For a technology to fulfill a particular function, not only technical aspects must be in place but also social elements should be considered. For a transportation system for example, not only the transportation technology such as a car is essential, but also the (road and fuel) infrastructure, traffic rules, corresponding regulations, and its cultural meaning are important aspects within the whole system. The socio-technical configuration displays these linkages that are needed for a technology to be applicable in practice. A new innovation however may induce changes in the socio-technical configuration and therefore a dynamic picture forms .
Practical considerations and implementation
Suggested time: Short (hours/days)
Level of difficulty: Straightforward
Materials needed: Pen/Paper
People involved: Researcher (you)
- Map the linkages between the core technology you are working on and its broader context. What is, or should be, in place in order for an innovation to work (not only in a technical sense)? Make use of the examples presented here.
- Create such a map for an established innovation that is similar to the technology you are developing.
- Replace the existing innovation with the new one you are currently developing or you are interested in. Which changes to the socio-technical environment may be induced by your innovation? How does the environment effect future technological developments? Are there additional linkages needed for the innovation to work?
- To get broader input on the socio-technical elements, you should discuss the map and emerging questions with interesting actors in this field, for example during an interview.
An example of such a socio-technical configuration has been published by Geels where he discusses car-based transportation and the configurations required for proper functioning of the technology in a socio-technical environment .
The introduction of a new technology can have an impact on the existing system, as shown below. If the regular car is replaced by an electric car, also the production system needs to be adapted, the infrastructure must be changed to implement charging stations, and user practices or mobility patterns might vary. The reflection on necessary changes and upcoming challenges can be supported by the socio-technical configuration.
Micro-structured cell culture plastics
Such a socio-technical configuration can also be drawn for a technical research project. A PhD student, who was creating micro-structures for cell culture plastics, compared the technology he developed with standard products on the market. Conventional cell culture products have a flat surface which is not comparable to the in vivo situation. To improve cell culture, the PhD student and his colleagues created micro-structures on the surface of cell culture products and were able to achieve an increase in culture yield for iPS (induced Pluripotent Stemcells) cells . Based on Geels, he mapped the socio-technical configuration of conventional cell culture plastics, as shown below and as described in his thesis .
In a next step, he compared which advantages or challenges are expected when the standard technology is replaced with a new innovation. An advantage of the micro-structured plastics is that additional coatings to increase cell attachment are not needed due to the structured surface, which eliminates the use of expensive materials and reduces handling steps. Potential challenges are foreseen for the product requirements and for the fabrication and production. Cell culture plastics have certain requirements, for example they must be sterile, which is also important for new products. Additionally, for the new technology it is important that the shape of the micro structures are reproducible to ensure a high product quality and functionality. For the fabrication, cell culture plastics are currently produced by injection molding while the microstructures are created by hot embossing. This difference in fabrication is expected to be the most critical challenge for the new innovation. Next to these advantages and challenges, no change is anticipated for the materials or outer dimensions (ANSI standards) which are kept the same.
After discussing this socio-technical configuration with a culture plastic manufacturer it turned out that the fabrication might indeed be the largest challenge. The fabrication of new molds would be too expensive for the relatively small market that is envisioned for the micro-structured products. The interviewee suggested however that an inlay with microstructures could be produced alternatively that is compatible with the conventional products.
1. Geels, F.W., Co-evolutionary and multi-level dynamics in transitions: The transformation of aviation systems and the shift from propeller to turbojet (1930–1970). Technovation, 2006. 26(9): p. 999-1016.
2. Geels, F.W., The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: A multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles (1860–1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 2005. 17(4): p. 445-476.
3. Reimer, A., et al., Scalable topographies to support proliferation and Oct4 expression by human induced pluripotent stem cells. Scientific Reports, 2016. 6: p. 18948.
4. Hulshof, F., Topochip: Technology for instructing cell fate and morphology via designed surface topography, 2016, PhD thesis, University of Twente: Enschede, The Netherlands.
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