Where from and by whom? Tracing academic and practitioner visions of energy systems change related to lower income countries
Licentiatavhandling, 2023

Dominant agendas of global sustainable development broadly emphasise the urgency of a transition towards an environmentally, socially and economically preferable future. Critical scholars have raised concerns that this transition either produces new environmental, social and economic problems or reproduces those problems of the present system. They call instead for more radical transformations, encapsulating both material change and epistemic pluralism in research related to this. Energy systems are a key domain in which these different conceptualisations of change are discussed. One critical area in which perspectives diverge regards the spatial aspects of how energy systems change is designed and implemented within and between countries. Where do, will or could the drivers of sociotechnical change stem from? Which places are expected to be more beneficiaries than generators of change, and what are the implications of this for ambitions of “sustainability”?

The answers to these questions, I argue, depend on how, and from where, these processes of change are envisioned. This licentiate thesis advances this inquiry by exploring how, from where, by whom and for whom energy systems change is envisioned related to lower income countries, with Rwanda as the principal country of focus. This broad landscape is explored through a synthesis of three articles which approach these questions using different theoretical approaches. These articles analyse processes of knowledge production at a global level. They also explore how energy systems change is envisioned by academics from diverse research traditions. They additionally examine actors seeking to facilitate or implement energy systems change at a national and subnational level. Together, my analysis shows that actors who are from, or based in, higher income countries are often envisioned as the principal architects of energy systems change. Common kinds of actors invoked include scientists, donors or private sector companies with an international footprint. Additionally, similar ideas are often articulated by actors who describe themselves as being from lower income countries. A prerequisite for the latter is however that they either are: (1) practitioners working for organisations headquartered in higher income countries, or (2) academics working with theory developed in higher income countries.

Alternatives to these visions exist. Such alternatives place a greater emphasis on the role of users as coproducers of change originating from whichever place is envisioned to benefit from change. This licentiate thesis therefore illustrates the need for both academics and practitioners – particularly those based in or from higher income countries and working in relation to lower income countries – to reflect carefully on how they envision the energy systems change which they participate in. This is to avoid locking in assumptions regarding who or what drives change, particularly when change is urgently demanded. I argue that such assumptions risk locking lower income countries such as Rwanda into global circuits of capital on an imbalanced footing. This may reproduce relationships of economic dependence and capital accumulation in higher income countries. The thesis concludes by reflecting where else this thesis may speak to, noting my own analytical focus on the geographic situatedness of knowledge making. I argue that this thesis may be relevant to other locations besides Rwanda (and perhaps even locations in higher income countries) which host encounters between globalised agendas of change emphasising urgency and scale and other possibilities which are more rooted in localised framings of problems and solutions.

sociotechnical imaginaries


sociotechnical change



lower income countries

knowledge politics




Room Götaplatsen (2427b), Floor 4, Vasa Hus 2, Chalmers Campus Johanneberg, Vera Sanbergs Allé 8
Opponent: Professor Adrian Smith, University of Sussex, UK


Samuel John Unsworth

Chalmers, Teknikens ekonomi och organisation, Environmental Systems Analysis

Unsworth, S., Ahlborg, H., Hellberg, S. Agency, directionality, location and the geographic situatedness of knowledge making: The politics of framing in innovation research on energy.

Unsworth, S., Ahlborg, H., Hellberg, S. “Everything needs time” or “we don’t have time”: Contrasting sociotechnical imaginaries of energy systems change related to electricity and cooking services.

Innovation för socialt inkluderande energitjänster i Rwanda

GENIE, Chalmers jämställdhet för excellens, 2020-10-15 -- 2025-10-14.

Research Training Partnership with University of Rwanda – Capacity Development in Sustainable Energy

SIDA (FP1924_35), 2019-07-01 -- 2024-06-30.


Hållbar utveckling

Innovation och entreprenörskap


Social och ekonomisk geografi

Tvärvetenskapliga studier

Statsvetenskap (exklusive studier av offentlig förvaltning och globaliseringsstudier)





Room Götaplatsen (2427b), Floor 4, Vasa Hus 2, Chalmers Campus Johanneberg, Vera Sanbergs Allé 8


Opponent: Professor Adrian Smith, University of Sussex, UK

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