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Exnovation: imagining sustainable transitions differently in Brussels

Exnovation : imaginer autrement les transitions durables à Bruxelles
Exnovatie: duurzame transities in Brussel anders voorstellen
Ela Callorda Fossati, Solène Sureau, Bonno Pel, Tom Bauler et Wouter Achten
Traduction de Jane Corrigan
Cet article est une traduction de :
Exnovation : imaginer autrement les transitions durables à Bruxelles [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Exnovatie: duurzame transities in Brussel anders voorstellen [nl]


Avec le concept d’exnovation, les Sustainability Transitions studies (ST) connaissent un changement de paradigme. Leur focale typique sur les niches d’innovation durables se déplace pour éclairer désormais le revers de ces processus d’émergence : les voies de sortie des systèmes sociotechniques qui posent des problèmes de non-durabilité. Cet article introduit l’exnovation shift qui s’opère au sein des ST et illustre sa pertinence pour appréhender les enjeux de la gouvernance des transitions à Bruxelles. Sur base d’une revue de la littérature et d’une analyse exploratoire, l’article traite des limites des stratégies de transition fondées uniquement sur le soutien aux niches d’innovation, présente deux cas emblématiques qui structurent la littérature sur l’exnovation et souligne la nécessité de considérer de nouveaux domaines qui intègrent les enjeux de l’exnovation à l'échelle de la ville. Appliqué au cas bruxellois, le concept d’exnovation permet de faire une lecture systémique et critique des enjeux de la zone de basses émissions.

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Notes de la rédaction

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It is funded by Innoviris (2020-2022) as part of the Anticipate - Prospective research “governance of the future” call.

Texte intégral


1The reference to “transition” is increasingly common in political arenas. In Brussels, there are many examples: on its webpage, the regional public service for the environment (Bruxelles Environnement) identifies “the stakeholders of the transition”1, a group of well-known figures and more than 70 associations call for “the immediate constitution of a Regional Council of Transition”2, Barbara Trachte (Ecolo party) is Minister of “economic transition”, the successor of the PREC3 could be named Stratégie Régionale de Transition Économique (SRTE, Regional Strategy for Economic Transition), etc. In the literature, “transition” is what Voß and Freeman [2016] call a “knowing of governance”: it is a concept used in politics, conveying a set of ideas which describe and prescribe the horizon of political action, desirable social relations and renewed methods of governance. At the same time, over the past fifteen years, an interdisciplinary field of research, called Sustainability Transitions (ST4), has been structured around the study of transition processes in socio-technical systems and, in particular, the facilitating role of innovation in these processes. Even more recently, a critical approach to innovation has emerged at the margins of the ST field, which has placed emphasis on the other side of innovation, i.e. exnovation [Arnold et al., 2015; David, 2017, 2018; David and Gross, 2019; Heyen et al., 2017]. This article takes a closer look at this turning point and illustrates the challenges for Brussels.

2Generally speaking, exnovation refers to the deliberate exit from unsustainable socio-technical configurations of the economy [Callorda Fossati et al., 2023]. The concept directly concerns well-established unsustainable regimes (e.g. the automotive regime) and new negative trends (e.g. SUVs). It differs from “creative destruction” by calling for the identification of systemic unsustainability problems, the consideration of exit strategies and the principles of democratic planning and social justice which drive them, and the uncertainty associated with appropriate policy mechanisms.

3It is clear that as the reference to “transition” becomes more widespread, several elements point to an exacerbation of tensions with respect to the sustainable development agenda [Zaccaï, 2019]. On the one hand, scientific research on the rate and impact of climate change is increasingly alarming [IPCC, 2022]. On the other hand, the global governance of the climate issue faces huge uncertainties as to the effective achievement of the negotiated objectives. In addition, other planetary limits have been exceeded (e.g. in terms of the preservation of biodiversity), generating high risks of irreversible environmental damage [Steffen et al., 2015]. These environmental developments seem to be all the more decisive as the economic, social and democratic capacities of our societies also seem to be growing weaker year after year, with increasing inequalities, poverty, physical and psychological health problems, etc. Furthermore, due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, stimulus packages are being used, with the risk that they will bail out carbon-intensive industries and/or raise other unsustainability issues and compete at budgetary level with investment plans in the carbon-free circular economy [Markard and Rosenbloom, 2020]. Finally, in the face of the Ukrainian crisis and the energy crisis, the calls for energy conservation are multiplying in our economies still dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

  • 5 For a discussion of the concept of governance see for example Roger et al. 2017.
  • 6 “GOSETE” is a pioneering research project on exnovation with a metropolitan approach. It is funded (...)

