Reconfiguration, contestation and decline: conceptualizing mature large technical systems

Benjamin K. Sovacool


Large technical systems (LTS) are integral to modern lifestyles but arduous to analyze. In this paper, we advance a conceptualization of LTS using the notion of mature “phases,” drawing from insights into innovation studies, science and technology studies, political science, the sociology of infrastructure, history of technology, and governance. We begin by defining LTS as a unit of analysis and explaining its conceptual utility and novelty, situating it among other prominent sociotechnical theories. Next, we argue that after LTS have moved through the (overlapping) phases proposed by Thomas Hughes of invention, expansion, growth, momentum, and style, mature LTS undergo the additional (overlapping) phases of reconfiguration, contestation (subject to pressures such as drift and crisis), and eventually stagnation and decline. We illustrate these analytical phases with historical case studies and the conceptual literature, and close by suggesting future research to refine and develop the LTS framework, particularly related to more refined typologies, temporal dimensions, and a broadening of system users. We aim to contribute to theoretical debates about the coevolution of LTS as well as empirical discussions about system-related use, sociotechnical change, and policy-making.


Sovacool, B.K., Lovell, K., and Ting, B.