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Is ‘Digital Transition’ a Syntax Error? Purpose, Emergence and Directionality in a contemporary knowing-of-governance

presentation at the International Sustainability Transitions conference


Bonno Pel

The presentation took place as part of a conference stream on the 'directionality' of sustainability transitions, i.e. the circumstance that these dynamic processes can take different more or less favourable directions.


An important precondition for responsible innovation is the awareness of directionality: Dynamic innovation processes can take different turns, and they involve mixtures of more and less favorable consequences. The ongoing wave of digital innovations exemplifies how this directionality challenges societal actors to develop new strategic dispositions and so-called ‘knowings-of-governance’. Approaching innovation directionality from a governance perspective, this paper interrogates the contemporary knowing-of-governance of the ‘digital transition’. Alluding to highly coordinated endeavours of guided transformation and unambiguous digital ‘tools’, it seems to overstate the scope for control over largely unplanned digitalization. The ‘transition’ framing thus appears to be a ‘syntax error’. The analysis explores this apparent contradiction through academic scholarship, grey literature as well as newspaper sources. Critical discourse analysis demonstrates how directionality is obscured through various ideological representations. Attending to the discursive nuances, it also discloses the rich vocabulary to articulate innovation directionality, however: The ‘digital transition’ discourse expresses how transitions are partly purposive, partly emergent, transformation processes.


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