4The aim of this article is to show that the concept of exnovation is a promising way to rethink the governance5 of transitions, i.e. efforts to coordinate and steer actions towards systemic and sustainable change. Yet, so far, the governance of transitions has been focused on “pioneers” and limited to support schemes for experimentation and dissemination of “system” innovations (technological and social) [Frantzeskaki et al., 2012; Loorbach et al., 2016]. Beyond the national and supranational anchoring of the examples which emerge from early research on exnovation, we argue that the concept is also relevant at urban level and for Brussels in particular. This is the objective of the research programme initiated by the GOSETE6 project, introduced here through a general theoretical framework and reflections on the exnovation issues which emerge as regards the future of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ).

  • 7 These interviews made it possible to: 1) gather the questions raised by the concept of exnovation; (...)

5This article presents the scope of ST and the limits of a governance of transitions focused solely on innovation (section 1), with respect to emblematic cases representing the turning point of exnovation in the international literature (section 2) and the emerging debate in Brussels (section 3). Finally, the conclusion discusses the refocusing of actions and the series of interventions which could incorporate the “governance of transitions”. It is based on a review of the literature focused on the field of ST (sections 1 and 2) and on an exploratory analysis of the issues in Brussels regarding the future of the LEZ (section 3). In order to identify them, ten or so exploratory interviews were conducted with the project's “stakeholders”: two administrations (Bruxelles Environnement and, members of the main socio-economic consultation body (Brupartners) and a citizens' movement for a sustainable city (BRAL)7. The exploratory analysis also examined documentation regarding the LEZ (e.g. Good Move plan, press articles and preparatory work for the road map 1.0 Low Emissions Brussels). While this material is used essentially in the last section, it also influenced the decision to base the literature review regarding exnovation on emblematic cases. As the concept was not known to the stakeholders, they stressed the importance of having relevant examples. This is a central aspect of facilitating the science/policy interface, as documented by examples abroad [Turnheim et al., 2020].

1. Innovation at the heart of transition processes

6ST research [Köhler et al., 2019] explains how socio-technical transitions take place and how they can be governed, while also looking at the facilitative role of innovation in these processes.

1.1 An evolutionary and institutionalist view of the role of innovation

7Transitions are often referred to in the singular (“the transition”), in reference to a normative orientation or end state. In contrast, ST research refers to transitions in the plural and defines them as “extensive, multidimensional, long-term transformative processes through which existing socio-technical systems move towards more sustainable modes of production and consumption” [Markard et al., 2012: 956].

  • 8 The regime is the dominant belief at a given time about the path to follow in a certain area of pro (...)

8This definition highlights how transitions occur in several production/consumption sectors (socio-technical systems). It proposes an approach to the problems of unsustainability in terms of governance oriented towards system innovation (Grin et al., 2010). The associated diagnoses are based on evolutionary economics, the history of technology, innovation theory and institutional theory, among others. These disciplinary perspectives converge on the analysis of unsustainable regimes, i.e. the sets of rules which keep socio-technical systems on paths of unsustainable development: path-dependent infrastructures and technologies (the impact of choices made in the past), rigid administrative routines, inefficient business models, established expertise and hegemonic ideologies [Geels, 2005]8. Notable examples are the carbon lock-in, the car-dependent mobility system and the systemic waste production by the linear economy (as opposed to the circular economy) [Seto et al., 2016; Kotilainen et al., 2019; Aminoff and Sundqvist-Andberg, 2021].

  • 9 A central role is given to niches which provide a protected space where radical innovations can dev (...)
  • 10 The socio-technical landscape forms the broader context in which regimes and niches develop. This i (...)

9The central question for ST research is how innovations can lead to regime shifts rather than incremental corrections [Geels and Schot, 2007]. Niches9 such as energy cooperatives or alternative food systems require economic support in order to survive within existing structures and possibly succeed in making them evolve at a later stage [Smith and Raven, 2012]. The confrontations between radical niche innovation and incremental regime innovation are mediated by broader societal changes which open and close “windows of opportunity”: the ICT revolution, sociological individualisation, economic cycles and sudden crises such as COVID-19 are examples of these so-called landscape dynamics10.

10Research in ST has shown that regime changes are not just a matter of bottom-up disruption [Smith et al., 2005]. Indeed, it is important to note that this work follows an evolutionary idea of change: slow but stable and extensive institutional changes influence the connections between the multiple innovation processes under way [Kemp et al., 2007; Grin et al., 2010].

1.2 Governance of transitions beyond direct support to niche innovations

11The governance of transitions is based largely on “niche innovation” strategies. The idea is to give initially fragile alternatives the means to survive, break through and become widespread. Countless research/action projects and collective actions have been undertaken to develop incubators, innovation-friendly ecosystems, hubs and institutional anchors for alternative food systems, energy cooperatives or new mobility solutions. In Brussels, there are many examples: the Co-create programme financed by Innoviris (“urban resilience co-research projects”), the Coopcity incubator and the Circlemade cluster initiated by the PREC.

