Looking for a locality. Working on transitions in Times Square (I)

Transition studies in STS (Elzen et al. 2004; Geels, 2002, 2010; Grin et al. 2010) have a preference and a solid background on Large-scale and long-term technological issues in contexts of crisis. (See, for example, low-carbon transition in a situation of climate crisis: Steward, 2012; Xiang-Wan, 2016; Geels et al. 2017; Geels, 2018; Roberts et al. 2018). Nevertheless, there are two main perspectives inside this new intellectual tradition: “There are historical studies of completed socio-technical transitions (and) there are studies of current societal changes.” (Darnhofer, 2015)

The first ones “were driven by the commercial motivation of pioneers and entrepreneurs who developed the technology (…) their objectives were not determined beforehand, but the transitions and their directions emerged as a result of co-evolutionary process involving a variety of societal influences. (The second ones) often explicitly focus on ‘transitions to sustainability’ which is a normative goal and thus there is an (implicit) intention to steer them in the ‘right’ direction. (ibid, p. 18).

There are some intellectual frameworks traditionally used for working on case studies on transitions. George Papachristos (2014) summarizes and displays them in the next way: the  first approach is the multi-level perspective (MLP) (Geels and Schot, 2007); The second one is regarding transition context approach (Smith et al. 2005); The third one is about transition management approach (Rotmans et al. 2001); And the last one is the strategic niche management (Kemp et al, 2007). For the purposes of this analysis, we will work using the multi-level perspective (MLP).

The idea of this set of post about transitions is discussing the pedestrianization of Times Square through the Transition Studies perspective, especially under the approach of multi-level perspective. I will take a specific moment of shifting between two ethos, two different ways of conceiving the relationship pedestrian-car-street-public space, one represented in the Giuliani’s administration and his DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall and the other one based on the Bloomberg’s mayoralty and his DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. 

In this first part I want to introduce what is the multi-level perspective as well as its main notions paying special attention to their structural conceptualization from a scalar approach. After that, my intention will be presenting the complex relationship of the MLP and the spatial scale. The second part of this duo will be a sort of experimental-speculative writing trying to apply this perspective to the description of how Times Square shifted from a vehicular-hegemony area to a pedestrian friendly public place.

“The multi-level perspective is a middle-range theory that conceptualizes overall dynamic patterns in socio-technical transitions. The analytical framework combines concepts from evolutionary economics (…) science and technology studies (…), structuration theory and neo-institutional theory. The MLP views transitions as non-linear processes that results from the interplay of developments at three analytical levels: niches (the locus for radical innovations), socio-technical regimes (the locus of established practices and associated rules that stabilize existing systems), and an exogenous socio- technical landscape.” (Geels, 2011)

Talking about a spatial and geographical composition, mostly of the case transition studies are either “national” localized or “conceptual/not articulated” to a specific territory (up to 35% for each category). That was the conclusion of a study carried out by Jochen Markard, Rob Raven, and Bernhard Truffer after analyzing more than 1400 papers regarding the field of “sustainability transitions.” (Markard et al. 2012). The amount of urban-focused papers was barely up to the 5%. 

However, the spatialization of socio-technical transitions is not an easy topic. Meanwhile the temporal and the structural scales are well defined in the figures of niches, regimes and landscape, “the spatial scale of socio-technical systems is not explicitly conceptualized.” (Raven et al. 2012). According to Raven, Shot and Berkhout, there is an analytical misconception regarding the possibility of representing the three above mentioned notions in a scalar way: niches-localities, regimes-national features, landscape-international features. 

The problem with this assumption is basically that in the multi-level perspective the formation of niches depend on a structural relationship with innovative processes that overcomes physical frontiers and demarcations. It means that niches are not restricted to a spatiality but a condition of technological implementation. As a large-scale theory, the gaze of the researcher should be over the evolution and implementation of specific processes of innovation, based on social interactions between humans and technological improvements.

Despite this panorama, there are some academical works proposing explorative routes including geographical scales for approaching transitions and innovative systems (Bunnell & Coe, 2001). Hodson & Marvin (2010) are inquiring for the role of cities and urban policies in the structuration of transitions processes based on their presumption that most of the world-cities nowadays are the focus of socio-technical regimes. Their proposal of an “urban scale” for configuring and governing socio-technical transitions results to be an invitation for examining the relationship between spatialialities and those shifts or transformations. 

Taking their suggestion of using an “urban scale” as a departure point for re-thinking and imagining a sense of locality in Transition Studies, my intention with the second part of this post is essaying an experimental story, framed in the context of transitions, related to the change of sense of Times Square after the pedestrianization of BroadwayAvenue from 42nd to 47th Street. The aim of this exercise is to try to construct a bridge between the Transition Studies, specially from the MLP and the conception of the theory of the particular.