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If innovation is the answer, what’s the question?

Humans are pretty inventive creatures – some of us, anyway. That might be cause for optimism about the future of global change. Call it the argument from human ingenuity. We’ve found solutions to lots of problems in the past. And with 7.5 billion people – a much larger and better-educated population than the world has ever seen – the supply of good ideas can only increase. So we’ll figure out a way to sustainable futures. In a word, innovation will see us through.

But what do we actually know about innovation? The media, and companies who’d like us to upgrade our phones every year, routinely equate innovation with shiny new gadgets. In the same spirit, politicians charged with managing economies frequently talk as if all innovation is a good thing. The history of almost any technology, however – from farming to applied nuclear physics – reveals a mixture of good and bad. But study of the concept of innovation, and of whether it can be steered, is a relatively recent academic effort. It’s been tied-in to economic and industrial policies since the middle of the last century, policies whose legacy we are now grappling with. Time, perhaps, for a new look at innovation in its broader, environmental, social and political context as we seek to transform current systems of production and consumption.

How will that work? We don’t exactly know. (It’s a bit like innovation itself: If you know what the new thing is going to be before you start, you’re not really innovating.) But there were hints to be had at the 50th anniversary conference of the United Kingdom’s Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at Sussex University in September. The Unit’s new director, Dutch historian Johan Schot, has a new take on the development of theories of innovation and their policy uses.

In a position paper published to mark the conference, Schot describes three ways that scholars have thought about innovation. The first, dominant after World War II, was basically linear. Science begets invention, that begets innovation. Physics, for instance, gives us lasers, which give us – eventually – compact discs. Basic research in genetics gives us biotechnology. And so on. Result: Growth! Prosperity! Rising living standards for all! From this perspective, it’s assumed that science is the basis for long-term growth, and that innovation largely involves commercialisation of scientific discoveries. There is a role for the state, but only in funding the research. The rest can be left to the private sector.

This simple story didn’t seem adequate for long, and by the 1970s, economists interested in technology and some policy-makers were talking about something more complicated: national systems of innovation competing with each other. Such “systems” included measures to promote transfer of technology out of the lab, especially by building links between centres of discovery and technologists and entrepreneurs. This new appreciation of the complexities of innovation in practice eventually prompted some to pronounce the death of the old linear model, as I reported 25 years ago from SPRU’s silver jubilee meeting.

Johan Schot gives the opening address at the 50th anniversary conference of SPRU.

In fact, linear thinking has never gone away. It’s too appealing for people looking for easy answers, free-marketeers and would-be boosters of science budgets. And it’s not as different from the systems view as some think. In both, policy-makers want to translate new science into innovation as efficiently as possible to secure prosperity. Any untoward effects are dealt with by regulation, usually later on in the process.

That is a key failing of these approaches, according to Schot and others. It treats less desirable outcomes of innovation as externalities and is blind to the possibility that they may call for radically different technological priorities. A number of speakers at the conference invoked a well-known phrase of the pioneering economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter, that capitalist development hinges on waves of “creative destruction.” In the past, the emphasis was on the benefits of the creative side of the equation. The balance may now look different from various points of view. Perhaps the advent of ubiquitous robotics will be “destructive creation,” in terms of jobs at any rate. And the environmental effects of energy and materials-intensive industries may yet turn out to be more destructive than we can handle.

All this points to a need for a new framing of innovation policy, Schot urges. The aim is to promote radical system change. We can’t be sure what will work best, partly because we are applying more complex criteria. We need more technological and social experiments. Technological trajectories aren’t pre-ordained: Some paths are chosen at the expense of others. That leads to calls for broader debate and new ways of learning what works, and for whom, at earlier stages in the innovation process. And that’s harder because we need more than incremental change. The near future, Schot and colleagues insist, is about transformation.

Transformation, like sustainability, means different things to different people. But let’s focus on climate change and on decarbonising the economy. It’s widely recognised that decarbonisation is an urgent, and a massive, undertaking. British economist Nick Stern opened the SPRU meeting by empasising that incremental change won’t do the job. We need “rapid, deep, structural and systemic change,” he said. That means building new infrastructure, especially in energy and transportation and across cityscapes, on a scale surpassing what’s already there. The cost would be about $90 trillion over the next 15 to 20 years.

The money to do that could be found. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, estimates that global investment houses currently hold $100 trillion. But mobilising it to fund such a huge transition, perhaps through green bonds, will take some doing.

The rapid shift Stern envisages is a unique challenge from pretty much every other point of view, too. For one thing, the more complex historical and social understanding of innovation now emerging leads to a richer concept of infrastructure, as part of a system with social and technical elements interwoven. One term of art in the field is a technological or infrastructural “regime,” an idea that comes from evolutionary economics. It is one of those hard to grasp categories where a simple label covers an idea that embraces so much complexity it seems to include almost an entire world. This is not a regime in the political sense. In democratic systems, people remove the incumbent regime by voting. But infrastructural regimes aren’t like that. Build new infrastructure, and the apparatus of the old regime is still around.

More than that, there are economic and political interests in play that will do their best to block change in some directions. As Frank Geels of Manchester University argued in 2014, theorists of transition and advocates of “green” technologies are prone to assuming that innovation itself will bring about a low-carbon economy. But that leads to technologies such as renewable energy systems confined to new niches. They may appear to be flourishing, but efforts to expand such niches to actually supplant older infrastructure rather than simply add to it will meet stiff resistance. Domestic solar power threatens the utilities that supply electricity via the grid, who seek to tax solar installations, for instance.

There may be other kinds of resistance built into existing systems, too. The more complex conceptions of innovation, and of infrastructure, that study across the disciplines has developed invite considerations of how socio-technical systems combine many elements that work together in mutually reinforcing ways. Changing them then involves unweaving tangled braids of machinery, regulation, law and finance, of ways of doing and ways of thinking. Taken for granted, assumptions of producers, users and policy-makers have to be unpacked and, often, revised. Auto manufacturers, and most planners, will be happy if you propose a switch to self-driving cars, and building roads for them to use. They will be less so if your premise is that we might travel less, or not own cars at all.

None of this is easy, partly because of those efforts to recognise complexity that lead to expansive definitions of a socio-technical system that include, basically, everything. Where, then, to start work on a transformation – especially if it needs to happen in a notional two decades?

That question stayed in my mind during the conference, but the selection of papers I sampled didn’t really yield clear answers. The emphasis, rather, was still on the new, the experimental, the innovative – and on promoting social and technical solutions to our global problems. That seems entirely understandable. It is always appealing to get involved with new ideas and feed on the energy and enthusiasm of the inventors and innovators.

It is hard, though, to see that as enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the systems we have already built – and are often still extending. Aiming for transformation leads to another take on creative destruction, as Geels described it. It isn’t enough to promote innovation as creation. The existing system has to be destabilised as well. System shifts of the radical kind envisaged will call for creation of a new infrastructure. But that won’t do the job unless the old systems are deliberately removed on roughly the same time-scale. Achieving that will call for a lot more thought about how to if not destroy the old systems, at least set about dismantling them.

Read more:

"Framing Innovation Policy for Transformative Change: Innovation Policy 3.o," Johan Schot and W. Edward Steinmueller.