12Strategic niche management [Kemp et al., 1998] has emphasised the importance of developing support networks, creating positive expectations regarding innovation, and organising social learning to achieve more viable socio-technical innovations. ST research therefore places great hopes in social economy stakeholders, start-ups and other outsiders [Seyfang and Smith, 2007]. Transitions governance – more than environmental governance – is guided by strong beliefs in “beyond state” governance, favouring the formation of new spaces for discussion and co-creation [Cobut et al., 2019; Swyngedouw, 2005].

13However, “niche innovation” (niche creation and support) has its limits. The excitement about new things and innovative projects minimises various latent innovation phenomena [Pel and Kemp, 2020], which restore and reinvent abandoned practices (e.g. Slow Food, ecovillages, time banks, cycling). A particularly persistent problem is that niche innovation remains limited to the pioneers who initiate the transition processes or the early adopters, to use Rogers' [1962] terms regarding the spread of innovations (cf. the “S-curve” based on the propensity to adopt innovation). This pioneering role is important, especially in the early phases of experimentation and take-off of innovations [Geels and Raven, 2006].

14What about the more advanced phases? Niche innovation tends to overlook barriers which are more structural: for example, consumer habits which hinder the development of the functionality economy [Roman et al., 2020] or the political entrenchment which “directs the debate” around “realistic solutions” to the environmental and social issues raised by company cars [May et al., 2019: 35-6].

15Furthermore, ST research has been criticised for advocating technocratic and post-political governance and steering [Avelino, 2017]. The language of systemic change tends to bypass issues of power. The emphasis on innovation, change of scale and transition trajectories reflects certain convictions: ecological modernisation and win-win solutions. On the other hand, the main argument of ST is that systemic innovation is needed: not just incremental solutions, but major institutional changes. Hence the amplification and gradual integration of internal criticisms regarding the risks of capture and co-optation of innovation [Smith, 2007; Pel, 2016], failures in transitions [Wells and Nieuwenhuis, 2012] and active resistance by stakeholders in the established regime [Geels, 2014]. In Brussels, power issues in the transition to an ecological system of bio-waste collection and treatment have been highlighted by De Muynck et al. [2020]. Political negotiation tends to reinforce existing positions in favour of industrial solutions (e.g. the future biomethanisation plant) and marginalise alternative stakeholders (e.g. neighbourhood composts) which aim for a “regenerative and reflective” approach. In the end, the latter are put in a position to of having to consent to the industrial solution, without the possibility of coming to a unanimous agreement and with uncertainties regarding the consideration of their reservations and proposals.

16Finally, power inequalities and associated justice issues are recognised increasingly as major challenges in transition processes [Avelino, 2017; McCauley and Heffron, 2018; Frenken and Schor, 2017]. Transition processes have winners and losers and generate pessimistic expectations for some stakeholders (e.g. in terms of stranded assets or job losses). Concerns about vulnerable sectors, regions and workers have shaken industrialised economies even before the COVID-19 crisis. In short, ST researchers are wondering about a governance of transitions which could also manage the politically complex aspects of the deliberate decline of certain activities and the potential losses associated with them.

2. The other side of transitions: exnovation

17For a range of recent ST research, exnovation – which we have defined as the deliberate exit from unsustainable socio-technical configurations of the economy – is likely to become a more important component of transition strategies.

2.1 The paradigmatic case of the Energiewende

18The German energy transition (Energiewende), with the planned phase-out of nuclear power and of coal in the longer term, has played a paradigmatic role in the literature on exnovation. A majority of the literature focuses on this case study. This interest allows us to question the structuring lines of an emerging field of research.

19The German case shows that without exnovation, innovations are superimposed on the existing regime without replacing it. Initially, renewable energy becomes more widespread, but the energy mix remains highly dependent on coal, nuclear energy, natural gas and oil [David, 2017: 143]. A turning point was reached in the Energiewende following the nuclear accident in Fukushima, with the commitment in 2011 to abandon nuclear power by 2022. Based on a survey among 400 German renewable energy producers, researchers have shown that the clear policy of an exit from nuclear power accelerated the spread of innovations in renewable energy by stimulating investments by industrialists in the sector [Rogge and Johnstone, 2017].

  • 11 “Soft” policy instruments are characterised by their informal and non-institutionalised nature. The (...)

