June: the summer of Transformative Innovation Policy?

Thinking & Analysis

25 JUNE 2018

For those interested in Transformative Innovation Policy, June was an exciting month, with two great conferences: the annual gathering of the Forum on Studies of Research and Innovation Policies (Eu-SPRI), held in Paris, and the International Sustainability Transitions Conference held in Manchester by the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN). In this blog, I would like to reflect on some of the emerging intersections that were evident in those events.

During the three days of the Eu-SPRI conference, I attended presentations from Track 2, which covered explorations of how STI policy may engage in addressing societal challenges. The sessions were vibrant and insightful with a good mixture of critical thinking and pragmatism. A recurring theme was the need to recognise the diversity of challenges upon which STI has been called to act. A variety of approaches were proposed to map the different types of challenges, possible solutions, and potential pathways for policy action. Various presentations grappled with the (lack of) nuances of mission-oriented framing, which seems to be taking hold at the European level (see the video of the closing session for more details).

Being familiar with the work the TIP consortium is carrying out, I was not surprised by that emphasis. I was, however, concerned with a tendency to conflate ‘challenge-led’ with ‘mission-oriented’ approaches to formulating STI policy. As others pointed out, it is still an open question whether it is possible or desirable to translate challenges into missions, and whether such translation implies a top-down and technocentric definition of what is to be achieved. This question sparked tensions between pragmatically adopting the language of recent European documents and proposing other nuanced ways of approaching grand challenges.

As a transitions scholar, I found particularly problematic the idea that wicked problems (such as climate change) could be reduced to well-defined missions, with a high degree of consensus. The work on historical transitions and the recent history of climate change negotiations fly in the face of that assumption. It may be that missions may address some aspects of grand challenges, but to assume that they are equivalent would be highly problematic.

In both conferences I heard pertinent and important calls for reflection on the limitations of STI policy when dealing with ill-structured challenges which blur the boundaries with other policy domains and which involve society at large. It is, after all, not self-evident that innovation policies have a leading role in bringing about such transitions in, for example, healthcare. There were extended discussions about possibilities and limitations of coordination across multiple domains – for instance, through institutional reforms and analysis of the existing policy mixes (beyond STI). Interestingly, there were also clear indications that these communities may be starting to move past depoliticised representation of how such coordination comes about, to recognise that incumbent interests are often behind calls for coordination and convergence, and that ‘bringing everyone into the room’ is far from a self-evident proposition.

During the IST conference, Johan Schot and I organised a dialogue session that brought together scholars who inhabit the intersection between those two communities (namely Matthias Weber, Gijs Diercks, Yap Xiao-Shan, and Karoline Rogge). That session highlighted many other intersections and opened up discussion in a variety of areas for further exploration.

The STRN community has much to offer to the current debates about challenge-led and mission-oriented policy. That community is, after all, focused on transition studies that seek further understanding of the long-term, systemic, multi-actor processes of change in socio-technical systems. Much of the theoretical underpinning of discussions in the Eu-SPRI alluded directly to conceptualisations from transition studies. Promisingly, the STRN community has been increasingly pro-active in engaging with policymakers.

As an enthusiast for interdisciplinary collaborations, I find curious that two communities that have so much in common have but few interlocutors. About a dozen researchers attended both conferences, but that is still a small number considering the clear overlaps between both.

Excitingly, the Eu-SPRI has recently initiated an effort to incite a broader dialogue, with STRN, TIPC and Globelics as partners. In the coming months, this effort will have a similar presence in upcoming conferences and prepare a workshop with representatives of these four networks and with policymakers. This initiative is a humble step towards redressing the fragmentation of the field and fostering essential discussions about what it takes for innovation policy to be transformative.

Jonas Torrens is a part-time research Fellow in the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC), and a Doctoral Candidate in SPRU. He is currently coordinating an inter-network dialogue within the science, technology and innovation domain, initiated and funded by the Eu-SPRI. As of June 2018, he joined the STRN steering group. In SPRU, Jonas regularly teaches seminars on Innovation for Sustainability and has previously coordinated the 2017 Eu-SPRI winter school on Innovation Policy for Transformative change.

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