Multifunctionalism 2: Minority reports

17 Jul 2014 Comments 0

Collective Productive Patrimonies (patrimoines productifs collectifs) and Sustainability Transitions

Martino Nieddu, Franck-Dominique Vivien




I have taken sections as I need them, so it may not make sense as a whole, or feel out of context. Hence the link to the original article.



We use a regulationnist approach of sustainability transition in sectoral systems of innovation and production (=SSIP).

This case study describes the construction of a sector dedicated to the transition towards renewable resources in Chemistry that we call "doubly green chemistry".


Regulationist approach analyses in an “historicism perspective” the dynamics of sectoral systems; So, we use the conceptual framework of collective productive patrimonies (patrimoines productifs collectifs). Collective Productive patrimonies are, first and foremost, non-material resources (e.g. collective visions of the future, or the construction of intermediate objects -in the sense of sociology of science) producing coordination between users and producers and and collective learning. Collectives productive patrimonies are also material resources: dedicated public or private collective laboratories and technological development activities, or pre-industrialisation pilot units. Collective patrimoniies can be sectoral institutions and institutional tools for the constitution of communities -such as Europe’s ‘technological platforms’ or competitiveness clusters (poles de compétitivité) in France-.


In the first section we discuss the scenario of spontaneous emergence of a “dominant design” into “innovative niches” - a strong hypothesis of the Multilevel perspective of sustainability transition studies - by showing the importance of the logic of collective productive patrimonies to understand the emergence and the management of these “niches of innovation”. This scenario of spontaneous emergence of a dominant design into the innovation niches must be discussed considering the strategies of entrenched actors.


In the second section we describe the origin of collective productive patrimonies into biomass refining that contribute to form the new sector. We show that the ideas and the new technologies of transition towards renewable in chemistry are the product of food and fiber industries's dynamics rather than issues of sustainability transition or environmental innovations.


In the third section, we focus on four collective productive patrimonies. Each one seeks - through innovations - to project into the future its own existence. Into each of these four productive patrimonies, the set of innovation has its own logic of environmental progress. Two "Majority pathways" search to mimic the division of labor and the supply chains of petrochemicals chemistry. Two "minority reports" search to exploit the macromolecular complexity of biomass into another pathways. Therefore, the assumption of the formation of a dominant design must be rejected; and the explanation that use technological path-dependency must also be discussed. Innovations that are presented as radical innovation appear as enforcing existing productive patrimonies.



Economic activities can only exist when a certain number of resources are "lumped together" as collective productive patrimonies (we want to explain why we prefer this polysemic french term to the term assets). "In innovative, fast-changing environments it becomes more and more difficult to pinpoint firms (whether systems integrators or mere assemblers) as the correct unit of analysis.

Problems are solved ’socially’, and understanding how problem-solving strategies unfold within communities of specialists that cut across firm boundaries is a challenge to both practitioners and scholars." (Brusoni et alii, 2004:20).

What we refer to as collective productive patrimonies (patrimonies productifs collectifs) are resources which (1) are sought-after for their collective value, (2) have to be shared in order to exist, and (3) justify, through their own characteristics, the effort expended to preserve them, in phases of strong doubt as to their actual ability to produce new objects, at acceptable market conditions (Nieddu, 2007). Productive patrimonies are, first and foremost, non-material resources ( of visions to the future, or construction of intermediate objects, as cognitive tools) producing coordination and collective learning between users and producers (Foray, 1994). These immaterial resources are systems which recognise free resources – scientific knowledge, for example – as being ripe for mobilization as resources in a given sector or network (Billaudot, 2004). As material resources, collective productive patrimonies is a matter of ‘localized’ facilities which allow scientists and economic actors to meet: dedicated public or private collective laboratories and technological development activities, demonstration and pre-industrialisation pilot units. Collective productive patrimonies can also be sectorial dedicated institutions (Barrère, 2007) or institutional tools for the constitution of a community, such as Europe’s ‘technological platforms’ or French competitiveness clusters (pôles de compétitivité).


The notion of the collective productive patrimonies takes these different aspects into account (interorganisational pooling of resources, path-dependency, and desire to maintain technological variety, or preserve niches). As O. Godard (1993) states, this notion indicates heritage as much as it does the desire for projection into the future: The heritage that you want to see recognised, preserved and developed in the future is a tool to organize a “taking power” on the future and control of this future. Therefore situation of transition must be analysed as competition to control the creation of “visions to the future”, as well as competition of technologies into transition.


1.1. Discussion of a dominant design

Specifically in the context of sustainability issues, the idea of a unique paradigm which would allow determination of which are the "good" environmental innovations presupposes that we will manage to define a priori "green technology" and environmental innovation technologies – a matter which is now hotly disputed.