20The commitment to phasing out coal came later (in 2020, by 2038). The literature has examined the reasons which have blocked this policy of exnovation. Socioeconomic challenges (prospects of job losses in some less dynamic regions) and geopolitical issues (energy dependence) explain the resistance to the exit from coal in Germany, despite the contested nature of this industry (over-subsidised, lacking an appealing technological mindset, incompatible with climate goals, etc.) [David and Gross, 2019]. David [2018: 339] analyses the role of organised collectives such as environmental NGOs and social movements against the backdrop of a stalemate, i.e. “when the development of an official decarbonisation policy seems impossible.” These collectives succeed in stopping the construction of new coal-fired power plants through “soft” political actions (e.g. protest, information campaigns, lobbying), thus triggering disinvestment11.

21Thus, the Energiewende is emblematic of proactive policies on a national scale aimed at dismantling entire industries (electricity producers and energy carriers) which raise various environmental problems (climate, resources, health risks, etc.). Policymakers may engage in “exit from” policies, especially if the disinvestment dimension is lagging behind non-governmental stakeholders.

22The erosion of the legitimacy of these industries is an important fact. Climatic, environmental, economic, social and societal impacts and factors may come into play, such as the existence of a long-standing anti-nuclear movement or a growing awareness following the Fukushima disaster. More generally, as Stegmaier [2014: 122] explains, “[new] sense-making and problem construction is a necessary precondition for changing the political agenda; [...] if the perception of the problem remains unchanged, any call to action is seen as futile and remains without consequence.” Today, however, the perception of the problem seems to have changed again and Germany is about to delay the closure of its last nuclear power plants. The exit from nuclear power and the exit from coal (the latter being a priority with respect to the former in view of climate objectives) are presented more and more as being difficult to reconcile in a context marked by the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the supply of Russian gas and by the publication of the European taxonomy which lists nuclear power as a “green” energy of “transition”.

23The exnovation/innovation relationship is bidirectional [Turnheim and Geels, 2012]. Exnovation is likely to “make room” for the deployment of systemic innovations. The maturation of alternatives conditions the credibility and timing of policies aimed at the phasing out of unsustainable industries. Furthermore, the multiple instruments and points of intervention associated with exnovation policies are part of the broader debate on policy mixes [Roberts and Geels, 2019]. These aim to complement the network governance approaches underlying niche innovation and develop coherent regulatory and financial instruments [Kivimaa and Kern, 2016], also addressing interactions with non-environmental policies [OECD, 2015].

24Indeed, exnovation is about policy termination (e.g. bans, stopping subsidies to carbon industries, replacing dominant stakeholders in advisory boards, etc.), but it is also about aftercare and socio-economic adjustment issues. The aftercare dimension is highlighted by Stegmaier [2014: 115] who states that “governance efforts to end a socio-technical system may last longer than the actual governance of the socio-technical system which was interrupted” (e.g. nuclear waste management).

25Exnovation processes tend to be conflictual and politically divisive. As explained by Galgóczi et al. [2020: 373], while there is no future for the coal industry, i.e. no technological reconfiguration which is compatible with the objective of decarbonisation, with a view to a fair transition, the challenge is to ensure that the workers and communities that depend on it will have a future. The challenges of exnovation therefore highlight the special role that the anticipation of socioeconomic adjustment policies must play [Heyen et al., 2017; Green and Gambhir, 2019]. This includes social dialogue with unions and the active management of professional reorientation and regional development [Galgóczi et al., 2020]

  • 12 The German case benefits from insights from other cases in the field of energy: Stegmaier et al. [2 (...)

26While the Energiewende case allows us to identify a series of challenges facing exnovation, their formulation based on this single case could limit its generalisation12.

2.2 Destabilisation and phasing out of cars with internal combustion engines on a European scale

27Although proactive exnovation policies regarding non-sustainability issues are still rare [Geels, 2019], it is nevertheless possible to examine the literature beyond the paradigmatic case of the Energiewende and other European cases of energy system transition. Galgóczi [2020] explains that the challenges of exnovation vary significantly not only according to national trajectories and policies, but also according to the industries or socio-technical systems considered. In this sense, the automotive regime represents a contrasting example, suitable for conceptualisation.

  • 13 In terms of local emissions linked to use (in the case of a decarbonised energy mix), electric vehi (...)

28How is the case of the automotive regime emblematic? First, it is an example of the destabilisation of specific problematic technologies (those related to internal combustion engines) and a possible industrial reorientation, rather than the dismantling of an entire industry. The future of cars seems relatively more open than that of coal (see Galgóczi's words in 2.1). This is due to the possibility of a technological break represented by electric vehicles [Kotilainen et al., 2019]. Yet, there are controversies surrounding the electrification of transportation, including its environmental impact [Pardi, 2020]13.

  • 14 One of these flexibilities is “mass adjustment.” It makes the target less constrained according to (...)

