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Metatheoretical Perspectives on Sustainability

Journeys: Evolutionary, Relational and
Impact Factor: 2.85 DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2011.07.009





Raghu Garud

Joel Gehman

Pennsylvania State University

University of Alberta





Available from: Joel Gehman

Retrieved on: 26 October 2015

Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect

Research Policy
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/respol

Metatheoretical perspectives on sustainability journeys:

Evolutionary, relational and durational
Raghu Garud a, , Joel Gehman b,

Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business, 431 Business Building, University Park, PA 16802, United States
University of Alberta, Alberta School of Business, 4-21A Business Building, Edmonton, AB T6G 2R6, Canada

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 19 October 2010
Received in revised form 28 April 2011
Accepted 18 July 2011
Available online 4 April 2012
Sustainability transitions
Multilevel perspective
Path dependence
Dynamic capabilities
Actor-network theory

a b s t r a c t
Journeys to a sustainable future have become important to industry, government and research. In this
paper, we examine evolutionary, relational and durational perspectives on sustainability journeys. Each
perspective emphasizes different facets of sustainability shifts in selection environments, recongurations of emergent networks, and intertemporal comparisons and contrasts. Drawing on our analysis, we
discuss implications for sustainability policy, strategy and research.
2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
Over the past several decades, issues around sustainability
have become considerably important to those in industry, government and society at large. Commonly dened by the United
Nations World Commission on Economic Development (WCED)
as meet[ing] the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs
(WCED, 1987: 43), sustainability presents several challenges. First,
there are the challenges of adapting to new selection environments
(Geels, 2002; Kemp et al., 1998). For instance, given concerns over
climate change, numerous actors confront questions around the
sustainability of their reliance on fossil fuels. Second, the meaning of sustainability is not given, but instead may vary depending
upon the social and material networks that become implicated
(Callon, 1986; Latour, 2005; Pinch and Bijker, 1987). For instance,
whereas some consider hydraulic fracturing (a technique for recovering natural gas trapped in shale) to be safe and proven, others
consider it to be problematic and controversial. Third, sustainability
is an intertemporal concept, one that explicitly anchors performance in the present on a series of comparisons and contrasts

Corresponding author.
Corresponding author at: University of Alberta, Alberta School of Business, 4-21A
Business Building, Edmonton, AB T6G 2R6, Canada.
E-mail addresses: rgarud@psu.edu (R. Garud), joel.gehman@business.ualberta.ca
(J. Gehman).
0048-7333/$ see front matter 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

with anticipated futures and recollected pasts (Garud et al., 2010a).

For instance, farmers in some emerging economies initially considered genetically modied crops to be a solution to the problem
of sustainable development, but returned to previously discarded
practices owing to unintended problems.
Because of these differences, scholars have yet to develop a
robust approach for conceptualizing sustainability journeys. To
address this lacuna, we explore three metatheoretical perspectives, highlighting the different challenges and solutions facing
actors involved in such journeys. The evolutionary perspective
emphasizes selection as a mechanism of change as elds and rms
transition from one regime to another. The relational perspective
emphasizes translation as a mechanism of transformation, drawing
attention to framing issues that emerge as concerned stakeholder
groups become implicated as sustainability is performed. The durational perspective emphasizes dure1 as a mechanism of migration,
highlighting the possibility and importance of going back to the
As others have noted (Alvesson and Sandberg, 2011; Geels,
2010), different perspectives rest on different ontological assumptions. As a consequence, sustainability actors can easily talk past
one another and may even perform contradictory and conicting
initiatives. Accordingly, one objective of this paper is to explicate

We have been inspired by the work of Bergson (1934/2007) in our choice of this

R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

the different ontological positions of these perspectives so as to

facilitate a more productive dialogue between interested actors.
Such a dialogue sensitizes us to the tensions that arise as sustainability actors deal with shifts in selection environments, emergent
externalities and intertemporalities associated with sustainability
journeys. Consequently, another objective of this paper is to explore
the implications of the three perspectives for policy, strategy and

2. Evolutionary perspective on sustainability journeys

One approach is to think about sustainability journeys as transitions from one set of sociotechnical requirements to another. In
the automotive industry, for instance, there are specic targets as
to the average fuel mileage that future automobiles are expected
to deliver in order to reduce carbon emissions. These requirements
are leading to a whole host of innovations such as hybrid and electric cars, renewed investments in public transportation, and even a
new wave of community planning designed to reduce the need for
transportation in the rst place.
Such outcomes cannot be accomplished by simply becoming
more efcient with existing products, processes and infrastructures. Although this may be required in the short term, many have
concluded that eking out efciencies with existing products, processes and infrastructures may not be enough in the long run.
Instead, a fundamental rethinking of product designs, production
processes and consumption patterns, among other potential issues,
is required. Comprehended in this manner, we can see that shifts to
sustainability will be disruptive in the way that Christensen (1997)
suggested. Not only are technological disruptions likely, but the
social fabric is also likely to be disrupted (Garud and Munir, 2008;
Glasmeier, 1991).
It is here that the evolutionary perspective provides a nuanced
understanding of the processes involved (Markard and Truffer,
2008; Raven, 2006). Drawing inspiration from evolutionary
economists (e.g., Dosi, 1982; Nelson and Winter, 1982, among others), scholars have articulated the multilevel perspective (MLP)
that encompasses niche innovations, sociotechnical regimes and
sociotechnical landscapes (see Fig. 1) (Geels, 2002; Rip and Kemp,
1998; Rotmans et al., 2001). The sociotechnical regime is a meso
level concept encompassing material aspects of the system,
embedded actors and organizational networks, and the rules and
regimes which guide perceptions and actions (Genus and Coles,
2008: 1438). Sociotechnical regimes stabilize existing trajectories
by fostering shared cognitive routines, regulations and standards,
societal norms and practices, and specialized assets and competencies (Geels and Schot, 2007). Technologies that deviate from this
template are hopeful monstrosities (Basalla, 1988) and likely to
be selected out by the existing sociotechnical regime owing to their
lack of tness.
At the micro level, the MLP theorizes technological niches as a
source of novelty. Initially, such novelties are unstable sociotechnical congurations with low performance. . . developed by small
networks of dedicated actors, often outsiders or fringe actors
(Geels and Schot, 2007: 400). Consequently, novel technologies
must be protected in niches by enacting appropriate policy (Kemp,
1994; Raven, 2006). Inside the rm too, niches may be protected
through mechanisms such as skunk works, internal technology
platforms and the like. Sometimes these ideas are able to break
through, by taking advantage of windows of opportunity that
emerge within existing selection environments, thereby disrupting
them and leading to an adjustment in the sociotechnical regime
(Geels and Schot, 2007). In other words, niches are a potential
source for inducing change from the bottom-up (Genus and Coles,


In addition to regimes and niches, MLP scholars have proposed

that transition dynamics are affected by a macro level of inuence:
the sociotechnical landscape. Representing an exogenous environment beyond the direct inuence of niche and regime actors (Geels
and Schot, 2007: 400), changes in the landscape usually take place
over decades. Nonetheless, as these wider societal issues and discourses evolve such as increased awareness of and concern for
sustainability they can exert pressures on existing sociotechnical regimes, thereby facilitating the emergence of deviations. Thus,
the landscape represents a top-down source of exogenous change
(Geels, 2010).
Drawing on these three analytic levels, MLP scholars argue that
transitions commence when a prevailing regime begins displaying signicant problems, perhaps because of landscape pressures,
or because a radical innovation emerges to challenge the current dominant design. When successful, adoption of the transition
technology ensues. The transition ends when closure is reached
and the sociotechnical regime once again stabilizes, albeit around
potentially new technologies, actors and policies (van den Belt and
Rip, 1987).
2.1. Overall process
Evolutionary theorists have described the processes that unfold
to be path dependent (Arthur, 1989; David, 1985; Sydow et al.,
2009; Vergne and Durand, 2010). The specic path that unfolds
is determined by initial conditions and exogenous contingences.
Chance events play a fundamental role and are often seen as the
genesis of subsequent processes. Investments are irreversible and
non-fungible. Self-reinforcing forces lock the system into a trajectory that progresses in a particular direction.
Given such path dependencies, novel solutions (including ones
towards sustainability) can emerge only by chance as existing
sociotechnical regimes will exert selection pressures against anything that disrupts ongoing operations (Geels, 2002; Smith et al.,
2005). It is for this reason that the MLP suggests protecting such
ideas in niches. To the extent that such novel ideas survive, they
will follow certain trajectories that are also path dependent (Dosi,
1982). As actors place their bets on different technologies based on
their beliefs, different trajectories arise, triggering an era of ferment that is marked by a ght for functionality (Abernathy and
Utterback, 1978; Anderson and Tushman, 1990). Eventually, one
trajectory wins out over the others as self-reinforcing mechanisms
lock an emerging regime into a dominant design (Arthur, 1989;
Suarez, 2004). Subsequently, an era of incremental change ensues,
prompting actors to shift their focus to increasing efciency and
reliability. Only external shocks and future disruptions can unlock
the participants from this state of affairs (Meyer et al., 2005; Vergne
and Durand, 2010), setting the cycle in motion once again.
2.2. The selection of electric vehicles from an evolutionary
To illustrate the evolutionary perspective underpinning MLP, we
consider the dynamics associated with the emergence of electric
vehicles (EVs). The emergence of sustainability represents a shift in
the landscape, triggering transition dynamics in areas such as the
design and use of automobiles capable of reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in the United
States, future automobiles are expected to average 54.5 miles per
gallon (mpg) by 2025, up from an average of 27 mpg in 2011. If
achieved, the new standards would result in an estimated 50%
reduction in carbon emissions and a 40% reduction in gasoline consumption.
EVs may be one potential solution to the problems of fuel
consumption and carbon emissions. Although they are now