The selection of technologies therefore leads back to the logic of actors, and to their representations of the future at the moment of making their decisions.


Moreover, technologies can be both complementary and in competition. Innovations are therefore only worthwhile if they allow the organization of interactions with existing collective productive assets (collectives patrimonies). Therefore, certain technologies "catalyse development and open the way up towards others" (idem): They can then be qualified as "bridging" or "two-world" technologies. (Kemp and Rootmans, 2005: 335).


1.2. Technological trajectories and collective productive patrimonies

The evolutionary theory sequence “exploration of a variety / exploitation of a dominant design” has its own explanation within the argument of benefit from the cumulative effects of rising yields. But it functions like a "black box" which raises a set of questions (Jolivet, 1999). In particular, it supposes: (1) that new knowledge is generated about the emerging family of technologies, and (2) that the related learning is translated into a collective capitalization of knowledge, so as to result in technological convergence. (This is not really happening - BV) Since the actors (laboratories or companies) hold heterogeneous knowledges that are partially contradictory, they have the obligation of produce collective theorizing about technology, in order to stabilize technologies, so as to knit together the fragmented and piecemeal knowledge they carry.


A further reason leads us to be attentive to the dynamics of “collective productive patrimonies”. The literature on transitions towards new socio-technical regimes, and on path dependence, invites us to consider that mutations happen "on the edges" of existing technologies and productive specializations, starting out as "niches" [Grin et al. 2010, op.cit.)]. Yet it is important to note that these are treated as patrimonies. They are protected from both competition and economic calculation in the course of the exploration of their potential, because of the technological hopes associated with them. ... [Avadikyan & Llerena, (2009)].


The concept of “patrimony” indicates that inheritance is more than transmission of the past, but also a strategy to “confiscate the future”, (organize and control the future).


"Expectations and visions about the future are increasingly acknowledged as a central aspect of science and technology development processes and as key elements in analysing and understanding scientific and technological change". [Borup et alii, (2006)]. (The biotech scene trades on hope, hype and promise, whereas the wastewater treatment field trades on

reducing risk and promising certainty - exactly the opposite. - BV)


1.3. Our case study: biorefinery and collective productive patrimonies

We analysed sustainability transition using the case study of biorefineries. This is an example of strategies that have worked to provoke the emergence of a dominant design. Biorefineries are presented as the new paradigm for using renewable resources to produce energy and chemicals. We will discuss this by considering that biorefinery concept must be recognized more as productive heritage of agro- industrials systems than an entirely new paradigm. ... Actually, they were designed to support the agendas of agribusiness development, in the hope of finding a quick route to a "plant-based refinery" by transferring know-how from petrochemicals.


In fact, this takes root in the history of agricultural production excess cycles and the resulting saturation of the agribusiness markets. In the United States, the "chemurgy" movement, and the 1935 creation of the National Farm Chemurgic Council (Finlay, 2003) bear witness to this investment. Productive patrimonies presented in section 3 have thus long since been documented. The technological foresight exercises of the late 1970s, following the first oil shock, did no more than pick up the technological ideas and hopes of chemurgy. And it is striking to note, in consulting documents of the time (Chesnais, 1981: 226) that it could be reproduced today without any modification.


2- The past of collective productive patrimonies into biomass refining

The first biorefinery would have been dedicated to the production of biodiesel and ethanol, on the basis of “a single raw material, a single major product”. Yet, within this logic, waste remains – and therefore, questions about the management of these co-products. In the case of biodiesel, for example, developing the production mechanically generates a “fatal” product - glycerol. (interestingly, this charts the progression of my PhD as well, and choices I made in it's journey - BV)


The second generation is still based on the process of a single raw material. Yet it suggests using all the biorefinery co-products and thereby extracting a whole range of products for energy, chemistry and other materials.


The third generation may be in a phase of emergence, set to reach maturity as a process around 2020. Sharing the same multi-product approach as the previous one, it diverges in two ways. Firstly, it would be capable of using different types of raw materials and transformation technologies. Secondly, it would be capable, depending on price developments, of modifying the technical itineraries to reverse the hierarchies between key-products and sub-products. This possibility - of instantaneously selecting the most profitable combination of raw materials and process - relies on a vision of the ideal production tool that would be fully adaptable to market fluctuations.


it seems to us that a re-evaluation of the role of agriculture and agribusiness actors is necessary, particularly given the fact that the productive assets shaped by their know-how and units of transformation were likely to be redeployed in other projects.