29This case highlights the importance of multi-level governance and the supranational level in particular. The EU is identified as the main stakeholder of destabilisation [Kaufmann et al., 2017]. Since 1999, the EU has regulated industry-generated CO2 emissions by setting progressive targets for average emissions from new cars sold and, more recently, by imposing dissuasive fines on non-compliant manufacturers. But this policy is accompanied by regulatory flexibilities which make it easier for manufacturers to meet the target14. For CO2 and other pollutants, the regulation has not produced the expected results. Wells and Nieuwenhuis [2012: 1689] even speak of “transition failure”.

  • 15 In 2015, Dieselgate revealed to the general public the fraudulent strategies of manufacturers to (n (...)

30The case of the automotive regime, in particular the end of the internal combustion engine, highlights the resilience of socio-technical regimes, their capacity to develop strategic responses in a spirit of self-preservation and to avoid or delay more structural forms of exnovation. Pardi [2020] explains that despite Dieselgate15 and the observed upward trend of CO2 emissions in this sector, the structural flaws of the European regulation have not been addressed. The recent decision (June 2022) to ban the sale of new internal combustion cars in the European Union from 2035 was made after decades of regulatory failure.

31Table 1 summarises the main features of the two exnovation cases presented in this section. The purpose is not to present a detailed analysis of empirical cases studied elsewhere, but to raise their emblematic value at the conceptual level and at the science/policy interface level. While these cases show the significance of the national and supranational levels, what is the situation at metropolitan level in terms of exnovation? The following section explores this last question with respect to the Brussels region.

Table 1. Summary of issues observed for two emblematic cases of exnovation


Destabilisation and phasing out of cars with internal combustion engines on a European scale

Main type of intervention

(termination instruments)

Nuclear and coal ban planned for a horizon of more than 10 years

Evolving regulation of the level of emissions (pollutants and CO2) for new vehicles

Ban on the sale of new internal combustion cars from 2035

Main level of governance

National (Germany)

Supranational (EU)

Factors of loss of legitimacy of the regime

Fukushima, disinvestment promoted by social movements (anti-nuclear, for the climate), over-subsidisation

Dieselgate, health impacts of air pollution, climate impacts, (disinvestment by the young post-car generations)

Innovation/exnovation dynamics (and multi-regime interactions)

The phasing out of nuclear power has increased dependence on coal in the short term, but has also accelerated the spread of renewable energies; there has also been a significant shift to imported gas from Russia (until the Ukrainian crisis)

The environmental impact of phasing out internal combustion engines depends on progress in energy transition

The importance of the technological substitute (EV) depends on the alternatives (e.g. soft mobility) as well as more ambitious innovation policies (post-car cities)


Nuclear waste treatment

Treatment of end-of-life internal combustion vehicles

Relocation of waste treatment (EU regulation on cross-border transfers)

Conflicts and socio-economic adjustments

Mining regions and jobs

Time frame for phasing out and compensation for operators and regime stakeholders affected negatively

Who will reduce their electricity and gas consumption (since the Ukrainian crisis)?

Employment in the European car industry (EVs require less manpower and different qualifications), repair trades and other trades dependent on internal combustion cars

Flexibility of the regulation for manufacturers

3. The future of the Low Emission Zone: an exnovation issue for Brussels

  • 16 Hansen and Coen [2015] discuss the biased literature in this sense.
  • 17 In 2018, the Brussels-Capital Region introduced a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) which progressively bans (...)

32The city and the region are now important research topics in the literature on sustainable transitions [Hodson and Marvin, 2010; Hansen and Coen, 2015; Köhler et al., 2019]. However, with the notable exception of Graff et al. [2021], these works are largely innovation-oriented (e.g. geography of niche formation and experimentation)16. Based on the interviews conducted and the documentation gathered, we argue that the future of the Brussels LEZ can be effectively interpreted as an exnovation problem17. This problem is intrinsically linked to the destabilisation of the car industry on a European scale (section 2.2). The future of the Low Emission Zone prefigures a new phase of a multi-level process, marked by the past shortcomings of European regulation and manufacturers' self-regulation. To overcome such shortcomings, cities could play a key role by pursuing ambitious policies on the various dimensions of sustainability rather than simply disruptive policies in terms of technology.

  • 18 For an analysis of public charging infrastructure roll-out models see the article by De Clerck and (...)

33The Good Move plan, which sets out the main policy directions for mobility in Brussels, includes a measure to phase out the use of internal combustion vehicles by 2030/35 [Bruxelles Mobilité, 2020]. This measure is an in-depth continuation of the LEZ and has recently been the subject of a road map in view of its implementation [Bruxelles Environnement, 2021]. The idea of planning a “phasing out from” is explicitly in line with an exnovation problem. Moreover, there is a technological focus: in Brussels, the planning concerns the phasing out of the use of technologies which have characterised the development of the automotive regime since its creation (internal combustion engines). This technological focus can be seen in the criteria used to establish the phasing-out schedule (according to the type of engine and the European emission standards known as “Euro standards”) and in the importance given in the road map to technological substitution issues (in particular the charging infrastructure required for electric vehicles)18.