R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

Fig. 1. Evolutionary perspective: This gure shows the transition from one sociotechnical regime to another as a consequence of exogenous niche innovations and landscape
changes, as depicted by Geels and Schot (2007). Reprinted with permission from Elsevier.

readily visible, EVs have a long and checkered history. At the turn
of the nineteenth century, EVs lost out to intense competition
from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICs). But why did EVs
lose out? According to Flinks (1970: 307) history of the early
automobile: No one has yet presented a convincing argument
that the invariable association of the gasoline automobile with the
creative automotive engineer-entrepreneur was due to anything
other than the inherently superior technological feasibility of the
internal combusting engine over the steam and electric power
for the motorcar at that time. Kirsch (2000: 17) points out that
this represents the orthodox view for the demise of electric
vehicles deriving from an evolutionary perspective; ICs won out
because they were better suited to the selection pressures of the
then-prevailing sociotechnical regime.
In sum, from an evolutionary perspective, EVs lost out to ICs
because of their inherent inferiority. And, as a result, any attempt
to resuscitate the EV would have to overcome these selection
One prominent attempt to resuscitate the EV occurred in the
1990s with the introduction of the GM Impact, a vehicle hailed
as the car of the future when unveiled at the 1990 Los Angeles
Auto Show. The car drew so much interest from consumers and
the media that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed
a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate later that year. Consistent
with the MLP logic of overcoming evolutionary selection pressures,
this policy attempted to create a protective niche by progressively

increasing the number of emission-free cars required to be sold

in California from 2% in 1998 to 10% in 2003. However, a policy intended by policymakers to create a niche turned out to be a
trap as automakers, rushing in to seize this new opportunity, overcommitted resources in an effort to be the rst to market (Pacheco
de Almeida and Zemsky, 2007). For instance, GM responded by
rushing its concept car into production spending an estimated $500
million on development and production, and another $500 million
on sales and marketing. Renamed the EV1, GM produced approximately 1100 EVs between 1996 and 1999. Just a few years later
in 2003, GM ofcially cancelled the EV1 program claiming that
EVs were not economically feasible. Despite a loyal and enthusiastic consumer base, subsequent media accounts have depicted
GMs EV1 as a failure. For instance, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, The EV1 was a failure, as were other electric vehicles
launched in the 1990s to placate California clean air regulators
(White, 2006).
Once again, an account from an evolutionary perspective
attributes the failure of EVs to their lack of t with the prevailing
sociotechnical regime. Kirsch (2000: 5, 10) lamented that electric vehicles may never be able to escape the burdens of history
given the path dependent evolution of the expanding automobile market into internal combustion engines. And yet, despite
these setbacks GM has recently resuscitated the idea of an EV.
Later in the paper, similar to the way that Allison (1972) explored
the Cuban Missile Crisis from multiple theoretical perspectives,

R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995


we reconsider the EV journey from relational and durational

3. Relational perspective on sustainability journeys
Several scholars (Genus and Coles, 2008; Shove and Walker,
2007, 2010; Smith et al., 2005) have critiqued the evolutionary
perspective (and the MLP in particular) despite the many valuable
insights on sustainability journeys it has offered. For instance, a
key facet of this perspective selection environments as an exogenous catalyst for change has been challenged. After all, actors do
not simply respond to their environments but try to shape them
as well (Oliver, 1991; Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978). Moreover, an
emphasis on path dependence suggests a constrained notion of
agency (Garud et al., 2010b). Consequently, even early advocates
of an evolutionary perspective have suggested that we need to reconceptualize the meaning and possibilities of agency (Geels and
Schot, 2007) and the normative value of a technological trajectory (Teece, 2008). As Teece (2008: 510) commented, In short, the
paradigms approach is a good descriptive model of innovation. But
it should not be used normatively to prescribe how all innovation
should proceed at the enterprise level.
Such a call becomes all the more urgent in the case of sustainability, given its requirement that societies meet human needs
both by increasing productive potential and by ensuring equitable
opportunities for all (WCED, 1987: 44). It is here that the relational
perspective is particularly useful. Rather than considering selection
environments as given, it attens distinctions between agency and
structure, micro and macro by adopting, as the label suggests, a relational ontology (Callon, 1998; Latour, 2005). Humans and things
are understood as mutually constitutive and hopelessly mangled
(Latour, 1986; Pickering, 1993). As Callon (1998: 89) explains, The
agent is neither immersed in the network nor framed by it; in other
words, the network does not serve as context. Both agent and network are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. . . which amounts
to replacing the two traditionally separate notions of agent and
network by the single one of agent-network.2
These considerations are reective of a narrative epistemology
and ontology (Garud et al., 2010b). Actors are neither insiders nor
outsiders, but instead are part of ongoing entanglements. Human
agency is a quest to imbue these entanglements with meaning
through narratives in action that are driven by contrasts and contradictions that emerge within actor networks (Greimas, 1987; Law,
2009). Similarly, the identities of the actors involved are shaped by
their actor networks through a process of what Czarniawska labels
identity and alterity construction (Czarniawska, 2008). As a result,
who we are and what we know are determined by the multiple
ever-changing actor networks within which we are entangled.
Given such considerations, several scholars have explicitly
acknowledged the possible benets of taking a relational perspective to sustainability (Geels, 2010; Genus and Coles, 2008; Shove
and Walker, 2010). Specically, it is through the mutual entanglement (Rip, 2010) of social and material actors that meaning
emerges and is translated in practice (see Fig. 2). Translations entail
a displacement, drive, invention, mediation, the creation of a link
that did not exist before and that to some degree modies two
elements or agents (Latour, 1994: 32). Nothing circulates intact;
there is always friction, resistance and transformation as actor
networks are recongured (Czarniawska and Sevn, 1996; Tarde,
1903). Through a process of heterogeneous engineering (Law,
1987), actor networks may become stronger and more durable,
or weaker and possibly dormant, depending on who and what

This ontology can be found in the work of scholars such as Hutchins (1995),
Leonardi and Barley (2010), and Orlikowski and Scott (2008).

Fig. 2. Relational perspective: This gure shows the emergence and transformation
of the bicycle through the constitutive entanglement of the social and the material
as depicted by Pinch and Bijker (1987). Reprinted with permission from the MIT

become enrolled (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1986), the framing strategies employed (Garud and Rappa, 1994; Kaplan and Tripsas, 2008),
and the outcomes of trials of strength (Latour, 1987).
Such trials of strength are evident in the very meaning of
an externality (which is taken for granted from an evolutionary
perspective). Rather than simply a market failure that might be
remedied through institutional work (Coase, 1960; Lawrence and
Suddaby, 2006), the relational perspective conceptualizes externalities as the emergent and ongoing overows that result as
disparate social groups interpret the social and material entanglements involved (Callon, 1998). For instance, any emission must rst
be measured before its sustainability impacts can be assessed. To
measure these emissions, science comes into play.3 Yet the science
behind the measurement of emissions may itself be in-the-making,
based on models of the harm that emissions may cause (Edwards,
2010). Moreover, science itself can become politicized, generating
new overows (Callon et al., 2009). When such overows occur, the
dynamics around sustainability shift as new social groups emerge
and new materialities become implicated, engendering new discourses around what sustainability is and what the journey entails
(Karne, 2010).

It is interesting to note Shivas (1993: 2122) arguments about science here.
She argues that: Within the structure of modern science itself are characteristics
which prevent the perception of linkages. Fragmented into narrow disciplines and
reductionist categories, scientic knowledge has a blind spot with respect to relational properties and relational impacts. It tends to decontextualize its own context.
Through the process of decontextualization, the negative and destructive impacts
of science on nature and society are externalized and rendered invisible.


