This list provides an overview of various terms that are used in Stepping Up. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the project, it is necessary to create a common understanding of what terms mean, as they may differ between disciplines. Hence sometimes Stepping Up’s usage may differ from that elsewhere. 

Approximate definitions are provided below, along with additional detail illustrative of the connections between Stepping Up and existing research.

WEF Nexus

The ‘water-energy-food (WEF) nexus’ describes the interactions between the water, energy and food systems. Although regulated in silos, none are truly independent.

More detail:

A nexus approach aims to ensure that interdependencies, co-benefits and trade-offs of water, energy, and food water are considered in their management There are many synergies between water, energy and food, however to date these systems have tended to be managed in isolation. Fragmented responsibilities, lack of coordination and inconsistencies between policies and regulatory frameworks, along with different visions for the future lead to their disconnection. But if water, energy and food systems are to be sustainable, decision-makers – including those responsible for only a single sector – need to consider trans-sectoral impacts and influences. (UN World Water Assessment Programme 2014)


Innovations might be technological, social or institutional - a piece of equipment, a practice, a policy or a novel governance structure that has the potential to be more sustainable. An innovation does not need to be a wholly new concept: it may be a new way of exploiting a niche, or the application of an old concept into markets not traditionally open to them.

More detail:

System innovations are transformations in systems of provision and associated changes in consumer practices and lifestyles. Examples of system innovations offering environmental benefits include: novel protein foods based on non-meat proteins, precision agriculture, decentralised production of electricity using renewables and micro-turbines, underground transport of commodities in pipelines, and industrial ecology. More info: Kemp, 2009


A space in which novel potential solutions to a given problem may become established (niche-innovations). While their scale may vary, niches are distinctive as they operate according to a different set of rules to the incumbent system, therein enabling innovations to emerge and mature. 

More detail:

Innovations are initially unstable socio-technical configurations. Hence, niches act as ‘incubation rooms’ protecting novelties against mainstream market selection. Niche-innovations are carried and developed by small networks of dedicated actors, often outsiders or fringe actors. More info:  Geels and Schot, 2007

Case study

A real world instance in which an innovation has been deployed that might enhance our understanding of the processes and implications of scaling-up. For any innovation there are multiple case studies that might be analysed. Stepping up explores case studies of four niche innovations; anaerobic digestion, insect proteins, and the social and technical recovery of value from surplus food.

More detail:

 “A case study usually involves investigating one or more phenomena in some depth in one place, region or country. What makes it an actual or potential case is that the phenomena under investigation (e.g. workfare policies, flexible manufacturing technologies, postmodern architecture) can be found in other places, regions or countries: the case may thus be unique but is not singular. [Case study research] shows the world to be persistently diverse. Yet it shows that this diversity arises out of multi-scaled relations such that it does not emerge sui generis.” More info: Castree, 2005

Scaling-up / Up-scaling

The process of extending the processes and implications of niche innovations to other scales and/or contexts. Scaling-up can take various forms; examples include growth, either in size or geographic range, the number of actors involved, or the scope of their application; multiplication, as similar innovations emerge in multiple contexts; and facilitation whereby the successes of one innovation create the conditions that enable complementary activities.

Associated terms:

  • Transferability – lessons that might be learnt to apply in other contexts and settings
  • Scalability – facilitates uptake and expansion, either scaling out (replication of initial innovation), or scaling up (application at a larger scale)

Transformational change / step-change

A change that entails departure from current modes of thought and action, presenting a fundamental challenge to the existing state of socio-environmental systems. Note that transformation describes the extent, rather than the direction of impact; while transformation does not guarantee a move towards sustainable systems, radical shifts in terms of structure, culture and practices are considered necessary for sustainable systems to be achieved.

More detail:

“A ‘comprehensive socio-economic, political and socio-cultural process of change which incorporates controls and strategies, but is not reducible to them’. Transformation into a greener economy, in this sense, suggests a radical change that some argue will require a new ‘global social contract’ supporting ‘innovations for more sustainable use of resources’ often through a ‘new technological revolution’, but also requiring a ‘global remodelling of economy and society towards sustainability’; a process that itself will depend on ‘societal shaping and support’. More info:  Davies, 2013

Low impact

Innovations that either enhance or do not further diminish the sustainability of socio-environmental systems. In the context of the nexus, while a specific innovation might be directed towards water, energy, or food, it is at least sympathetic to the interdependencies between these systems, aiming to enhance co-benefits and ameliorate detrimental implications on other systems.

Suggested alternative phrasing: positive impact, sustainable solution, reduced environmental impact

ABM (Agent Based Model)

Agent based models, or ABMs, help us to understand how the individual behaviours of different actors (such as individuals, businesses, institutions) in relation to their surroundings shape the system as a whole and the influences of associated with networks and decisions change based on perceived utility and learning.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion provides a route of disposal for food waste and agricultural residues that produces useful by-products with substantial implications for energy, food and water systems. These by-products include biogas, which can substitute fossil fuel derived energy, and digestate, an organic fertiliser that can replace manufactured fertiliser. More info.

Insects for Protein

Insects may be used as an alternative protein source for both animals and people. Insect-based animal feed would represent a significant change in terms of the impacts of the food system on land use, water and climate change while as a potential meat-substitute, insects generally offer comparable nutritional value yet emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and require less land and water. More info.

Social Recovery of Value from Surplus Food

Efforts to divert food from waste streams so that increasing volume finds its way to human consumption are increasingly common. Aside from the social value of redistribution, scaling up this process makes use of embodied energy and water in food, and ensures that the impacts of food production and manufacture are not in vain. More info.

Technical Recovery of Value from Surplus Food

There is value in surplus food, and technical recovery enables what might otherwise be wasted to be exploited as a resource with benefits across the WEF nexus. For example, it is possible to extract proteins from potatoes rejected due to aesthetic considerations that may then be used in animal feed, thereby substituting the production of feed crops. More info.


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