Transforming Ideas about Innovation is the First Challenge… 

Thinking & Analysis

In the UK at this time of year, launching a global network of innovation policy thinkers and doers is rather serendipitous.  Spring and Summer themselves are transformation. Natural seasonal allies of innovation, with its Latin meaning of nova, or ‘in new’.

In general, we are stimulated by newness, bringing with it hope and optimism. Our world in transition certainly needs glimmers of these. The establishment of UK Industrial Strategy (UKIS) is acknowledgement that the long years of adherence to laissez faire (literally meaning ‘let you do’) economics of neoliberalism, with the defective ‘trickle-down’ effect, has run its course. The creation of the UKIS is a welcome attempt to reenergise the economy. For this, however, we need fresh thinking. The argument here is that before equitable, sustainable growth can happen, a transformation in thinking about innovation, and its role in social and economic life, must happen. New paths need new views.

Assume makes an ‘ass of u and me’. And no one wants to be a donkey…

It may be a human trait to have assumptions, or as an evolutionary biologist may call it ‘accumulated culture’ or an anthropologist, ‘unconscious bias’. Yet luckily the assumptions themselves are not inherent. Like protons doing DNA jumps, ideas mutate to change the ‘rules’ and ‘facts’.  So from the viewpoint of TIPC and the Deep Transitions theory, how might we think about some of the long-held beliefs about innovation, and then the policy that’s built on top of these expectations?

It is not until we question the roots of a long-held idea, thought or value; after we dig it up from our cerebral landscape; shake it off; and replant it in intellectually tended soil that we can alter how it grows.  Deep learning by humans in RL (Real Life) is, arguably, a damn sight harder, once programmed, than that performed by machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence). Long-held ‘truths’ especially about concepts that have a resounding positive associations like ‘innovation’ may be hard to uproot.  That’s why reflecting on the structural assumptions that policies are created on, even seemingly the most innocuous and affirming ones, is the first difficult step to change and transformation.

Innovation can never be praised for being an unassuming character. Invariably, it is seen as bright, shiny and bent on being desirable. With the UKIS’s first foundation of productivity – ‘Ideas: the world’s most innovative economy’, innovation is understood as being so. In the academic paper that Transformative Innovation Policy and its network is based – Three Frames for Innovation Policy: R&D, Systems of Innovation and Transformative Change (Schot, Steinmueller Second Edition, 2018) the traditional bedrock of thought around innovation is broken up to challenge these locked-in ideas.  In the Three Frames of Innovation analysis, the third frame challenges long-held assumptions on innovation, why it’s done and how it’s approached.

The history being created by ‘modernity’ is telling us that innovation can be ugly, destructive, unmanageable and harmful – to both our environment and to social justice. The ‘destructive creation’ idea intrinsic in Frames 1 and 2 of innovationthat mopping up, trading off, regulating, compensating and accepting negative social and environmental ‘externalities’ is the norm. This should not be part of the innovation deal.

The conceptual connotation of innovation within the UKIS is still predominately one of encouragement for wandering ‘technological advancement’. Any subsequently harmful results will be dealt with, deleted or delegated to another section of society (nationally or internationally).  However, apply a bit of Frame 3 thinking. Any reason for an innovation to come into existence will have the well-being of people and planet at the centre. If, from the outset, human advances don’t remain tethered to their full social and ecological effects, the destructive element of innovation soaks up the creative part leading to huge costs for the economy and for people. With this perpetuated, we can never achieve economies that continue to advance, to sustain human flourishing.

The time has arrived to replant our ideas on innovation. A crucial element of this is to remember, as history is teaching us, that the social is the technical, and the technical is the social. Policies, funding and initiatives on innovation coming from the UKIS must not neglect this: the who, the where, the how. Disrupt and innovate on social elements to create variability and diversity. Innovation is not just for technology, and the economy – it’s for Life.  Disrupt the social side with new people, new perspectives, new voices. And, reverse innovation’s fortunes. Don’t automatically apply the presumption – ‘it-will-be-mostly-positive’. Prompt a wider thinking-through of the possible consequences of that innovation from the get-go. The social as fore-thought rather than after-thought. This is what directionality means. It is not about the government setting directions or missions, but it is about opening up for a range of alternatives, looking at both the technical and social side of things for all options, and then having a participatory process for deciding on acceptable pathways forward, taking into account ongoing innovative activities from firms, as well as civil society.


Flip it. The Challenge to the UKIS Challenges

So TIP fuses together the social, technical and economic realms. And it flips the expectation that the economy is central. Looking at the wording in a UKIS Innovate UK blog release on the wave one Challenge Fund Challenges we see ‘the economy’ still held aloft as the main agent and benefactor of meeting these challenges, neglecting the social-sphere:

“The Industrial Strategy…sets out a series of grand challenges that our economy will need to address over the coming years, and the ISCF (Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund) is there to make sure our researchers and businesses work together to find the solutions, so that the UK economy reaps the commercial benefit.”