R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

3.1. Overall process

Whereas the evolutionary perspective considers agency as
determined by prior events, selection environments as given,
and the criteria for success as unequivocal, the relational perspective draws attention to the many ways in which agency is
distributed, selection environments are molded, and evaluation
criteria are equivocal. By locating agency in actor networks, recognizing efforts to shape institutions, and opening up questions of
worth, a relational perspective draws attention to different questions and reaches different insights. The market is no longer a
selection environment, but an important battleeld in which the
criteria of what counts, how it counts and for whom are themselves being shaped and reshaped (Callon, 1998; Karne, 2010;
MacKenzie, 2003; Smith and Raven, 2012; Stark, 2009).
As a consequence, sustainability journeys are no longer a matter
of shifting from one equilibrium state to another, but the continuously negotiated accomplishment of an assemblage of humans
and things involving deviation and contestations.4 This is a process
of path creation (Garud et al., 2010b). Multiple actors (consumers,
producers, regulators, evaluators and other concerned groups) are
involved (Garud and Karne, 2003; Van de Ven and Garud, 1989),
operating from different (and often conicting) frames of reference (Pinch and Bijker, 1987). Additionally, the capacity of those
involved to act is shaped by their actor networks (Callon, 1998). For
instance, a rms internal diversication (e.g., whether synergies
exist across businesses), as well as its external alliance networks,
will inuence not only a rms view of sustainability, but also the
migratory path that it may take during these journeys.
3.2. The emergence of electric vehicles from a relational
We return to the EV journey, but now from a relational perspective. A typical evolutionary assumption is that ICs were superior
to EVs because existing battery technology did not allow for
wide traveling range, or what is now dubbed the range anxiety
problem. While this argument has some merit, it begs the question
as to why greater efforts were not expended to advance storage
batteries. This straightforward line of deterministic reasoning is
indeed seductive, but is only half right. It is correct inasmuch as
the early storage battery posed a series of important challenges for
automotive engineers. Rather than surmounting these challenges,
however, the engineers sidestepped them with improvements to
the internal combustion engine (Kirsch, 2000: 24).
From a relational perspective, the victory of ICs over EVs was not
inevitable during the early stage of ferment. In fact, more EVs were
sold in America in 1900 than ICs (Shnayerson, 1996).5 He noted:

All of this suggests a far more uid view of transitions than does the punctuated
equilibrium model (Tushman and Romanelli, 1985). Rather than clean shifts from the
old to the new (Adner and Kapoor, 2010) or sharp distinctions between competency
enhancing and destroying changes (Tushman and Anderson, 1986), the relational
perspective entertains transformative processes where the old and new become
entangled, or where competencies may be enhanced and destroyed simultaneously
through transformative processes. For instance, Ansari and Garud (2009) showed
how those involved in the transition from 2G to 3G wireless networks not only had
to grapple with social and material realities, but then had to make sense of whether
and how to proceed in real-time as the parameters governing the transition (such
as customer preferences) changed even as it was occurring. In this case, the process
stabilized temporarily on what came to be known as 2.5G.
According to Kirsch (personal communication, 2011), the U.S. Bureau of the Census conated apples and oranges, concealing the extent to which local patterns and
standards prevailed. For instance, electric taxicabs of the Electric Vehicle Company
(EVC) and its operating companies were counted in the same production table as
the owner-operated internal combustion vehicles being produced and sold in small
batches. In short, the Census did not know what to count because the industry itself
was in such a state of ux that the categories for enumeration had not yet stabilized.

Gas cars were loud, smoke-belching brutes whose cranks could

snap up and knock a man senseless. In contrast, EVs were silent and
clean, did not need to be cranked, and were considered to be the car
of the future. No wonder high status actors began associating with
EVs. Of particular note, Edison and Ford entered into a collaboration
to develop an EV that was announced at the New York automobile
show in January 1914.
According to Shnayerson (1996), the race was lost when Ford
Motor Company produced the Model T at a price that even its
worker could afford.6 Then, slowly but steadily, an ecosystem
around ICs emerged that redened society itself transforming
cities, spawning road networks and other facets of automobiling now taken for granted (Shnayerson, 1996). Reecting on this
outcome, Kirsch (2000: 25) argued that we must move beyond
the debate between the good auto and the bad auto and seek
to understand the automobile as a material embodiment of the
dynamic interaction of consumers, producers, private and public
institutions, existing and potential technological capabilities, and
prevailing ideas about gender, health, and the environment.7
These insights are consistent with Callons (1980, 1987) analysis of the electric vehicle in France. Starting in the 1970s, a group
of engineers working for Electricit de France (EDF) envisioned a
radical new trajectory for EVs, and with them, the disappearance
of ICs. The project conjectured not only that the technoscientic
problems could be overcome but also that French social structures
would change radically (Callon, 1987: 84). However, Renault stubbornly resisted the role that EDF envisioned for it, and countered
by painting a gloomy picture of the future as imagined by EDF. As
these and other challenges mounted, the EV became a ction that
no one could believe in any longer (Callon, 1987: 9192). That is,
the narrative had lost its verisimilitude, in Bruners (1986) terms.
From his analysis, Callon (1987: 84) concluded: Right from the
start, technical, scientic, social, economic, or political consideration have been inextricably bound up into an organic whole. Such
heterogeneity and complexity, which everyone agrees is present at
the end of the process, are not progressively introduced along the
way. They are present from the beginning.
Likewise, attempts to shape emerging technological frames
(Bijker, 1995)8 also are evident in GMs lobbying to repeal the California ZEV regulations. Despite the success of its Impact concept
car, as well as the protective niche that had been created both internally within GM and externally through the passage of CARB laws,
GM concluded that it did not want to continue with EVs, even after
having largely created the market for them. According to some critics, GM feared that EVs might eat into its protable IC business,
especially if CARB-like legislation were to be enacted in other states.
Rather than passively accepting the sociotechnical regime
changes mandated by CARB, GM and others went to court. At a
2000 court hearing, GM and Toyota cited a study conducted by the
University of California at Berkeley concluding that Toyota would
have to give the average consumer a free RAV4-EV plus a check for

Taken together, the analyses by Kirsch (2000) and Shnayerson (1996) suggest
that different cars became associated with different social groups: EVs for women
and other high status actors, and ICs for the common man. In that case, it may have
been these differential associations, rather than objective performance criteria, that
prevailed. Such an understanding resonates with Pinch and Bijkers (1987) analysis
of the bicycle as shaped by social groups.
For instance, drawing on an analysis of daily showering, Shove and Walker
(2010) concluded that (un)sustainability is not just a problem of technological innovation, but more fundamentally, a problem of practices.
A technological frame structures the interactions among the actors of a relevant
social group. As Bijker (1995: 123) explained, it is not an individuals characteristic, nor a characteristic of systems or institutions; technological frames are located
between actors, not in actors or above actors. . . A technological frame comprises all
elements that inuence the interactions within relevant social groups and lead to the
attribution of meanings to technical artifacts and thus to constituting technology.

R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

approximately $7,000(Healey, 2000). But a study commissioned

by the California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC) painted
a different picture, concluding that the consumer market for EVs
was approximately ten times the quantity specied by CARBs
mandate (Moore, 2000). Here we see the trials of strength across
actor networks as manifest in texts, what Latour (1987) labeled
immutable mobiles.
The legislative process has continued to unravel, with CARB
rolling back the deadlines on several occasions. In addition, a categorical game has ensued because of the translations involved.
In 2001, CARB granted automakers credit for Partial ZEVs, such
as hybrid cars. But the industry responded by using the relaxed
rules to challenge the entire regulation. GM and DaimlerChrysler
sued CARB, arguing that using a vehicles fuel economy as a way of
determining whether or not a vehicle qualied as a Partial ZEV violated federal law under which states are barred from regulating fuel
economy in any way. The court agreed, and a preliminary injunction was issued against CARB, preventing the implementation of its
2001 amendments.
As this outcome illustrates, changes in the selection environment were driven by GMs actions and it was the auto industry
itself that killed EVs (Paine, 2006).9 Indeed, from a relational
perspective, EVs repeatedly emerged only to hit dead ends not
because they were inherently inferior to alternatives but because
of the strength of the associations that were formed (or failed
to form) between heterogeneous elements constituting actor networks. Important to note from a relational perspective is that the
EV has not necessarily met its end. In fact, new networks are trying to enact their own technological frames (e.g., Better Place and
Tesla Motors). GM even has a new EV initiative, the Chevy Volt, and
hopes to migrate other customers to a line of hybrids.
4. Durational perspective on sustainability journeys
Sustainability, besides implicating shifts in selection environments and reconguration of networks of associations, is also
intertemporal in its very denition meet[ing] the needs of the
present generation without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their needs (WCED, 1987: 43). This intertemporality draws attention to the tensions involved in any journey
that attempts to reconcile the needs of the present with the
needs of the future. First, we could get caught up in local rationality traps (Porac, 1997) that result in our inability to even visualize
and articulate the needs of future others. Second, even if we were
able to visualize and articulate the needs of future others, there is
potentially a conict between our present needs and the needs of
future others (Wade-Benzoni, 2002). Third, even if we were motivated to chalk out a migration path despite such conicts, the
journey itself is full of ups and down, false starts and dead ends
(Van de Ven et al., 1999). Fourth, even when we arrive in the future,
there will be still more future others waiting for us, thereby setting
us up for a journey that can never be completed. In sum, sustainability journeys are fraught with local rationality traps, dynamic
inconsistencies, asynchronies and unfolding preferences.10

