Biographies of an innovation: an ecological analysis of a strategic technology project in the auto-industry
The ‘localist turn’ in technology studies, exemplified by Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), emphasises the agency of actors in innovation processes while, arguably, neglecting structural influences. They provide rather little guidance regarding methodological choices apart from encouraging rich description and offer only limited capacity to explain the dynamics of technological change. This thesis addresses the need to articulate a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the contextually-shaped, often highly contingent processes of technological innovation. For this purpose a single, in-depth longitudinal case study was conducted of the development, implementation and use of a strategic information system - a strategic network planning tool - in a German car company. It was analysed applying a biographical perspective which argues for extended analytical foci across multiple sites, moments and time frames in technology studies to account for the complexities and uncertainties inherent in technological change processes. A mixed repository of historical and ethnographic data has been collected, drawing on public and internal corporate documents as well as 44 interviews and extended periods of participant observation at multiple sites. The data was coded and analysed aided by simultaneously building an extensive data-rich timeline of the innovation journey. As a result, our empirically detailed focus on a twelve-year period is contextualised by a historical narrative considering corporate historical developments over three decades. An ecology metaphor is articulated to appreciate multiple episodes and moments of innovation dispersed in space and time - a view neglected by common metaphors of systems and networks. The metaphor underpins a loose framework, tentatively entitled the Ecological Shaping of Technology, that draws on concepts from science and technology studies and cognate discussions in the sociology of professions to engage with the intricacies of space and scales of time in studying the ‘Biographies of Artefacts and Practices’ (Pollock and Williams, 2009; Hyysalo, 2010). The framework pursues a dynamic, longitudinal understanding of the evolution of a protracted technology development project which went through significant changes in conception and in the players involved and their configuration. This is conceptualised in terms of the development of a ‘kernel’ (Ribes & Polk, 2015) of resources and services managed by, and made available to, an alliance of players. While alliances can shift, the kernel persists and evolves over time as players try to attract more resources by entering into negotiations in promising ‘arenas of expectation’ (Bakker et al., 2011) or navigating around those that are less amenable. Technology is portrayed as an element of a package of instrumentalities (de Solla Price, 1983) comprising theories, methods and instruments that are spread across a wider ecology of distributed boundary objects (Star & Griesemer, 1989). Technologies crystallise from efforts of adopting, testing and developing packages to solve specific problems (Fujimura, 1995). A specific technology is co-developed, according to the set of local constrains and specifications delineated by a kernel's alliance of ecologies. These are understood in terms of Abbott’s (2005) conception of linked ecologies. The historically shaped and contingent ecological topography of an innovation project is highlighted as a major influence in the social shaping of technological artefacts.