UKISCF Wave one Challenges 

  1. Data to early diagnosis and precision medicine
  2. Healthy ageing
  3. Prospering from the energy revolution
  4. Transforming construction
  5. Transforming food production
  6. Audience of the future
  7. Next generation services 
  8. Quantum technology 

The list of challenges illuminate the lean towards the technological. Many of these have the spotlight on technical challenges that will then meet the economic. The assumption is – that by meeting these technical aspects, economic progress is achieved with benefits for communities, families and the environment then gleaned. It is telling that the UKIS discourse has the main yield, from meeting the challenges, quoted as ‘commercial benefit’. Coming from a Sustainability Transitions Studies (STS) perspective rather than an economics’ one – is not meeting the designated challenges in and of themselves the game-changer and gold bullion for society? Is not the ultimate aim of these challenges, the chance to transform technology and society through innovation, experimentation, research and execution to improve people’s lives and to stop us wrecking our environment? Doing this will also bring an alternative type of economic growth which can benefit society at the same time. This is due to two reasons: we prevent risks and costs, and we generate economic activity and sustainable growth.  The entrenched thinking which regards economics and the economy as the principal driver gets it the wrong way round. Frame 3 thinking on innovation and policy would flip the reasoning. It is the social and technical innovating required, from many areas of society that could transform the system to deliver the aims of the Challenges. This can change behaviour to harvest more long-term societal value than merely economic productivity and growth. Growth in the economy would be a symptom.



Source: Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium, Schot et al. 2017

Upheaval, destruction and depletion are symptoms of what happens when economics is continually placed at the centre of the story. Change production, consumption and distribution so that public, business, and government practices alter. Stop stretching the fabric of our existence. Enrich it and add human value. This needs to be carefully thought about in the next wave of UKIS challenge creation. Perspectives from other disciplines, like Sustainability Transitions, should be drawn into the conversation, formulation and implementation. The subsequent transformed systems, and the new kind of economic activity that could spring from this, would not crack the productivity puzzle – it would hinder it obsolete.


The Transition Factor

Many of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Challenges (ISCFC) are fundamentally about transforming the systems they resides within. As discussed, without transitioning to a new system, created from experimentation and implementation, guided with a Transformative Innovation Policy approach, the challenges will not be met. They are constrained by the dominant frameworks and views of Frames 1 and 2. This is not to say the frames cannot be combined. We continue to need R&D, but one which addresses societal demand; and we have to rely on innovation systems and entrepreneurship but oriented towards social and environmental challenges.  The issue is that a Sustainability Transitions system’s perspective and Frame 3 thinking is lacking in UKIS strategy-setting and delivery. Arguably, systems are more important to change than just markets. Markets will be embedded in socio-technical system development and be shaped and made by it.

Using an approach to the global Sustainable Development Goals that we coproduced with TIPC member policymakers, the ISCFCs can be thought of as being embedded within their socio-technical systems and the application areas they inhabit. For example:

ISCFC: Wave 1 Require transformative socio-technical change to be met
Data to early diagnosis and precision medicineHealth & Social Care Socio-technical system
Prospering from the energy revolutionEnergy Socio-technical system
Transforming constructionHousing socio-technical system; Transport socio-technical system
Transforming food productionFood and Farming Socio-technical system

Some challenges orientated around desired pathways and directions, namely: Healthy ageing and Audience of the future. Others cross cut systems with a strong emphasis on the technological: Next generation services and Quantum technology challenges. The social consequences of these goals should be given equal consideration, research and funding. The second wave has a further £725 million and will run in 2018 and 2019. Taking an approach that looks at system change using Transformative Innovation Policy thinking and practise would give the UK hope of reaching equitable and sustainable growth that is social, and not just economic, and would also address the social causes of Brexit not just its consequences.

The incumbent systems these challenges have evolved from come from the industrial revolution and have intrinsically woven into them old economic theories and ideas.  Why are we still relying on ideas that have their foundations in a world view that began 200 years ago? By questioning the role of innovation, policy can be created that, through experimentation, learning and capacity building, transforms systems of provision so that the positive benefits for society and the environment grow. Then, will the economy, stupid.

Strategic government goals that have a foundation stone set on being a superlative global innovator, should question what that really means. From a Frame 3 point of view for innovation policy it would mean: a) not assuming that all innovation is good for the economy and social progress, and b) then not assuming that that innovation leads to, on balance, social benefit. You could begin by assessing if the newness you create is ostensibly further ‘creative destruction’ – of the planet or the social contract. Or, if its rationale begins and ends with creating social and environmental value, and then the money. Shake up the ontological and epistemological garden you’ve grown your own assumptive beliefs in and give seed to something that transforms the (system) landscape entirely. Frame 3 demands experimentation with deep ethnographic analysis and education to create policy which has shed unhelpful assumptions. Reflected back on statements and practises that are embedded in old world views of neoclassical, neoliberal, technocratic, deterministic, hegemonic thought paradigms to look afresh and ‘in nova’ at our systems. Now that took a deep breath, let alone a deep learn.
























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