GM discontinued its EV1 program in 2002, and repossessed all cars still on the
road. These were primarily crushed, though a few were stripped down and given to
museums and educational institutions.
Many of these issues are evident in the Greek myth of Ulysses and the Sirens.
Ulysses, setting out to be with his wife, Penelope, knew that his preferences would
change for the Sirens as he sailed past their island. To overcome their call, Ulysses
bound himself to the mast of his ship and plugged the ears of his sailors to ensure
that they would sail home despite his pleas to stop. Binding commitments and deaf
ears cannot be a solution to intertemporal problems. Binding ourselves to the mast
and turning a deaf ear to the concerns of others who are impacted adversely may
result in an escalation of commitments to a course of action that exacerbates the


We come back to narratives as a mechanism to address these

challenges, but this time, going beyond their relational properties,
we draw attention to their temporal properties. Specically, narratives evoke a phenomenological notion of time wherein the past,
present and future are all intertwined (Ricoeur, 1984). That is, our
attention in the present, memories of the past and anticipations of
the future are all connected within a eld of experience duration
in Bergsons (1934/2007) terms. In other words, we participate in
actor networks with temporal properties.
First, such a conceptualization helps overcome the intertemporal challenges associated with sustainability journeys. The
temporal dimension of a narrative ontology highlights that our
agentic capacities are shaped not only by the cultural symbols
at play (Douglas, 1986; Swidler, 1986), but also by our ongoing projects which are forged by our memories of the past,
anticipations of the future and attention in the present (Ricoeur,
1984). Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs explore paths in the making, mindfully deviating from established routines or performing
them in appropriate ways in their local contexts (Feldman and
Pentland, 2003; Garud and Karne, 2003). They are also institutional entrepreneurs, imbuing emerging discourse with meaning
by introducing new categories or shaping the use of existing categories (DiMaggio, 1988; Garud et al., 2010a; Rao et al., 2005).
It is through such categorical work that the cultural repertoire is
transformed, generating in its wake new possibilities whereby distributed collectives attempt to overcome local rationality traps.11
Second, a narrative ontology is also a way to think about how
we can deal with potential conicts between the needs of today
and the needs of future others. Specically, a narrative ontology
suggests that we are capable of thinking beyond the here and
now by taking longer slices of time into consideration (March,
1999). Taking a longer slice of time gives us a capacity to overcome
myopic local rationality traps by cultivating an options value
that emerges from our capacity to wait and strike at appropriate
moments (kairos, in narrative terminology). It also gives voice to
future and past others, who, as they enter into the conversation,
shape our actions today.
Third, narratives also serve as mechanisms for addressing the
ups and downs involved in any sustainability journey. Specically, narratives serve as essential coordination mechanisms not
only in real time, but also over time (Bartel and Garud, 2009). For
instance, prospective narratives serve as temporal coordination
mechanisms, allowing disparate social and material elements to
become mutually entrained along an unfolding path. But, as we discussed earlier, there will always be emergent externalities and new
future others. To deal with these emergent situations, actors use
antenarratives (Boje, 2001) to make sense of what has happened,
what may be going on, and what is now possible.
Fourth, these deliberations serve as the inputs for revised
narratives that help address the nal challenge that we enumerated i.e., to act in the moment knowing that we may need to
change course when we reach the future given intertemporalities. Revised narratives transform ongoing initiatives based on
emergent opportunities and constraints even while maintaining
continuity (Sonenshein, 2010) with the past without necessarily
losing our identities or the legitimacy of our ideas (Clandinin and

issues. In addition, the intertemporal nature of sustainability suggests that it is not

possible to reach a new equilibrium point. When we reach the future we will nd
future others whose preferences are different from ours today. In other words,
there is no Penelope waiting for us at the end of our journey.
This is a point that Schumpeter (1942/1994) made in articulating the process of
creative destruction. He noted, [S]ince we are dealing with a process whose every
element takes considerable time in revealing its true features and ultimate effects,
there is no point in appraising the performance of that process ex visu of a given
point of time. . . (Schumpeter, 1942/1994: 83).


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Connelly, 2000; OConnor, 2002). We would not be motivated to

initiate and continue with our projects if we believed that future
others, including ourselves, would not respect what we have tried
to accomplish given what we know as of today (March, 1999).
The phenomenological view of time in such theorization offers
a counter-intuitive insight that what we have abandoned in the
past can serve as key resources in our quest for sustainability. From
an evolutionary perspective, the image of a journey is one of making
progress through technological disruptions of moving forward
while battling the remnants of the past. From a relational perspective, the image is one of dealing with situations that emerge
through the constitutive entanglement of the social and material.
However, from an intertemporal perspective, the past is not necessarily something we have to abandon or consider as an impediment
that we have to break through in our quest for the future. Instead,
it is the very fabric and basis for our actions.
More provocatively, what may be viewed as progress from one
vantage point bigger, faster and cheaper could well be considered inferior once sustainability is considered.12 Consequently, our
journeys to a sustainable future may imply going back to practices
that were shelved, abandoned or even stigmatized as mistakes.
Even an externality could be made into something useful.13 So, from
this perspective, we may have to go back to the future to discover
valuable practices that were left behind, and in some cases, even
reverse what was previously done in the name of technological
Irvine and Martin (1984) documented such intertemporalities
in the domains of science and technology. They showed that the
emergence of the VCR can be traced to efforts that had lain fallow or
were abandoned as mistakes. Such intertemporality is also evident
in the human genome project. Prior to the availability of sequencing
data, efforts were stymied in different branches of biology because
of then extant tools and technologies and a lack of sequencing data.
However, the availability of computational power and sequencing data has made it possible to re-pose difcult questions and,
in the process, carry out research that is yielding new results. As
depicted in Fig. 3, backing and forthing in time is a critical part of
the developmental map that is unfolding.
These observations raise questions about temporal agency
(Emirbayer and Mische, 1998). Specically, how might one generate the ability to think about the future while looking back in
time what we label dure.14 It is difcult to readily generate an
answer to this question by employing theories based on Newtonian
conceptions of time and linear notions of causality. From a narrative perspective, though, the past itself is accessible as a resource
as we stitch together bits and pieces of what may have happened,
along with our imagination of the future, into a meaningful plot
(Bartel and Garud, 2009). In evolutionary theory, exploration is

Basalla (1988: 212) offers several examples and reasons as to why technological
change couched as progress from an evolutionary perspective could be problematic.
The contemporary American approach to industrial agriculture produces 2.8 times
the yield of grain compared to the Mexican cut-burn approach. However, if one were
to use a different metric, energy output to input ratio, then the Mexican system
(11:1) outperforms the American (3:1).
Marx (1867/2007) noted that with the advance of capitalism, what were once
considered to be negative externalities were often transformed into valuable products a re-employment of excrements of production in his words. He offered these
observations based on William Henry Perkins discovery that tar residue from coalred factories could be broken down into a purple dye called mauve. With the
emergence of more dyes, coal tar became a positive rather than a negative externality. This example illustrates another facet of intertemporality how something that
was stigmatized in the past as not being viable may one day become so as discoveries
occur in science and technology and as social preferences change.
With the concept of dure Bergson seeks to overcome a mechanistic understanding of time. Instead, he denes time in a way whereby the past is conserved in the
present moment, even as the present moment is dilated or extended into the future.

prospective whereas exploitation is retrospective (March, 1991).

