Colombia, the SDGS, the Green Book and transformative innovation – A reflection

Thinking & Analysis

12 JULY 2018

The Colombian Green Book on transformative innovation policy and the SDGs: An opportunity for Colombian regions to turn transformative theory into transformation action

In May of 2018 the Colombian department of science and technology, Colciencias, published their “Green Book” policy document that sets out how the sustainable development goals can be met by 2030 through a transformative science technology and innovation (STI) policy. The Green Book presents a radical vision of the role of science and technology policy in Colombia and calls for profound transformations in socio technical systems that translate into changes in how we use natural resources, consume energy, produce and consume food, and use mobility services to reduce greenhouse emissions. Future innovation policy, it states, cannot be centred only on economic growth but must reflect a balance of economic, social and environmental priorities.

The Green Book argues that STI can play a fundamental role in the SDGs, but for that to happen it acknowledges that a new policy approach is needed. One that is framed through dialogue with a broad spectrum of society and considers, not one, but multiple possible paths and solutions. Therefore, policy experimentation and policy learning are required, backed up with evaluation of not just the short term outputs but also the medium and long term processes. This transformative approach calls for inter-disciplinary collaboration between civil society organisations, public, private and university sectors with regional policy playing a prominent role.

Working for the past three years as part of the SPRU team with Colciencias, the first point to underline is that, as an innovation policy document, the Green Book provides a bold new narrative that marks a refreshing change for a national innovation agency. It breaks with the conventional set of innovation policy recommendations still espoused by many multilateral organisations that continue to focus on overcoming market failure and catch-up strategies. In a developmental context, this has done much to exacerbate environmental degradation and embed social inequality. In this sense, the process that led to the writing of the Green Book should not be overlooked. The ideas of Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP), upon which the Green Book draws, were not posed or conceived, as a model, by a fly-in-fly-out academic hierarchy reinforced by large funding streams. But they were also not developed in isolation from international debates on STI policy. The Green Book was the culmination of three years of discussion, collaboration and coproduction between academics at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), Colciencias and those taking place in the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) involving six other national science and technology agencies from three continents between 2016 and 2018. The process also included workshops in Colombia with national policy makers, regional policy makers and mentoring projects with around 50 Colombian academics in seven different regions. Further, it involved a research project between SPRU academics and Colombian PhD students based in SPRU with Colombian researchers to learn more about the role of regional policy in the transformative innovation process. Colciencias itself conducted a survey with nearly half a million respondents on the topic of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and activities involving more than 1500 people.

The attention now turns to implementation. The Green Book rightly identifies a number of genuine risks. In my view, in addition to these there are some fundamental questions about what transformation actually might mean in a country such as Colombia. These policies have not been implemented before and should certainly involve more in-depth research alongside the policy implementation. I will restrict myself to three issues that may pose inflexion points for STI policy in Colombia.

The first of these asks the straightforward question of what role do policy makers play in transformative innovation? I would suggest it does NOT rely on two common methods used by policy makers. The first is the reliance on the so-called “invisible hand” to achieve transformative change which translates into neutral policies, for example subsidies to increase R&D funding by firms, which may (or may not) have a multiplier effect on overall private R&D spending, but are very unlikely to be transformative. The distinctive feature of transformative innovation is that it is constructed by actors and agents that have visions and narratives to build new sustainable socio technical systems. Policy makers can facilitate narrative building and visions (and this can inspire new policies), and policy instruments exist (for example public procurement policies, experimentation) that can help to develop these alternatives. At the other extreme and to be avoided are over reliant on top down interventions that are especially common in developmental contexts. Often technical expertise is used to justify policies that are often little more than transmission mechanisms  with little or no reference to population on whom these technologies are being imposed.

This leads to the second point, that if the policy maker role is to facilitate (rather than construct) transformations, the policy making process need to function with a light touch and develop sophisticated means of dialogue and interaction with actors around this policy. Thus an important feature of transformative change is the active participation of civil society or as Hess, (2015) terms it “mobilized publics”. These actors are often working on transformative–related projects that are times underfunded because of the higher risk they represent or because they challenge certain agendas favoured by elites or incumbents. And yet it is often from within these movements that alternatives emerge. Our research within this project focused on the social movement to defend the socio-environmental systems in the wetlands of Bogota. This involved coalitions of residents, academics, students and environmental activists that found an echo in the S&T system, and responded by undertaking research and facilitating a change in policy towards protecting peri-urban wetlands.  How innovation policy can interact with and learn from social movements is something that is completely absent from Schumpeterian notions of innovation. Nevertheless, local networked social movements can represent a powerful and sophisticated civil society expression for social change and can indicate to top policy makers where further investment should be made.

Finally there is the question of which actors are likely to lead transformative change in Colombia. No STI policy pretending to address the SDG goals will have legitimacy if it does not significantly challenge the vast social and environmental challenges and inequalities that exist in society. The economic history in Latin American has shown that most radical changes in technologies have been exogenous and directed at middle and higher income groups. There are next to no examples of disruptive entrepreneurs that have made an impact on the world scene and important question marks have to be raised about the commitment of the large economic groups and multinationals to transformative innovation. Policy can nevertheless encourage more fundamental changes by unlocking new learning dynamics from new actors with sustainable alternatives that can begin to change the panorama of innovation.


Hess, D. J. (2015). Undone science and social movements: A review and typology. In Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (pp. 141–154). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315867762

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *