Eco-innovation dynamics and sustainability – new perspectives in innovation studies illuminated through the case of lighting and its energy consumption

Simone Franceschini

    Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesisResearch

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    There is an increasing consensus about the need to reduce the environmental burden of economic activities. The concept of sustainable development has led to increased efficiency of the economic process through innovation, which is now the main strategy applied both to preserve environmental capital and to achieve economic growth. Consequently, many innovations have been given the label of “eco” due to their ability to improve the efficiency of the economic process. The history of energy consumption is a paradigmatic example of diffusion of this type of eco-innovations. The efficiency of converting energy in lighting has increased a thousand times in the last century, and is expected to increase three to six times in the near future, thanks to the development and diffusion of LED technology. Consequently, many societal actors and policy-makers now rely on this promising eco-innovation to reduce the consumption of energy during the provision of light. Researchers have already investigated the dynamics of production and consumption associated with the most recent light “revolutions”. Interestingly, these revolutions resulted in increased energy consumption for the provision of light, even if energy efficiency increased. The same paradox has been experienced by other sectors and has been discussed in the eco-innovation literature, with innovation being considered as both a cause of and a solution for environmental degradation. The present thesis has investigated the roots of this paradox and the implications for policies and societies, of a new conceptualization of eco-innovation that can overcome such paradox. In my view, the paradox stems from two conceptual weaknesses of the traditional eco-innovation literature. First, this literature has underestimated the debate between the advocators of weak sustainability (that is, sustainability as the sum of natural and human-made capitals) and the ones of strong sustainability (that is, sustainability as the preservation of natural capital). Second, the eco-innovation literature has not integrated the findings of the rebound effect literature, in which relations between innovation and consumption have been widely analyzed. As a result, a current popular definition of eco-innovation, implicitly based on the concept of weak sustainability, has been erroneously promoted to achieve specific environmental targets (such as a reduction of energy consumption) that represent the strong sustainable perspective. For this reason, I propose a new conceptualization of eco-innovation for strong sustainability that focuses specifically on the impacts of any innovation with respect to consumption. Based on this conceptualization, an eco-innovation is not one that increases efficiency, but one that reduces overall environmental impacts. The dualism of the eco-innovation concept has important consequences for the specificity of the case study, and for the more general discussion about innovation and sustainability. In the case of energy consumption for lighting, the thesis indicates the need to frame future innovations in a context that fosters the emergence of new practices leading to energy saving. One of the several recommendations I make in this thesis is that the future smart light system based on the LED technology should be provided by a new type of lighting service company that aims to sell light saving. In fact, LED is not only a more efficient technology; it is also superior to other technology in numerous ways. For this reason, the future smart LED light system is expected to encourage demand for lighting, as will the emergence of new lighting players that will generate new market opportunities. The actual impacts of these dynamics, in terms of energy consumption, will depend on which practices will be developed and how these new technological opportunities will be integrated. For that reason, there is a need for a better conceptualization of eco-innovation that can provide a better understanding of the potential opportunities and risks presented by the most promising innovations for sustainability. Similarly, policy makers should seek to deconstruct the current concept of the lighting sector, from being the realm of the electric bulb, to the realm of light and lighting. In fact today many actors which provide (natural) light, as for example windows producers, are not framed as part of the lighting sector. The thesis suggests to policy makers to promote a more functional definition of the boundaries of the lighting sector, including all the players that provide both natural and artificial light.
    Original languageEnglish
    PublisherDTU Management Engineering
    Number of pages139
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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