But this dichotomy is broken when a durational perspective is
taken. Might it be possible to explore the past and exploit the
future? After all, agency is manifest in our abilities to narrate
and re-narrate, preserving both continuity and change, even as a
journey is unfolding (Sonenshein, 2010).
4.1. Overall process
These discussions add further dimensionality to path creation
processes (Garud et al., 2010b). Rather than being viewed as
being path dependent, initial conditions are not given, nor do selfreinforcing mechanisms arise all by themselves. Moreover, actors
are not necessarily locked-in, waiting for external jolts to unlock
them. Through retrospective, prospective or real-time narratives of
their projects, actors continually create and navigate paths in-themaking. Specically, retrospective narratives can provide actors
ways of visualizing the routines they must perform, given the tasks
at hand (Weick, 1995). Prospective narratives also establish a temporal rhythm for the entrainment of distributed social and material
resources (van Lente and Rip, 1998). In addition, narratives inthe-making are accounts used not only to make sense of what is
happening, but also to establish real-time connections with the
social and material elements that are required during any sustainability journey (Bartel and Garud, 2009).
Given that different interdependent actors may view their pasts
differently, they may have different projections of the future (van
Lente and Rip, 1998) and may want it to unfold to their own
advantage (Brown et al., 2000). Yet despite these differences, interdependent actors can navigate into an emergent future because
their projects (constituted through their narratives) serve to build
co-oriented identities (Taylor, 2009) that are similar in some ways
and different in others (Czarniawska, 1998). It is the differences
given similarities that generates interest in these projects (Garud,
2008). At the same time, it is the similarities given differences that
generates legitimacy for novel ideas (Lounsbury and Glynn, 2001).
Moreover, as multiple project narratives circulate, the result is neither modular knowledge (Simon, 1962), nor common knowledge
(Aumann, 1976), but interlaced knowledge (Tuertscher, 2008),
enabling distributed collectives to become more robust than they
otherwise would have been.
4.2. Return of electric vehicles from a durational perspective
Whereas the evolutionary perspective draws attention to selection environments as an explanation for the ups and downs associated with EVs and the relational perspective highlights the framing
and translation issues involved, the durational perspective draws
attention to the intertemporal aspects of journeys. The history of
EVs is replete with incidents of actors making promises about the
future, thereby driving expectations. For instance, at the turn of
the nineteenth century, producers succeeded in creating tremendous anticipation about what the EV could deliver. Notably, Edison
promised to design and deliver a better battery. Based on such projections, EV manufacturers also promised to offer cars that could
be driven for greater distances without the need to be charged.
At least three intertemporal tensions may have prevented EVs
from gaining momentum. First, the promise of improved EVs prevented their widespread adoption at a critical moment in history
when different alternatives were vying for dominance. Rosenberg
(1982) noted the dampening of customer demand when technological innovation is rapid (anticipatory retardation in his words).
This seems to have occurred in the case of EVs. [T]he history of
false starts surrounding the introduction of the Edison alkaline storage battery heightened expectations and encouraged potential EV
customers to defer buying vehicles (Kirsch, 2000).

R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995


Fig. 3. Durational perspective: This gure is a temporally emplotted diagram of research in the human genome project as depicted by Mane and Brner (2004). It shows
the backing and forthing (dure) in the development of the human genome project and how todays frontiers of the project today are paradoxically returning to the
interior(i.e., previous efforts that met resistances that led to accommodations (Pickering, 1993) as computational power increased and gene sequencing emerged),
allowing old questions to be re-posed in productive ways. Reprinted with permission from the National Academy of Sciences.

Second, unfullled promises also dampened the widespread

adoption of EVs. This has been written about in the literature as
the hype cycle (Fenn and Raskino, 2008) or the promise requirement cycle (van Lente and Rip, 1998). To the extent that a promise
is made and then not kept, a trajectory enters into a downward spiral (Brown and Michael, 2003). In a similar way, unmet promises
made by no less a luminary than Edison to design improved batteries dampened the momentum for already available EVs.
Third, delays in the emergence of the battery and, consequently,
improved EVs, allowed automobiles based on combustion engines
to gain momentum. Such anticipatory catching up by an alternative technology was documented by Ansari and Garud (2009) in
their study of the transition from 2G to 3G wireless technology.
Delays in the implementation of the 3G platform made it possible
for 2G to catch up, resulting in the temporary adoption of 2.5G
wireless. In the case of EVs, Edison and Ford rst entered into a
collaboration to develop an EV, but their effort eventually led to
the development of an electrical system for the combustion-based
Model T. Although progress was made with EVs, proponents
confronted an ever-changing set of more demanding performance

standards because of the ICs ongoing progress. In other words,

EVs confronted challenges both at a point in time and over time.
Intertemporal issues are also evident in the more recent resurgence of EVs in late 1980s. Roger Smith, then CEO of GM, became so
enamored by the Impact concept car that he set an arbitrary deadline for its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show despite protestations
from the design team. GMs dramaturgical presentation (Lampel,
2001) was so effective that CARB instituted ZEV legislation, even
though GM was still years from having a viable EV offering. Its rush
to market proved too costly, undermining the viability of the market it had helped create. GM then subsequently lobbied against the
CARB legislation, arguing that due to insufcient demand EVs were
not economically viable. Later, GM justied its decision to discontinue its EV project partly because of a lack of legislation mandating
the need for ZEVs, legislation that GM itself had helped overturn.
In short, the GM episode demonstrates how arrangements not only
implicate different relationalities, but different intertemporalities
as well (Garud et al., 2011).
More recently, GM has gone back to the future by restarting
its EV program. Reecting on the decision to pull the plug on EV,


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Table 1
Different perspectives on sustainability journeys.
Facets of sustainability

Perspectives on
sustainability journeys


Implications for policy

Implications for strategy

Implications for research

Shifts in landscapes



Protected niches

Dynamic capabilities as
reconguration of resources

Reconguration of
emergent networks
Intertemporal dynamics





Facilitating hybrid
Coordinating activities
in the thick of time

Dynamic capabilities as
framing and re-framing
Dynamic capabilities as ability
to re-narrate

Follow shifts from one

sociotechnical regime to
Follow actors and categories
Follow shifts in agency from an
intertemporal perspective

Rick Wagoner, another former CEO of GM, stated that axing the
EV1 electric-car program was the worst decision during his tenure
(Green, 2006). Echoing these sentiments, Larry Burns, GMs head
of research and development claimed, If we could turn back the
hands of time, we could have had the Chevrolet Volt 10 years earlier (Naughton, 2007). Other recent EV initiatives include Better
Place, a California start-up, and a Renault-Nissan collaboration to
implement a whole new system for EVs in Israel. An impetus for
this initiative is Renaults knowledge and expertise in EVs based on
its earlier foray into this eld (Callon, 1980, 1987). In this sense,
this initiative too involves going back to the future.
5. Implications for policy
So far, we have discussed different facets of sustainability and
introduced three ontological perspectives based on these facets.
There clearly are implications for policy that each perspective offers
which we explore in this section (see Table 1). For instance, policy
initiatives driven by the evolutionary perspective focus on sustaining new ideas that otherwise would have been selected out. The
relational perspective suggests the creation of hybrid forums to
facilitate interactions between concerned stakeholders as sustainability journeys unfold. The narrative perspective sensitizes us to
the temporal issues associated with policy initiatives. We explore
these in greater detail below.

Some scholars have criticized niche protection strategies as

focusing on inducing initiatives from the bottom-up (Genus and

Coles, 2008; Smith et al., 2005). Safarzynska

et al. (2012) have
argued for policy initiatives that change the selection environment
in favor of path-breaking innovations. Going even further, others
have proposed that policies should also concentrate on disrupting
existing regimes as a way of addressing the problem of sustainability from the top-down (Geels and Schot, 2007). Theoretically, such
policies can be understood as attempting to undermine existing
regimes that have become entrenched but are not sustainable in
some denition of the term. For instance, in a study of energy policy
in British Colombia, Dusyk et al. (2009) propose that destabilization of existing regimes is essential to opening up a development
path to change and highlight a number of policies pertaining to
carbon and energy that support this view.
Finally, other scholars have offered the concept of transition
management (Kemp et al., 2007; van Zeijl-Rozema et al., 2008),
which can be understood as attempts to recongure selection environments. This approach argues that sustainable development
requires radical changes in functional systems and changes not only
in government policy but also in current systems of governance
(Kemp et al., 2007: 78). The result is directed evolution toward
a sociotechnical regime that selects out unsustainable solutions as
dened by policymakers.
5.2. Policy implications of the relational perspective

5.1. Policy implications of the evolutionary perspective

Those taking the MLP suggest the need for policies capable of
overcoming the evolutionary selection trap through three interrelated mechanisms: niche protection, destabilization of existing
regimes and transition management (Nill and Kemp, 2009; Smith
et al., 2005). Of these three, we have already mentioned the protection of novel ideas in niches what MLP scholars label as strategic
niche management (SNM) (Kemp et al., 1998). Building upon the
insights offered by Coenen et al. (2012), to be effective, the specic
policy initiatives will need to take into consideration the institutional conditions, networks, actor strategies and resources across
Subsidies are one common niche protection strategy. In the case
of renewable electricity, numerous (mostly European) countries
have enacted feed-in-tariffs to provide an incentive for developing
solar, wind and other desirable forms of electricity. Because of
generous feed-in-tariff incentives, Spain was able to capture more
than 40% of worldwide solar power installations in 2008. However,
the policy proved unsustainable and the Spanish government was
forced to curtail its subsidies, leaving many solar projects worse off
than if there had been no subsidies in the rst place.15

Even rms can create strategic niches through their actions. For instance, in
the 1960s, General Electric and Westinghouse offered utility companies subsidies
equivalent to 50% in an effort to spur demand for nuclear plants, assuming that once
the market was established they would be able to recoup their investments.