  • 19 “In line with the government's decision to phase out internal combustion engines by 2030, it is imp (...)
  • 20 The federal government agreement [2020: 60] states "that all new company vehicles must be carbon ne (...)
  • 21 In Brussels, the registration and annual circulation taxes are set at a minimum level for all elect (...)

34Certain elements seem to indicate the beginnings of a systemic approach to exnovation, in particular the fact that the measure for the phasing out of internal combustion engines has been integrated into the Good Move plan. It appears to be a component of a broader policy mix which balances the challenges of innovation and exnovation in the area of mobility. However, this entails a significant risk of compartmentalisation. The phasing out of internal combustion engines is a measure driven by objectives related to the reduction of local air pollution and global warming, and not by an approach aimed at doing away with the dominance of cars [Hubert, 2008]. The latter would imply a reduction in the ownership/use of private vehicles, a reorientation of land use and infrastructure, sufficient alternatives in terms of collective or active modes of transportation, etc. The phasing out of internal combustion engines does not claim to address these aspects, which are “covered” by other measures, at least in part. However, the interactions between the different measures considered and their cross-impacts on mobility uses seem to be under-problematised. For example, the extent and characteristics of the “residual number of cars”19 – i.e. those which will actually be converted to electric – remain unclear. This is especially critical given that the phasing out of internal combustion engines currently has to “live with” the federal decision to continue the company car regime [May et al., 2020]20. In addition, regional policy seems to ignore or minimise the problem of SUV-type cars, these “unreasonable” cars which consume a lot of resources (energy, materials, urban space, household budgets) and which are tending to become the norm for electric cars21.

  • 22 Prime Bruxell'Air for the modal transfer of Brussels residents who deregister their vehicle and Pri (...)

35Exnovation also leads us to problematise the phasing out of internal combustion engines in terms of socio-economic adjustments. This aspect is addressed in the regional strategy by the introduction of support measures such as subsidies (Bruxell'Air and LEZ)22 and by the identification of “target groups”, “precarious users” and “those who might encounter more difficulties during this transition” [Bruxelles Environnement, 2021: 35]. While the question of social inequalities has (finally) been raised in the context of urban transition/mobility policies, the support measures considered might be insufficient in terms of the challenges regarding the right to mobility (e.g. non-use of subsidies, insufficient alternatives for certain users – disadvantaged, living in the outskirts, working atypical hours). Moreover, the net impact on employment of the phasing out of internal combustion engines and its more qualitative transformations are under-problematised issues at this stage in the regional strategy, which is likely to limit or delay action in terms of active management of professional reorientation and land conversion (e.g. garage mechanics, Heyvaert neighbourhood, trades and sectors indirectly affected). On a more global scale, communities which are “far from home” will be significantly impacted by new pollution resulting from the production of electric vehicle components and the extraction of necessary raw materials [EEA, 2018], as well as from the export of internal combustion vehicles banned in Brussels [UNEP, 2020]. This issue of environmental justice [McCauley and Heffron, 2018] is virtually absent from the Brussels debate on the phasing out of internal combustion engines. In short, the problem of negative impacts and the management of losses for precarious users, local employment and distant communities is scarcely or not at all anticipated, while the benefit of induced (and high-end) demand for car manufacturers is enabled from the outset through the accelerated renewal of the cars on the roads.

  • 23 The dismantling/destruction of vehicles is organised in Belgium by Febelauto. The export sector is (...)

36Finally, an “exnovation” reading of the LEZ future phasing out of internal combustion engines encourages a greater emphasis on aftercare issues. In particular, this concerns the management of end-of-life vehicles, which will need to anticipate larger flows23, and to a lesser extent, cars over 30 years old (known as old timers, registered “O”).


37This article contributes to paving the way for a systemic view of exnovation, a concept which refers to the deliberate (planned) exit from unsustainable modes of production/consumption. It is based on the observation that exnovation receives little attention in society, is even taboo for some and does not generate immediate business opportunities or mobilising projects which are easily mobilised. In transition studies, it has only recently emerged as a subject of research in its own right, in a context where calls to accelerate transitions are multiplying, as are calls for fair transitions, while “niche innovation” strategies no longer seem sufficient.

