Grassroots innovations, understood as bottom-up experiments on more socio-ecologically sound practices, have been a primary focus in civic-oriented studies on transformative pathways to sustainability. However, grassroots innovation studies often adopt a socio-technical systemic approach, whereby grassroots actors’ aspirations, mobilization efforts, and visions beyond the scope of certain socio-technical transitions are largely left off. This thesis proposes a place-centered enabling approach that foregrounds site-specific needs and place-based politics to better capture the nature and transformative potential of grassroots innovations. It first reconceptualizes a grassroots niche as ‘a hybrid space’ grounded in socio-spatial dynamics and networked politics and mixed with elements of incumbent socio-technical regimes. Drawing inspiration from political ecology and human geography, it then recasts grassroots innovations as grassroots place-making actions and analytically focuses on three constituents—the development history of the host community, outstanding place-framings, and internal and/or external place-making politics—to investigate a grassroots innovation in relation to the socio-spatial transformation and the underlying politico-economic structure experienced by a community. Empirically, this research draws on evidence from three cases of energy and agri-food grassroots innovations in Taiwan that address important problems emerging from the country’s capitalist development, including the violation of indigenous rights, resource grabbing, and industrial pollution. Evidence was built through a comprehensive data collection, in-depth interviews, and participant observation over the course of 11 months in 2016 and 2017, supplemented by three annual post-fieldwork visits.

The research shows that the formation of a grassroots innovation is often motivated by the geo-historical processes that communities co-evolve with and may seek to change in line with other defensive and/or innovative actions. Moreover, its development can be subject to structural lock-ins underlying site-specific concerns that also constrain systemic solutions. Overlooking unmet site-specific needs and ends can lead to problematic gaps in knowledge production for policymaking, which can unintentionally consolidate the injustice a community has faced. With these findings, the research contributes to the debate of transformative pathways to sustainability by joining the call for a geographical and critical turn in sustainability transitions research, thereby facilitating dialogues between grassroots innovation studies and critical studies for radical change. It enriches the meaning of ‘sustainability’ by situating it in the context of a (former) developmental state in East Asia, and expands the scope from socio-technical transitions to socio-spatial and structural transformations from a grounded, bottom-up perspective, which I argue, is vital to reach a real ‘win-win’ balance between ‘sustainable’ community development and ‘sustainable’ socio-technical transitions.

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This research was funded by the Delta Electronics Foundation and the Ministry of Education, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
M. Arsel (Murat)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University (ISS)

Lai, H.-L. (2021, February 25). Placing Sustainability: Geo-Historical Entanglements of Grassroots Innovations and Place-Making Politics in Taiwan. Retrieved from