The evolutionary perspective conceives of policymakers as sitting outside of, and thus, disassociated from, the very systems
in which they are supposed to intervene (Rip, 2006; Shove and
Walker, 2007, 2010). By comparison, from the relational perspective there is neither an outside nor an inside to which
policymakers might retreat. Instead, they too derive their capacities
for action from their networks of associations (Callon, 1998). In the
case of complex and contested issues such as sustainability, policymakers are especially dependent on the information available to
them from others.
The dynamics that unfold when regulators and evaluators consider themselves to be part of the emerging social and material
ensemble, rather than separate, is evident in the emergence of
wind turbine elds in Denmark and the US (Garud and Karne,
2003). In the former, policy actors co-developed evaluation criteria in collaboration with other eld-level actors, shared data that
emerged from their comparative tests that led to scientic knowledge, and modulated their market mechanisms in tune with the
specic needs of the eld at different points in time (this is consistent with a transition studies perspective on innovation, see
Weber and Rohracher, 2012). In contrast, policy actors in the US
were driven by an evolutionary logic, creating a selection environment with testing standards based on generic engineering science
design knowledge that did not co-emerge with the eld. The policies that were enacted did little to increase co-involvement of
actors in the US wind turbine eld, giving the interventions an
episodic quality.

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Not only does the relational perspective conceive of policymakers as part and parcel of the conicts that they are supposed to
modulate, there are instances when policymakers may themselves
be the source of conicts. For instance, strategic niche management
scholars advocate the conduct of societal experiments (Nill and
Kemp, 2009). But given the asymmetries involved in the format
and performance of these experiments, they are bound to generate overows whether in real time or over time (Callon, 1998;
Coase, 1960). This is because no practice is inherently sustainable
or unsustainable. Instead, what counts, who counts, and how and
when it should be counted are all part of the dispute (Karne, 2010).
The resulting problem is one of sensemaking, not information processing (Weick, 1995). Moreover, contrary to Coases (1960) view
of institutions as the solution to the problem of externalities, even
institutional arrangements may be contested, as is evident in the
case of climate change (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
For these reasons, the relational perspective has proposed a
very different approach to policy what it calls hybrid forums
as a solution to the twofold problem of expertise and representation (Callon et al., 2009; Mulder et al., 2011; see also Musiolik
and Markard, 2011). Rather than delegating responsibility to politicians and scientists, hybrid forums bring experts and laypersons
together with legislators and citizens. Conferences represent one
such hybrid forum for conguring and reconguring both emergent and established elds (Garud, 2008; Lampel and Meyer, 2008).
Hybrid forums such as these serve as coordination devices for
collective sensemaking, imaginization and enactment (Morgan,
1993; Weick, 1995). They also provide mechanisms for translating
complex and culturally embedded practices across contexts and
communities through dialogue (Sawyer, 2003; Tsoukas, 2009).
5.3. Policy implications of the durational perspective
The core policy implications from the evolutionary and relational perspectives relate to protecting nascent ideas in niches and
creating hybrid forums to foster productive engagement of multiple social groups. The intertemporal perspective offers temporal
structuring as yet another policy consideration. By this we mean
facilitating the coordination of the actions of disparate actors in
the thick of time (where future, past and present meet). Not only
does this imply coordination of temporal rhythms (i.e., chronological entrainment), but also cultivation of moments when the time
is right (i.e., kairotic moments) (Garud et al., 2011; Orlikowski and
Yates, 2002).
Because this has not been theorized before, our observations
are far more tentative and offered here to foster a dialogue among
scholars to explore novel mechanisms. The core thrust of our
argument is to think about sociotechnical agencements (a term
introduced by Callon, 2005 to suggest that agency exists in arrangements) to contain temporal elements as well (Garud et al., 2011).
That is, we encourage scholars to explore different kinds of agencements that allow actors to coordinate their activities in the thick of
time, rather than be bound by it.
One example will give a sense of the kind of mechanism we have
in mind. The current US patent system has intertemporal properties. Specically, patents grant inventors monopoly protection
for a period of time as an incentive to explore. We could think of
this as a protected niche from an evolutionary perspective or even
a hybrid forum from a relational perspective (the examination
process involving a number of social groups including a person
having ordinary skills in the art to whom a novel idea is not obvious). But, from a durational perspective, patents are valuable policy
instruments that allow actors to be in the thick of time.
Some explanation is in order to understand the latter statement. A patent is as much an act of protection as it is an act of


disclosure. While most dwell on the former, the latter is also

important in creating a durational understanding of what has
happened, what may happen, and who is doing what. By itself,
this is important. When combined with classication systems,
search techniques, and powerful technological tools for creating
knowledge networks and understanding emergent categories,
public knowledge of patents generates mutual knowledge of gaps
in the eld and where it might be going. Equally important, such
public knowledge allows actors to go back to ideas from the past
in order to move forward, while simultaneously allowing actors to
coordinate their activities in the present.
We offer this example to provide a sense of the kinds of policy
mechanisms that a durational perspective suggests. Might there
be other such mechanisms? One promising avenue is to explore
hybrid forums for their temporal properties. For instance, conferences, workshops and roundtables can be structured to spawn
different temporal dynamics such as the enactment of possibilities, reections about the past, or coordination of activities in
the moment (or a combination thereof). One such forum, for
instance, is the NIH sponsored Consensus Development Conference
for leading scientists and researchers in a particular biomedical
eld, where eld members themselves believe that ongoing controversy cannot be resolved by the data that is being generated
(see Garud, 2008 for more details). The timing of such conferences
is an example of kairos in policy interventions. We believe that
such forums may be useful for facilitating the ongoing journey to
Finally, the durational perspective highlights the value of
reconsidering institutional mechanisms that have been forgotten. Specically, in addition to potential sociomaterial solutions to
sustainability lying in the past, there may be worthwhile policy
instruments that have been forgotten. For instance, decades after
the introduction of commercial electricity, rural areas remained
underserved. As of 1935, only about 10% of US farms were connected to the electrical grid. Despite the fact that private utility
companies owned and controlled 90% of the electric power industry, the policy solution that emerged was neither niche protection,
nor regime destabilization. On the contrary, the Rural Electrication Administration (REA) was established, having as its mission
the creation of rural electric cooperatives (RECs). By the 1980s,
over 90% of farms were electried, and RECs were responsible
for providing service to more than 75% of the land area in the
US (Maddigan et al., 1984). Although the REA still exists, it has
been largely forgotten. However, it may be that RECs remain a
viable approach to bringing solar panels, small wind, cogeneration and other renewable and distributed sources of energy to
neighborhoods. Thus, the policies to take us forward may lie in the

6. Implications for strategy

Sustainability journeys clearly have important implications for
rm strategies, an area that remains under-explored. To stimulate
conversation on this topic, we consider implications for strategy
that each of the three perspectives has to offer by focusing on
one concept from strategy for illustrative purposes dynamic
capabilities (see Table 1). The origins of this concept can be traced
to evolutionary perspectives on rm strategy that emphasize the
need for rms to navigate shifts in selection environments over
time (Teece et al., 1997). From a relational perspective, dynamic
capabilities imply an ability to not only navigate such shifts, but to
also frame and reframe situations. From a durational perspective,
it means an ability to re-narrate, such that rms can go back to the
future. Below we explore the implications of these perspectives
for strategy in practice.


