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Unfolding the legitimation of breakthrough technological innovations: a framework for analysis through the lenses of technological innovation systems

Talvera Fabra, I. (2019) Unfolding the legitimation of breakthrough technological innovations: a framework for analysis through the lenses of technological innovation systems. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00084760


This thesis constitutes a pioneering effort to explore the mechanisms of innovation legitimation, a critical process in enabling movement of breakthrough innovations from the formative phase to a wider adoption. Guided by the importance of understanding why most breakthrough technological innovations fail to move beyond the formative phase of adoption and acquire critical mass on one hand, and the paucity of studies on the early phases of the innovation phenomena on the other, this research reviews the most relevant innovation theories and models in search of solid theoretical and analytical starting points to conduct the empirical study. Technological innovation systems (TISs) is selected as the most appropriate lens to explain the early phases of the innovation phenomena. Built on general system theory and coevolutionary perspectives of innovation, TIS views technological innovation as a collective endeavour of actors, networks and institutions. Legitimation is identified in TIS literature as a critical process to move innovation from formative phases to wider diffusion. However, surprisingly, legitimation is largely under-researched in TIS literature. Taking a critical realist perspective, this research explores TIS legitimation through qualitative research across two case studies for two different breakthrough technological innovations, in which document analysis and participant observation complements 33 semistructured interviews with high profile experts. This thesis' findings advance knowledge on how legitimation is built across different institutional contexts. The findings reveal the critical role of system builders along the legitimation process. The research identifies the extent of their transformative capacity when acting individually or in alliance with incumbent firms. Moreover, this thesis evidences the relevance of the pragmatic legitimacy dimension, largely ignored in TIS literature. In relation to this, this thesis partially supports the idea that societal problems and public debates contribute to legitimate breakthrough innovations, as research data suggests that adopters will additionally perform pragmatic evaluations in search of appropriable benefits. Finally, this research discloses new relevant mechanisms for the legitimation of TISs, like the need to align the different organising visions in the TIS or the criticality to co-create knowledge. The findings of this thesis have important implications for theory and practice. On the theoretical side, the research validates the principles of TIS for innovations outside the energy sector and it offers a set of propositions and a framework that contribute to unfold the mechanisms of innovation legitimation. Moreover, the framework and the developed propositions provide innovation practitioners with a practical tool to develop successful innovation strategies.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Ghobadian, A.
Thesis/Report Department:Henley Business School
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Henley Business School
ID Code:84760
Date on Title Page:2018


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