Kingdom (UK). This method, carried out in a group workshop format, enables understanding of the interactions between stakeholders throughout the stages of the district heating development process.

The study suggests that intermediaries can play a role in supporting niche empowering processes. The existing institutional framework surrounding intermediary actors, and the geographical scale at which they work within that framework, are shown to be influential on actors’ agency to choose their approach to empowering an innovation. The work highlights the potential for intermediaries to support the restructuring of this institutional framework to enable more radical ‘stretch and transform’ empowering activities.

Journal of Cleaner Production, 148, pp.137-147, April 2017