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6.1. Strategy implications of the evolutionary perspective

In their introduction to the Strategic Management Journal Special Issue on Evolutionary Perspectives on Strategy, Barnett
and Burgelman (1996) advocated studying strategic management
from an evolutionary perspective: using dynamic, path-dependent
models that allow for possibly random variation and selection
within and among organizations. A consideration of the mechanisms at play sheds light on the dilemmas that rms confront. On
one hand, rms need capabilities to operate; on the other, rms
have to adapt to a changing landscape (see Levinthal (1997b) for
more details of this paradox). But, the time and effort required to
build capabilities make them difcult to change, which can lead
to capability traps (Levitt and March, 1988) and core rigidities
(Leonard-Barton, 1992).
It is to address this dilemma that organizational scholars have
offered the notion of dynamic capabilities. For instance, Teece et al.
(1997: 515) used the term dynamic to draw attention to the
capacity [of a rm] to renew competences so as to achieve congruence with the changing business environment, and the term
capabilities to emphasize the key role of strategic management
in appropriately adapting, integrating, and reconguring internal
and external organizational skills, resources, and functional competences to match the requirements of a changing environment.
As Helfat and Winter (2011) clarify, it is this capacity to alter the
capabilities of how a rm currently makes its living (operational
capabilities) that Teece et al. (1997) referred to in their use of the
term dynamic capabilities.
These contributions have attracted the attention of other scholars who emphasize different facets of dynamic capabilities, such as
their emergence through co-evolutionary learning processes (Zollo
and Winter, 2002), their basis in an overall capability lifecycle
model (Helfat and Peteraf, 2003), and their connection to specic
and identiable processes such as product development, strategic decision making, and alliancing (Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000).
Underlying all these notions of dynamic capabilities is the path
dependent nature of the processes involved (Helfat and Peteraf,
2009; Teece et al., 1997). The emphasis on path dependence by
these scholars is not surprising, given the concepts evolutionary
roots. As Helfat and Peteraf (2003) pointed out, the path dependent
nature of dynamic capabilities is a reason for the heterogeneity of
rm capabilities and resources. In contrast, Eisenhardt and Martin
(2000) noted that although dynamic capabilities are path dependent, there are signicant commonalities across rms.
One such commonality is that rms embarking on sustainability
journeys must possess different kinds of capabilities at different
stages of their journeys. For instance, rms need the capability to
sense the onset of a disruption in their specic industry if they are
to be among the rst movers in the eld, the capability to explore
product and service congurations during an era of ferment, and
then to change their capabilities to exploit architectures around a
dominant design by focusing on processes to eke out efciency and
repeated operations (Teece et al., 1997; Tushman and Anderson,
1986; Utterback and Abernathy, 1975).
6.2. Strategy implications of the relational perspective
Valuable as the evolutionary concept of dynamic capabilities
is, it has drawn some criticism. For instance, Arend and Bromiley
(2009) argued that the concept of dynamic capabilities may be tautological and that it suffers from unclear or varying theoretical
foundations because theorists have adopted various, contradictory basic assumptions. In addition, the notion of dynamic
capabilities as a path-dependent phenomenon does not have a
fully explicated view of agency. If at all, agency rights lie with top
management teams to steer the rm through complex emergent

processes (Teece et al., 1997). But rather than a solution, Tripsas

and Gavetti (2000) found that the cognitive frames of top management teams can thwart rm transformation when it is most needed.
It is here that the relational ontology provides different insights to
this concept.
At its core, a relational ontology does away with dualisms and
instead views objects and subjects as part of emerging action nets
(Czarniawska, 2004). As Callon (1998) noted, actors gain their
agency by being part of these heterogeneous networks, which in
turn are constituted by their actors. From these alternative assumptions ow numerous insights about the capability to perform that
are different from what the evolutionary perspective has suggested.
First, agency is distributed. For instance, decision rights about
what capabilities an organization ought to possess and activate
are not necessarily located in top management teams but instead
are distributed across actors who possess situated knowledge
(Jarzabkowski, 2005; Tsoukas, 1996). In addition, agency is distributed across the artifacts in use whether in the form of
trading desks (Beunza and Stark, 2004), business models (Doganova
and Eyquem-Renault, 2009), or PowerPoint presentations (Kaplan,
2011). Consequently, it is important to gain an understanding
the performativity implicit in practices (Beunza and Stark, 2004;
Feldman and Pentland, 2003; MacKenzie and Millo, 2003).
Second, capabilities are not necessarily constraining as in the
evolutionary path dependent way of thinking, but instead are the
basis for performance and transformation (cf. Farjoun, 2010; Garud
et al., 2006). There is no specic reason to distinguish between
operational and dynamic capabilities, as ostensive capabilities
have to be performed in practice (Feldman and Pentland, 2003).
For such a promise to be realized, actors must no longer view
capabilities as passive observers activating a routine, but instead
as engaged practitioners who can reect in and through action
(Schn, 1996). That is, cognition is refreshed as capabilities are
performed, resulting in processes such as bricolage that shape
both social and material elements in an ongoing fashion (Baker
and Nelson, 2005; Garud and Karne, 2003; Rao et al., 2005). This
entails creative search and strategic sensemaking which Pandza
and Thorpe (2009) have called the missing dimensions in the
concept of dynamic capabilities.
Third, driving this process is what has been labeled material
semiotics (Law, 2009), which, at its core pertains to the emergence
of new categorical possibilities through comparisons and contrasts
(Bowker and Star, 1999; Garud et al., 2010a). Given the emergent
nature of the process, the explanation for success shifts from having pre-existing capability endowments necessary for exaptation
(Cattani, 2005) to having an ability to make sense of emerging situations through antenarratives (Boje, 2001), and an ability to frame
and reframe emerging situations to ones advantage by translating interests, which involves at once offering new interpretations
of these interests and channeling people in different directions
(Latour, 1987: 117; see also Jrgensen, 2012). Power and politics
become a part and parcel of this process as framing contests unfold.
However, from a relational perspective power is not a hierarchical concept, but a gurational one based on associations (Elias,
1982; Latour, 2005). For instance, extending Kaplans (2008) study
on framing contests within a communications technology manufacturer suggests that different organizational actors may dene
sustainability differently based on the practices that they embrace.
Similarly, Garud and Rappas (1994) study on cochlear implants
suggests that industry rivals with different capabilities might also
attempt to dene sustainability in different ways.
6.3. Strategy implications of the durational perspective
A consideration of intertemporal issues adds further to the concept of dynamic capabilities. Not only do dynamic capabilities entail

R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

the ability to spot changes, change resource congurations, or

shape the emerging institutional structures that determine worth,
they also bring temporal issues into consideration. These may
include paying attention to issues such as time pacing (Brown
and Eisenhardt, 1997) where different organizational initiatives
are appropriately paced, time slicing (Garud and Karne, 2003)
where technology entrepreneurs negotiate the amount of time for
moving an initiative forward, time sensing (Adner and Levinthal,
2004) where actors develop the capability to strike at the right time
and place, and improvisation where actors have the capacity not
only to bricolage but to also sense the right time (or kairos) for
such occasions (Hatch and Weick, 1998). With respect to orchestrating eld level dynamics, it also implies a capacity to imagine
a future and generate momentum around a vision (Hughes, 1993)
such that actors with different temporal rhythms can then appropriately entrain themselves. An example of the latter is Moores
law a law that is temporally performative (MacKenzie, 2003)
by setting expectations.
Moreover, given the intertemporalities involved, the concept of
dynamic capabilities implies a capacity to go back to abandoned or
forgotten practices, unutilized assets and an ability to re-examine
what were once considered to be mistakes to see if there is some
value in resurrecting them as solutions for the future (Garud and
Nayyar, 1994). Examples might include going back to basics, going
back to designs for retention and reuse, and re-shaping preferences
to enhance re-usability. The past is accessible through narratives
which serve as memory devices for remembering the past in such
a way that it becomes a resource for imagining a new future (Bartel
and Garud, 2009).
Related is a rms capacity to re-narrate its strategic actions
as they unfold, given the ups and downs of sustainability journeys. By this we mean being able to make sense of what has
happened (that may imply renegotiating the origins of an initiative) and what may yet transpire (that may imply renegotiating
the future) to reestablish identity and purpose for the organization
and a credible image for critical stakeholders. For instance, during
the implosion of the dot-com bubble, a rm we were studying was
able to re-narrate its strategy and thereby survive. The new narrative that this rm developed was to scale back on expectations
and to reduce its cash burn rates hibernate in its terms until
the market recovered. By attributing the need to shift to what had
happened in the broader economy, this rm was able re-narrate
its story in such a way that stakeholders found its new strategy
to be credible. Some of the other dot-com rms that we were
studying did not possess this capacity to re-narrate. They remained
committed to the strategies that they had articulated before
the dot-com implosion, and as a result, eventually went out of
7. Implications for research
Our articulation of the three perspectives and their implications for policy and strategy opens up many questions for
research and methodological issues pertaining to sustainability
journeys (see Table 1). At the broadest level, the evolutionary
perspective suggests examining the messiness of shifts from one
generation to another. The relational perspective suggests following the actors and the categories in-the-making. The narrative
perspective suggests the value of identifying shifts in temporal
agency as a journey unfolds. We explore these facets in greater
7.1. Research implications of the evolutionary perspective
Researchers have already begun conceiving of sustainability
efforts as dis-equilibrating events entailing signicant shifts in the


