Accepted Papers:

The role of system builders in UK urban tramway development, 1870-1896  


Anne-Marie Coles (University of Greenwich)

Paper Short Abstract:

The role of system builders explains dynamics of emergent infrastructures. A core principle is the flexibility to shape large technical systems. However, investigating the role of system builders in early UK tramways demonstrates how contingent constraints can restrict this flexibility for action.

Paper long abstract:

This presentation investigates the socio-technical dynamics that influenced emergence of urban tramways during the latter part of the nineteenth century. In particular, it revisits Hughes (1983) concept of system builders, a heterogeneous coalition of diverse individuals and social groups which creates momentum for change. In Hughes' analysis, infrastructures at the early stage have maximum flexibility to shape their socio-technical position, before becoming fully embedded, inflexible structures. However, emerging technical systems must be strategically aligned within the prevailing social context, to promote benefits of enhanced technological capability while responding to contingent resistances. For Hughes, system builders take on this role.

In terms of urban tramway development, this emerging stage can be investigated through focus on the period between two key pieces of legislation. The 1870 Tramways Act, which set regulations regarding control of new tramways, and the 1896 Light Railways Act. The initial policy attempted to adjudicate between competing social interests, including concerns about aesthetics, safety and fair use of public space. System builders had to negotiate these rules in their attempts to initiate new projects. They were constrained by statutes on ownership, operation and responsibility for highway maintenance. Such developments took place within a wider context where social mobility from improved public transport was regarded with suspicion. This case identifies social and cultural constraints faced by system builders and raises questions about the nature of socio-technical flexibility.

Hughes, T (1983) Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880 - 1930, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press.

panel V06
Markets, innovation dynamics and system building