38Anchored in the theoretical structure of ST, exnovation provides an evolutionary and institutionalist framework to address issues such as the planned exit from nuclear power, coal and internal combustion engines. In light of these cases, the concept qualifies the strong beliefs regarding the governance of transitions – and the role of the state – which prevail when the focus of transitions is on niche innovation. While the emblematic cases presented in the literature emphasise a proactive approach and state planning, as well as certain types of unsustainable socio-technical configurations (centred around mature technologies), the proposed definition is generic in nature and is intended to include the possible reverse sides of transitions (including new negative trends such as the widespread use of SUVs).

  • 24 (...)
  • 25
  • 26

39We have suggested that the concept was also useful for Brussels, for example in the field of mobility. Let us also mention the exit from oil-fired boilers, which is planned for 2025, the end of new construction24, the banning of disposable plastic25, and in another area, the end of cage farming26. But exnovation is not synonymous with banning. On the one hand, there are multiple instruments for initiating the exit (withdrawal of public aid, replacement of dominant stakeholders, promotion of disinvestment, etc.). On the other hand – and this point is central – the future of the LEZ from the perspective of exnovation highlights the number and systemic nature of the issues, beyond the preparation of a phasing-out timetable. The exnovation challenges show a strategy of technological substitution aligned with the regime (electric vehicles) and the limited ambitions of this strategy in connection with the need for more extensive transformations of regional planning and mobility, socio-economic adjustments and aftercare (see also [Callorda Fossati et al., 2023]).

40Finally, by emphasising the eminently complex, conflicting and diverse nature of these “exit from” processes, exnovation appears to be a concept which does not simply describe or explain but participates in the politicisation of the arbitrations regarding a more sustainable future [David and Gross, 2019]. It proposes a concrete and different way to imagine the challenges posed by the processes of transition towards sustainable socio-technical systems (appendix 1), i.e. beyond the dominant approach centred on the “pioneers” of innovation first, and then on the problems regarding a “delayed” adoption of innovation.

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Appendix 1. Innovation and exnovation (the X curve)

Adapted from Hebinck et al. 2022.

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1 In the food sector:


3 The PREC is the Plan Régional en Économie Circulaire (2016-2020). Its successor (SRTE or Shifting Economy) is currently being developed.

4 This field studies the sustainability problems faced by socio-technical systems and their possibilities for transformation (see the journal Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions). The multi-level perspective (MLP) approach to transitions (Geels 2002) is a very influential heuristic model in the field of ST. Niche, regime and landscape are three key concepts in this approach (see below in the text for definitions of these concepts).

5 For a discussion of the concept of governance see for example Roger et al. 2017.

6 “GOSETE” is a pioneering research project on exnovation with a metropolitan approach. It is funded by Innoviris as part of Anticipate call on “governance of the future”. Our website:

7 These interviews made it possible to: 1) gather the questions raised by the concept of exnovation; 2) identify the LEZ as an emblematic case of exnovation issues in Brussels; 3) identify the stakeholders and viewpoints involved.

8 The regime is the dominant belief at a given time about the path to follow in a certain area of production/consumption with respect to technology, infrastructure, consumption practices, business models, regulations, etc. As explained by Markard et al. [2012], the main idea of the regime is to impose an approach and direction for incremental (rather than transformative/transitional) socio-technical change.

9 A central role is given to niches which provide a protected space where radical innovations can develop (e.g. through R&D labs, subsidies, incubators, “ecosystems”). These spaces are necessary when innovations encounter powerful forms of resistance from the stakeholders in the existing regime which benefit from the status quo.

10 The socio-technical landscape forms the broader context in which regimes and niches develop. This is the level over which stakeholders have the least control and includes megatrends (e.g. the slow evolution of spatial structures, political ideologies, values, demographics) and exogenous events (e.g. a war, a pandemic). Landscape pressures have the potential to destabilise existing regimes and create a "window of opportunity" for alternatives to gain momentum.

11 “Soft” policy instruments are characterised by their informal and non-institutionalised nature. They are used by organised co-operatives which seek to put pressure on policymakers and influence public policy [David, 2018].

12 The German case benefits from insights from other cases in the field of energy: Stegmaier et al. [2014] work on the European-wide ban on incandescent light bulbs and Turnheim and Geels [2012] analyse the historical case of the destabilisation of the coal industry in Britain.

13 In terms of local emissions linked to use (in the case of a decarbonised energy mix), electric vehicles would be less advantageous in terms of the impacts generated elsewhere, notably by the raw material extraction phase (which generates pollution) [EEA, 2018]. Moreover, the question of the end-of-life of batteries remains problematic, although solutions are beginning to be put forward [Haveaux, 2020].

14 One of these flexibilities is “mass adjustment.” It makes the target less constrained according to the average mass of cars sold, favouring manufacturers of more powerful and heavier SUV-type models [T&E, 2020]. This aspect of the regulation is one of the explanations for the industry's move upmarket, i.e. the widespread use of SUVs.

