What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability
The transitions literature emphasises the role of niches, defined as a protective space for path-breaking innovations. Surprisingly, the concept of protection has not been systematically interrogated. Our analysis identifies effective protection as having three properties in wider transition processes: shielding, nurturing and empowerment. Empowerment is considered the least developed in current niche literature. It can be understood as either processes that make niche innovations competitive within unchanged selection environments (fit-and-conform) or as processes that contribute to changes in mainstream selection environments in ways favourable to a path-breaking niche innovation (stretch-and-transform). Adopting a more constructivist perspective, we subsequently argue that analysis of these properties needs to be complemented with particular attention for the politics involved in their construction. Attention to empowerment confirms the view that niche actors need to link to wider processes of social change, and suggests how this arises. The paper ends with an outlook upon two promising research avenues: (1) the reconstruction of niche development in light of the present framework; (2) analyses of the diverse (political) narratives seeking to empower niches across time and space.
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