Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

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On Niches

Our last discussion of the semester centered around an article by Gill Seyfang & Alex Haxeltine on grassroots innovations. Seyfang’s work, along with that of Adrian Smith with whom she has also published papers, interests me in its focus on grassroots activities, and the connection that is made between such initiatives and the possibility of their becoming more widespread. What struck me about reading this particular article however, was the way in which the idea of a niche is used. In the article, the authors state the following:

“Niches are variously defined in the literature, but we find the most constructive use of the term here is as follows: a protected space where suboptimally performing experiments can develop away from regime selection pressures. Niches comprise intermediary organisations and actors, which serve as ‘global carriers’ of best practice, standards, institutionalised learning, and other intermediating resources such as networking and lobbying, which are informed by, and in turn inform, concrete local projects (experiments)” p. 383

I find this definition of niche curious as it is almost the opposite of what we think of as a niche either in ecology terms or in market terms, wherein a niche would appear to represent an existing space that something in particular fits into – whether it be a plant or animal or a product – a kind of need within a system that is fulfilled by the occupier of that niche. In this more colloquial sense, occupying a niche or capturing a niche market occurs precisely because there is such a space. In Seyfang & Haxeltine’s definition however, the niche appears to be produced or at least propped up artificially as it were so that ‘suboptimally performing’ experiments can take place.

The reason I find this definition odd is because with my own work looking at low impact development in the countryside ‘strategic niche management’ as a theory seems to ring some bells. The project I’m looking at is niche, certainly, but perhaps in the more colloquial sense. It is a response to a need or strong desire for something else, it is fulfilling a need for affordable housing, organic food, community, safety, personal growth, and many other things besides. On one hand, the idea of strategic niche management seems to offer a way to analyze the proliferation of such projects. On the other hand, beginning with a definition of ‘suboptimally performing experiment’ tends to suggest that it is not something that could be truly sustainable without aid and intervention.

I’m on the fence about whether this terminology is empowering, by justifying the need for such projects, the niche that they fulfill; or whether the inherent assumptions within these academic interventions suggest that ‘niche’ projects cannot perform at a level that would ensure their survival without being protected. I’m not passing a judgement here on whether any particular niche projects would or wouldn’t be able to survive without the protected space Seyfang talks about, rather what I’m thinking about is that this is possibly the wrong way of looking at it in the first place, a way which is weighted towards economic performance in its assumptions. This is an assumption that is still an enormous part of planning decisions, success, or viability, even on a self-sustaining basis is measured in economic terms.

If we are to see grassroots innovations as a way forward surely it’s important to recognize and emphasize the fact that they are already fulfilling (or attempting to fulfill) existing needs and desires within society, and it’s for this reason that they continue to exist even without being protected and supported, indeed they have often continued to exist in spite of being persecuted and undermined. So if we think of these grassroots innovations or niches as resilient already, the question is a different one. It’s not about protecting suboptimally performing experiments, but about extending the spaces into which grassroots innovations can take hold. You could compare it instead to removing the Japanese Knotweed so that the existing, indigenous flora and fauna can flourish, except the Japanese Knotweed in this case meaning all the systemic restrictions that make grassroots innovations and niche, alternative activities, difficult to accomplish.