technologies and ecologies involved. An important question has

to do with the rate and direction of transition (Rosenberg, 1982).
Adner and Kapoors (2010) research is one example that addresses
transition rates. Working at the eld level, they track not only
transitions in the technological performance of lithography equipment but also the shifts that occur in interdependent components.
Their analysis considers the impacts of both extending an existing
generation of technology and implementing a new generation. By
examining the two, they are able to theorize differences in the rates
at which technological transitions occur.
The MLP perspective combines the social and technical in more
intimate ways than may be readily evident in studies that look primarily at technological shifts. In doing so, it becomes apparent that
shifts are not neat and clean from one regime to another, but are full
of asynchronies and endogenous forces that change the very transition parameters even as they are unfolding (Ansari and Garud,
2009). It is worth modeling some of these dynamics to identify
different migration pathways.
By sensitizing us to the multiplicity of actors and levels, the MLP
also draws our attention to the differential rates at which different levels co-evolve and the impact that such co-evolution has on
sustainability journeys (Aldrich and Ruef, 2006). Indeed, the path
to sustainability is likely to be a very rugged terrain because of
the many interdependencies involved (Kauffman, 1993; Levinthal,
1997a). Such a landscape is a productive area of research for examining the balance between exploration and exploitation (March,
1991). In this regard, Winter et al. (2007) found the value of moderate obsession (i.e., local search combined with a moderate level of
non-local search driven by preferred direction) in their simulation
7.2. Research implications of the relational perspective
Whereas the evolutionary perspective is typically retrospective, one methodological principle of the relational perspective is
to always start in media res, or in the middle of things (Latour,
2005). As one consequence, the relational perspective encourages
researchers to follow phenomena in-the-making (i.e., before the
battle is over in Latours terms). A practical way to do so is to
follow the actors (Latour, 2005) or shadowing in Czarniawskas
(2007) words. In this task, it is easy to get overwhelmed with
the data, and it is here that one has to cultivate the capacity to
zoom in and zoom out to allow for a narrative explanation to
Another approach particularly suited to the context of sustainability is to follow categorical entanglements. For instance, in their
longitudinal study of nuclear power, Garud et al. (2010a) asked how
it was that nuclear power had become sustainable and emissionfree. They found that even though materiality is a referent point for
categorization, the process itself is dynamic as the meaning and
types of categories in use are institutionally performed, socially
relevant, and entrepreneurially negotiated. This research suggests
that the emergence of hybrid categories (including portmanteaus)
is one indicator of eld emergence or transformation.
The relational approach also highlights the importance of
metrologies, or the network of humans, devices and calculations through which sustainability is measured, and by extension,
debated and demonstrated. Not everything can be accounted for.
Accordingly, a key question concerns what is internalized and
accounted for in these calculations. For instance, how many degrees
of separation between actors do we consider in our deliberations
or what constitutes an externality? It is through such bracketing
that sustainability is dened and performed.
But rather than stabilizing a process, the relational perspective suggests such overows are part and parcel of any
bracketing (Callon, 1998). Overows generate controversies or


R. Garud, J. Gehman / Research Policy 41 (2012) 980995

trials of strength (Latour, 1987) and it is by following these

controversies that one is able to see the constitutive entanglement of social and material ensembles (Pickering, 1993) that
might later become black boxed and taken for granted. The
metrologies, controversies and the experiments involved in the
emergence of carbon credits and carbon markets is one setting in
which these issues have been explored (Callon, 2009; MacKenzie,
One implication for process research is to embrace the notion of
symmetry. Symmetry implies that we ought to consider not just the
social but also the material in examining processes (Latour, 2005)
through bipartite or two-mode networks (Albert and Barabsi,
2002). Symmetry also requires event neutrality the same event
can hold different implications for different actors depending upon
the actor networks that events emerge from (Garud, 2008). Symmetry also requires that we embrace a theoretical apparatus that
can explain successes and failures symmetrically given that virtuous and vicious cycles are possible at any point in time (Callon,

7.3. Research implications of the durational perspective

In the same way that the relational perspective attens the
macro and the micro, the durational perspective adds time and
temporality to the mix. As one consequence, researchers have to
zip back and forth in time and not just zoom in and out of levels to
make sense of complex emergent phenomena (Akrich and Latour,
1992; Nicolini, 2009). But to do so, researchers rst have to reect
on how they view time and how the tools they use shape their
understandings of phenomena such as sustainability.
Turning attention to the actors involved, researchers could analyze their temporal orientations (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998). For
instance, how far into the future does the top management of a
company look or how many generations do they take into account
in their deliberations on sustainability? Similarly, what role does
the past play in such deliberations? Some companies (e.g., General
Electric) have been able to reinterpret their past accomplishments
to make a case that their sustainability journeys have been underway for some time now. Still others have not been able to make
such intertemporal connections to their pasts, and as a result, have
a much more impoverished story to tell about their possible sustainable futures. What are the mechanisms involved that enable
some actors to shape their own narratives, while others nd themselves stuck in the past (Bruner, 1995)? In this regard, how rms
create and then use an organizational memory that is generative is
a promising avenue for research.
This perspective also sensitizes us to the need to pay attention to relational arrangements that generate different temporal
agencies. In particular, social and material ensembles have temporal properties. For instance, in the case of 3M, Garud et al. (2011)
found that its technology platforms served as hot-beds of ideas
that the organization could tap into to create initiatives for the
future. Even metrologies have temporalities in addition to relationalities in their articulations. One simplistic example is net present
value (NPV) calculations. As is well known, such calculations have
the effect of discounting the future, thereby effectively cutting it
short. In contrast to the linear notion of time in NPV calculations,
derivatives based on the Black-Scholes-Merton options pricing
model have intertemporal properties (MacKenzie, 2003). Recognizing these intertemporal properties, Warren Buffett warned against
the havoc derivatives could cause long before the recent nancial
crisis (Berkshire Hathaway, 2002). Exploring intertemporal problems such as these represents a critical area of study. How far
back do calculations go? How far into the future do they project?
For instance, one company has been using both hindcasting and

forecasting to evaluate injuries to natural resources associated with

past environmental spills and releases.16
8. Conclusion
One could consider sustainability to be a construct that is
coherent enough to bring together researchers from multiple
perspectives, yet plastic enough to allow them to study the phenomenon from their own vantage points. But, as we have seen
in this paper, sustainability is not such a boundary object (Star
and Griesemer, 1989). There are real semantic (the use of constructs), syntactic (the use of frames of reference) and pragmatic
(the tools and metrics used) boundaries (Carlile, 2004) across the
three metatheoretical perspectives that could prevent the cross
fertilization of ideas and insights from one to the other.
One of our contributions in articulating the three perspectives is
to help facilitate a dialogue among researchers using different theoretical lenses on sustainability and, in the process, make it possible
for ndings and insights from one stream of research to inform
another. For instance, the evolutionary perspective draws attention to changes in the landscape. Those who subscribe to a relational
perspective may realize that they need not be subject to exogenous
shifts in selection environments, but may instead try and shape
them. The durational perspective adds additional insights, drawing
attention to intertemporal issues as actors look back at abandoned
practices even as they move forward to a sustainable future.
Another contribution is to broaden and open up new ways of
thinking for actors interested in sustainability journeys consistent
with the theme of this special issue (see Markard et al., 2012). For
instance, as we consider the relational and intertemporal facets of
sustainability, we realize that sustainability journeys are far more
uid than may be evident when one takes an evolutionary perspective. Consequently, rather than conceiving of sustainability as a shift
from one state of equilibrium to another, sustainability emerges as
a horizon to be approached but never reached. At any point in time
there will always be others in the present and in the future to deal
with. Thus, the challenge for policy, strategy and research is not
just a matter of becoming sustainable, but of sustaining the ability
to embark on such journeys on an ongoing basis.
This is a fully collaborative project as reected in the alphabetical ordering of the authorship. The paper has beneted from the
comments and suggestions of David Kirsch, Krsto Pandza, the editors and four anonymous reviewers for the Research Policy special
issue on Sustainability Transitions, as well as ongoing conversations with Peter Karne and Arun Kumaraswamy. We particularly
thank Jochen Markard who generously offered critical and generative inputs. Early versions of this paper were presented at the
Industry Studies Association Annual Conference, Pittsburgh 2011,
the European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium, Gothenburg 2011, and the Academy of Management Annual Meeting, San
Antonio 2011, where the participants offered useful inputs. We are
grateful to Kara Gehman for her editorial assistance.
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Hindcasting, in this companys case, is using data on environmental spills and
releases from some future period and then looking into the past to evaluate levels of
contamination (and resultant injury) for purposes of tallying up total externalities
to be compensated or remediated.

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