Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Scaling-up low-carbon urban initiatives: towards a better understanding

Didi van Doren - Utrecht University, Netherlands


Eco-districts with buildings covered with PV or self-sustaining neighborhoods powered by smart-grids are no longer images of the future. In cities worldwide, low-carbon urban initiatives are realized by pioneers who are intrinsically motivated to engage in the process due to their levels of environmental concern and willingness to pioneer. In our carbon-constrained world, such initiatives demonstrate that climate mitigation can go hand in hand with viable urban development. However, regardless of the great success and potential of such initiatives, there is a need to increase their impact in order to accomplish the low-carbon transition.

When reading or hearing about low-carbon urban initiatives I often wondered where to go next. How to go from one initiative to large-scale systemic change? In both literature and policy documents you often encounter the notion that there is a need to ‘scale-up’ such initiatives. Yet, what does the term ‘scaling-up’ entail? And how could one stimulate such a process? As a PhD student at the department of environmental governance at Utrecht University, I decided to delve into literature on the concept of ‘scaling-up’. I soon discovered that there exists limited conceptual clarity regarding the meaning of the concept and the factors driving this process within the context of low-carbon urban initiatives. This paper summarizes the findings of the first project of my PhD research, with which I aspire to deepen the knowledge base on the concept and process of scaling-up. Based on a thorough literature analysis, the paper presents a taxonomy on the concept of scaling-up and an explanatory framework consisting of factors expected to contribute to the impact and scaling-up of initiatives. A distinction is made between two pathways to which individual initiatives can go to scale: horizontal and vertical pathways. Horizontal pathways to scaling-up pertain to the spatial growth of an initiative as a result of its expansion or replication. While horizontal pathways to scaling-up are important, scaling-up should not only be about the geographical spread of initiatives but should also be about structural learning and changing the institutional roots of carbon-intensive development. Accordingly, vertical pathways to scaling-up are also critical which imply that lessons, knowledge, values and principles derived from initiatives are used to promote institutional change in favor of low-carbon development. Two case studies are presented in the paper to illustrate the explanatory framework. The studies are illustrative but suggest that the explanatory framework allows for a systematic understanding of how the impact of former initiatives can be explained, and how their scaling-up can be promoted.

Hopefully the paper will be useful for practitioners in their endeavor to assess and scale-up low-carbon urban initiatives. Also, I hope that the discussion on scaling-up will inspire other scholars to delve deeper into this topic as there is a need for empirical studies to examine scaling-up processes and the governance arrangements that can be applied to stimulate such processes. Theoretical frameworks, founded on empirical data, are greatly needed in order to support public and private actors in accelerating the low-carbon transition.

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