In this month’s guest blog, founder and Academic Director of TIPC – and partner project Deep Transitions – Professor Johan Schot shares his learnings, experiences and aims for the future of these pioneering transformative system change action-research projects.
“With both of my flagship projects, the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) and the Deep Transitions research project, concluding their initial lifespan and reorienting towards new goals and shapes, this is a moment to look back at what we have done, achieved and learned over the past few years and also how we’re moving forward.
When I started TIPC in 2016, I was Director at SPRU, the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. For TIPC, the first major milestone happened during SPRU’s 50th anniversary celebration where its launch was officially announced and the first partner agreements were signed on stage. Half a year before this event, I had started exploring whether the idea of a consortium would work as, back then, it was a novel initiative for governments and researchers to collaborate towards a shared ambition. Even the day before the anniversary, it was still uncertain whether all the signatures were going to come in. But it all happened, I gave an inaugural speech and this was the founding moment. Also foundational for TIPC and its methodology, was the publication of the Three Frames for Innovation Policy paper which I co-authored with Ed Steinmueller. By now this paper has accumulated close to 100.000 downloads, which is great to see. Back then the question remained whether the type of collaboration we envisioned for researchers and policy makers would work in practice. With TIPC, we had four core aims:
- To establish the term Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) and develop a new narrative for it, one that focussed on long-term system change and transformation and the role of policy makers as change agents.
- To build up a network of people and a community of practice.
Looking back at the aims of TIPC, the first 5 years have been successful. Today, we continue to witness how the language of transformation and system change has found its way into everyday speech and how international organisations and (regional) governments have taken up the notion of Transformative Innovation Policy, which is a very positive development.
Thanks to the many engagements, conferences, workshops and learning events that have taken place, the TIP community continues to grow. Over the years, we have conducted a range of policy experiments and built up regional TIP Hubs in the Global North and the Global South. For this to happen was not always obvious. When TIPC first started, many members said that it would be impossible to arrange for our research team to work within their organisation and alongside them. But we were keen to try and convinced of the added value such a collaboration could bring.
Together with Ingenio, a joint research centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV), we developed the TIPC methodology with formative evaluation at its core and tested this in policy experiments with partners in South Africa, Colombia, Latin America and Sweden. These experiences built the foundation to scale further. All materials, tools and learnings of this first phase of experimentation has been consolidated in the TIP Resource Lab which is now online.
A crucial element of our framework is to combine academic work and the development of theories with a practical aim. To align, a strong emphasis on translating theory into practice is needed from the start. The key for making the collaboration between researchers and societal stakeholders work is mutual commitment on working together and understanding each other’s language. This was central and a prerequisite in our policy experiments: for all parties to commit to understanding each other’s work and embarking on longer-term collaborations. For me measuring the success of a theory is about whether it is accepted by practitioners as this shows that it has validity. In science, it’s all about empirical testing, but to do this together with stakeholders is important for generating societal impact.
Deep Transitions: Understanding the drivers of our unsustainable society
In the process of founding TIPC, I met James Anderson, who became interested in our work and decided to invest into our Deep Transitions project which provided us with the opportunity to expand this research trajectory.
The difference between TIPC and Deep Transitions is that Deep Transitions focusses on a longer time span. It looks at the past 250 years, starting with the Industrial Revolution, and offers a framework for thinking about major change processes and societal developments from a systems perspective. Another difference between the two projects is that TIPC focusses on single systems, such as the food, energy and mobility system. Deep Transitions applies a multi-systems perspectives and focusses on the connection between them. This is consolidated in the work with Laur Kanger, which lead to two foundational publications about Deep transitions: Emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality and Deep transitions: Theorizing the long-term patterns of socio-technical change. In these publications we conducted a historical analysis to gain a better understanding of how the unsustainable socio-technical systems our modern societies depend on emerged and which drivers of change could become leverage points for more sustainable alternatives.
In the past, investments in socio-technical systems have been a major driver for change. For example, in the 19th century, tremendous public and private investments established Europe’s railway infrastructure, a groundbreaking development that transformed the economy, physical and social mobility, food production and consumption, energy provision and overall resilience of the entire continent. The power of capital and the role that investors can play in generating long-term impact is significant. Therefore, we were keen to explore whether we can convince public and private investors to start investing in transformation and socio-technical system change.