Indeed, the "cracking" of agricultural resources is a generic process. (...) Therefore, the collective patrimonies contributing to a "plant refinery" are not, historically organised around fuels – even though, with installation in a world of structural agribusiness excesses (which arrived in Europe via the Mansholt plan of the late 1960s) the idea of regulatory constraints aimed to incorporate a minimum amount of “biofuel” in petrol. This seems all the more natural because of the fact that the agricultural profession has merely

reactivated solutions that are already deeply engraved in its memory.


It is therefore necessary to track the progress of biorefinery along two pathways, each of which saw the emergence of research and production communities: the first being related to problems of substitution for liquid fossil fuels (the main purpose of cracking being for energy), and the second being the broadening of the range of products supplying materials and basic products for a specialty chemistry founded on sugars or oils. The paper industry has been experiencing the same market saturation with the emergence of excess production capacity, which is leading it to draw the same conclusions (Stuart, 2006).


3- The future of the use of renewables : four productive patrimonies

The important point is that the scientists agree on the fact that there is no key to getting a priori a definitive advantages of one type over another, as Hayes has shown in a review for Catalysis Today. The fact that there is a variety of processes, each of which must be seen as “having its strengths and weaknesses” (Hayes, 2009:148) is attested to by several other general overviews (e.g.: Gallezot (2007) in Green Chemistry, Octave and Thomas (2009) in Biochimie). In the Catalysis Today, article, Hayes stresses the fact that assessments of technological hopes will be different, depending on the location of biorefineries and the timescales used.


Bennett (2009) who conducted a series of interviews, stresses the tensions that are perceptible between actors having a preference for bioethanol or biodiesel technologies (coupled with the transformation of co-products to chemical products with high added value), and other actors from agribusiness and specialty chemistry, reticent to follow the same path. These others were seeking to discuss both the definition of initial fractionation and the dominant destination of production.


3.1. In the core of differences : supply chains and philosophies of chemistry

The modern chemistry paradigm is based on the idea of the breakthrough and recomposition of links between chemical elements: the stages go from the fractionation of products into elementary units (with significant energy costs), their purification (within processes and using solvents which can be harmful to the environment) so as to isolate and control elementary


Next we come to key intermediates, and then reforming operations are conducted on complex products, via a cascade of multi-stage chemical reactions (which are also costly in terms of energy, and mobilize catalysts, the safety of which is hotly debated).


The constant dilemma of chemists using renewable resources, as A. Lattes, honorary chairman of the Fédération Française pour les sciences de la Chimie has already stated9, is to choose between two strategies: (1) the perfecting of the "destructuring" fractionation pathways that are typical of the oil industry, conceptually well-mastered by the chemists, (2) a “weak destructuring" pathways (i.e. : which preserve the functional properties or active principles contained in the complexity of living organisms). This leads some of them to identify the fractionation-modification pathways in order to obtain functionalities without having to go

through the full destructuring phases: "Rather than following current industrial practice, where macromolecules present in the biomass are broken into C1 building blocks first, which are next reassembled into the desired functional molecules, the synthesis power of nature should be used to the maximum possible extent. For this purpose, the rich molecular structure in the biomass has to be accessed without significant degradation" (Marquardt et alii, 2010, p.2229).


In the same manner of thought, the biomass conversion strategy passing via biochemical pathways has been under discussion recently in major scientific “critical reviews" (Sheldon,2010, Gallezot, 2012, yet to be published). At this point, chemists in search of alternatives refer to a heritage from the agribusiness and oleochemistry sector, which will lead us to characterize each of these pathways on the basis of the productive heritage which carry them: “In the future the platform molecule value chain could become more and more successful to produce high tonnages of bioproducts, but in the mean time most of the high tonnage industrial bioproducts are produced by a different strategy which does not aim at producing pure isolated chemicals competing with those derived from petroleum. This strategy consists of converting biomass in minimum steps to functional products such as surfactants, lubricants, plasticisers, polymers, ..., paints, food additives, and cosmetics. Many examples illustrating this approach are given in Sections 4 and 5 of this review. As practised in the food industry, it is not always needed to isolate pure chemicals to make marketable products. This value chain is more likely to be cost competitive because it reduces drastically the number of conversion, extraction and purification steps.” (Gallezot Chem. Soc. Rev., 2012, 41, 1538-1558, p.1551)


3.2. Two "majority" pathways, but a single biomass conversion strategy?

This pathway sets out a strategy which comes back to "mimicking" the traditional organisation of petrochemicals, the basic chemistry of which is founded on five major oil intermediates (ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene and toluene) that were precursors to specialty chemistry. The “technological roadmap” exercises will determine ... “Top 12” platform molecules. ... The industrial and research issues thus travel through this limited list of precursors, which builds, very largely, on perspectives foreseen in the late 1970s. This “top 12” was to be specified by some actors as going in a very particular direction: towards strict complementarity with existing petrochemistry. This is an installation strategy for biorefineries of major chemical industrial strongholds -such as the ports of Gand, Rotterdam, or Singapore. The challenge lies in making the transition towards renewables resources sustainable for these currently petrochemical industrial areas (by mobilizing an agricultural resource delivered to world markets). The article which best describes this is a Dutch exercise listing the main intermediates produced and consumed by the chemical complex at the port of Rotterdam to envisage, term by term, their supply by biomass: for example, the conversion of "bio" ethanol into ethylene and propylene or glycerol, in a 1.3-propanediol to produce the same propylene glycols as petro chemistry [Van Haveren et alii, (2008)].


