Rethinking innovation for decarbonizing energy systems

John A. Alic, Daniel Sarewitz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


While technological innovation is an implicit element of any plausible strategy for responding to climate change, the complexity of innovation processes has not been adequately accounted for in such strategies. Using many examples from different areas of technological innovation, we show that the inevitable unintended and unforeseeable consequences of innovation likely make it impossible to strategically steer the global energy system in desired directions. Given this conclusion, we then look at technological complexity in terms of a simple three-level schema of sociotechnical change. This perspective points towards innovation policies that focus on long-term, incremental advance at the level of individual technologies, and on public policies that use a public goods-public works rationale to justify government investments in the needed innovations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)212-221
Number of pages10
JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Climate change
  • Energy systems
  • Innovation
  • Public policy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Nuclear Energy and Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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