15 In 2015, Dieselgate revealed to the general public the fraudulent strategies of manufacturers to (not) reduce emissions of air pollutants.

16 Hansen and Coen [2015] discuss the biased literature in this sense.

17 In 2018, the Brussels-Capital Region introduced a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) which progressively bans the circulation of older vehicles, as these vehicles are in principle associated with higher levels of polluting emissions. Each year, the list of vehicles concerned grows and is destined to cover all internal combustion vehicles by 2035. LEZs are part of a family of measures known as UVARs (Urban Vehicle Access Regulations) [Brambilla and Uccelli, 2019]. Contrary to the exnovation problem, the UVAR approach does not deal with the ways out of major socio-technical systems. However, it has the advantage of specifying termination/exit instruments in the area of urban mobility.

18 For an analysis of public charging infrastructure roll-out models see the article by De Clerck and Vanhaverbeke [2021].

19 “In line with the government's decision to phase out internal combustion engines by 2030, it is important to support the emergence of zero-emission vehicles as an alternative for the remaining vehicles on the roads. Let us recall that the idea is above all to reduce the number of individual vehicles on our roads in the medium and long term in favour of soft mobility, public transport, carpooling and carsharing” [Brussels-Capital Region, 2019: 12].

20 The federal government agreement [2020: 60] states "that all new company vehicles must be carbon neutral by 2026.”

21 In Brussels, the registration and annual circulation taxes are set at a minimum level for all electric vehicles. Electric SUVs benefit from this tax reduction in the same way as smaller electric vehicles (e.g. city cars). SUVs account for more than one in two (50,8 %) new cars registered in the first half of 2022 in Belgium (FEBIAC, 2022).

22 Prime Bruxell'Air for the modal transfer of Brussels residents who deregister their vehicle and Prime LEZ for the purchase of a new vehicle for small companies affected by the LEZ. Non-take-up is high for these two allowances, which are currently being reformed.

23 The dismantling/destruction of vehicles is organised in Belgium by Febelauto. The export sector is governed by European regulations on the cross-border transfers of waste.




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Ela Callorda Fossati, Solène Sureau, Bonno Pel, Tom Bauler et Wouter Achten, « Exnovation: imagining sustainable transitions differently in Brussels  »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 174, mis en ligne le 04 décembre 2022, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ela Callorda Fossati

Dr. Ela Callorda Fossati is a researcher at SONYA/ULB, associate member of the CIRTES/UCLouvain and lecturer at ESPO/ UCLouvain. With a background in Development Economics (PhD from the University of Bordeaux), her work focuses on transformations of the social economy, social innovation, and sustainability transitions. Currently, Ela investigates “exnovation challenges” in sustainability transitions in Brussels (see the GOSETE project that she coordinates).
CALLORDA FOSSATI, E., PEL, B., SUREAU, S., BAULER, T., et ACHTEN, W., 2023. Implementing exnovation? Ambitions and governance complexity in the case of the Brussels Low Emission Zone. In KORETSKY, Z., STEGMAIER, P., TURNHEIM, B., et VAN LENTE, H., (eds), Technologies in Decline: Socio-Technical Approaches to Discontinuation and Destabilisation. Routledge.

Solène Sureau

Dr. Solène Sureau is a researcher at SONYA/ULB. With a background in Macroeconomics and Environmental management, she worked during her PhD on the methodological development of Social Life Cycle Analysis. She works currently on the analysis of exnovation processes, from the perspective of their sustainability impacts.
Sureau, Solène. 2021. The LEZ and its future from an exnovation perspective. Potential sustainability impacts and alternative paths. In: GOSETE Research Report 3.1,

Bonno Pel

Dr. Bonno Pel is a researcher/lecturer at SONYA/ULB. Having a background in environmental planning and political philosophy, his work focuses on the dynamics, governance and politics of sustainability transitions and social innovations. In recent years he has published extensively on the social innovation dimensions of transitions, both conceptually as well as empirically.
Pel, B. (2021), Transition ‘backlash’: Towards Explanation, Governance and Critical Understanding. In: Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, Vol. 41: 32-34Description

Tom Bauler

Tom Bauler is a professor at SONYA/ULB. His research fields cover alternative indicators to GDP as well as social innovation and socio-technical exnovation, as well as citizen alternatives and transition processes, and more broadly the dynamics and discourses of degrowth. Tom Bauler holds the Chair “Environment&Economy” at ULB.

Wouter Achten

Wouter Achten is a professor at SONYA/ULB. His research fields cover environmental impact assessment and sustainability evaluation, mainly through life cycle thinking. Wouter holds the chair on “Environmental impact management” at the ULB.

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