The chemical industry could thus remain essentially identical, even as the "biosourced" revolution happens. The processing of plants aims to return towards known chemical intermediates, modifying neither their structure, nor their intrinsic properties. "Biosourcing" thus requires no evolution in production processes for plastics manufacturing, with only the early stages of the chain having to adapt to the change of resources; and the applicative scope remains similar to that of existing markets.


This, then, comes back to a very particular way of selecting research programs and learning pathways on the transformation of the intermediates "Top 12". For example, whilst we know it to be possible in the laboratory, those colleagues questioned in 2005-2006 dismissed the

transformation of agricultural ethanol into ethylene as not making much sense because of the energy cost of the reaction; and yet this "complementarity pathway" has imposed itself on observers, as is proven by the construction of production units by oil group Braskem in Brazil, so as to be able to rapidly “greenify” the carbon footprint of industries with an extensive use of plastic bottles.


3.3. “Minority reports”?

In their own language, chemists thus contradict fractionation into C1, C2, and C4 for thermochemistry or C5 and C6 for the biochemistry of platform molecules. In “minority reports” one prefers “weak fractionation” into long, complex chains. If we take the example of starches, we are not seeking to attain the monomer stage, through fractionation operations, but to achieve a limited transformation of "native" starches so as to “functionalise” them - that is, to endow them with specific functions that are of interest to a particular market;


Another alternative pathway (alternative to strong deconstruction in biorefinery) relies on agribusiness which, during the traditional separation of the plant’s major components, has conserved their structure so as to conduct the exploration of potentially useful qualities, by means of physical or physico-chemical treatment which is respectful of their complexity. Good

illustrations of this are hemp-based concrete, and wool insulation, In contrast to the fractionation into "platform molecules" strategy, this compound is described as drawing its properties from the simultaneous presence of fibres (playing a reinforcement role which improve mechanical properties), starch and proteins (thermoplastic properties), fats (lubrifying action that is useful to the process) [Evon, 2008]. Programmes such as Lignostarch (2007) seek to combine the plant’s major components to obtain materials directly, in the same way, and as indicated by the program name, Lignin + starch.


Conclusion: What is changing and What does not change ?

The second issue is that the (desired) socio-technical regime is itself a stake in the competition; The dynamics of “entrenched actors” do not consist into a realization of forecasting analysis and exploration into the niches to discover the future. But the collective operations of US Agriculture department or European Commission mentioned in this text are especially exercises of backcasting from a dominant vision of the future to organize the technological and economic choices today.


In this backcasting, the development of renewable resources in energy and chemistry is considered as a model mimicking the supply chains and the division of labor into petrochemistry. And the technological change is oriented to maintain these supply chains.


So renewables are integrated into a process of greening that preserve the traditional chemistry supply chains, and the business models of agri-foods firms (founded on the production of intermediates).


The third point we wish to emphasize is that the problem of using incremental and radical innovation categories in a context of sustainability transition and of environmental innovation. The technological trajectories described in our case study show that innovations considered as radical from one point of view are actually innovations to maintain a technological trajectory and reproduce a given productive patrimony (eg: biofuels were considered as a radical innovation in the late 1990s by evolutionary economists of environment, such as Faucheux and Nicolai, 1998, despite its role in maintaining the liquid fuel and intensive agriculture trajectories).


Therefore, an innovation that is considered as radical in regards to scientific or technological dimensions, may not be so radical within the socio-technical regime. We have seen the opposition between the "minority pathways" and the term-to-term substitution strategies. Term- to-term substitution strategy corresponds to building a "biobased chemistry" which does not entail any profound reorganisation of the next stages in the value chain, and so of the current socio-technical chemistry regime. Minority pathways are looking for a paradigmatic breakthrough, in terms of “how green chemistry principles are applied”. And they use old know-how and incremental innovations as well as radical ones.


As a result, each productive patrimony seeks to develop its own progress in the use of“green chemistry principles”, combining, from a systemic perspective, small steps and disruptive knowledges and innovations. Similarly, it is difficult for us to characterize the emerging innovations in this sector as environmental innovation per se, because of the rebound effects.


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