Together with the Deep Transitions research team, we put together the Global Investors Panel, a group of 16 public and private investors from around the world. Over the course of two years, we collaborated closely and co-created Transformative Investment, a new systemic approach to impact investing. In November 2022, we published the Transformative Investment Philosophy, a comprehensive report that proposes new metrics, tools and investment principles for financing long-term system change.
I’m proud of the model we built for the panel process and the collaboration with the investors in general. The most important outcome is that they all agreed that current investment practices, tools and evaluation mechanisms are not fit for achieving the long-term scale of change that we so urgently need. The next step is to experiment with transformative investment in practice and to, just as with TIPC, build a community of practice.
Therefore, we are in the process of establishing a Deep Transitions Lab, an interdisciplinary space which brings together researchers and investors to conduct transformative investment experiments. The Lab will conduct four types of investment experiments:
- A Transformative Investment Analysis Experiment. This type of experiment takes place before an investment decision is made, either for a specific company, investment opportunity or solution area of interest. A specific Transformative Theory of Change (TToC), co-created by a research team and investors, details how certain activities may influence specific Deep Transition processes leading to system change.
- A Transformative Monitoring Experiment. After an investment decision has been taken, a TToC can be used for monitoring the transformative impact of investments in the portfolio. In this process, the researchers suggest metrics developed to assess transformative outcomes detailed in the TToC. Investors and researchers agree on which outcomes to track.
- A Transformative Portfolio Assessment Experiment. Investors may want to assess the Transformative Investment potential of a specific thematic portfolio, without going into the more detailed work of building a TToC. In such an analysis three different questions (or a combination thereof) can be asked; 1) assessment of the synergies and trade-offs in terms of system change across the portfolio of investments; 2) assessment of how future shocks and megatrends will impact the portfolio (performing what may be called a “stress test”); 3) assessment of how the portfolio helps to construct specific desirable futures as for instance identified by the Global Investors Panel.
- A Transformative Investment Bundle Construction Experiment. This type of experiment is focused on identifying all transformative changes, public and private investments and complementary actions necessary for specified system change to be fostered over a specific period of time and within a specific geography.
So far, five investment firms have confirmed their interest to become partners to the lab and conduct an experiment with us. The Deep Transitions Lab will be a flagship project of the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges (UGlobe), which is the perfect platform for doing this kind of work as the ambitions align very well.
In conclusion, I’m still convinced that it needs to be a primary focus of research projects to bring together academics and societal stakeholders and create platforms for them to co-create, co-learn and experiment. However, over the years we were also faced with the challenges that this type of work brings. For example, the fact that public actors are not stable themselves. They reorganise and often lack the capacities and capabilities to work on transformation. The same applies to universities which are bound to structures that do not support truly experimental interdisciplinary projects. This is why I’m very happy to work at UGlobe, which has the mission to develop new practices within the university and focus on stakeholder engagement around global challenges, with a focus on transformation and experimentation.
Oftentimes a deeper change is needed within these organisations and there is a need for intermediary actors, such as the Deep Transitions Lab, which helps actors to reflect, open up silos, question assumptions and manifest learnings. Our work has made very clear that, in the public and private sector, the tools for assessing system change are lacking. And quite frankly, the challenge to address this is in many ways even bigger than I had anticipated. A crucial aspect for making this kind of collaboration effective is that we need people who are willing to work with us and push the boundaries within their organisation.
It has not been easy to keep a focus on research and research publications throughout the process. This is partly due to the funding structures of research projects which assume competitive applications. The type of work we do is not that of a consultancy. We do long-term research. This is particularly difficult for junior researchers because they need to follow academic rules and expectations which is challenging when they engage into this kind of work. Integrating support staff into this type of research from the start is also crucial as this allows them to work alongside the research team and contribute to the project work in a much deeper, more consistent manner.
Finally, I want to encourage people to dare! There is a lot of resistance and routines that work against what we do, within academia but also among stakeholders. But this is the time, considering the challenges we are faced with, to show courage and do things differently.”
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