A World in Deep Transition Urgently Needs Transformative Innovation Policy, By Johan Schot and Ed Steinmueller

Nicky Wunderlich |

Why transforming innovation is crucial for Brexit Britain and beyond


‘Brexit means Brexit’ falls short of providing a blueprint for our new era where details have yet to come into sharp focus in the UK. Once intention becomes reality, the reverberations will shape not only the UK but Europe and the Globe. The challenge of Brexit’s consequences for Prime Minister May’s Government is guiding the economy and society through these uncharted waters. However, the even greater challenge is to shape new policies and strategies that address the causes of ‘Brexit Britain’ (and those responsible too for Trump’s rise in America) to prevent them from doing further damage.  What ideas does the policy research field of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) offer to help with these challenges? What can be done to remedy the lack of investment and increased inequality? How do we meet the urgent task of addressing climate change and reform our governing systems in energy, healthcare, mobility and food to make them sustainable? Without doing so, these problems will not only persist but become more severe within post-Brexit Britain and the globe.

The message on inequalities from Prime Minister May’s conference speech was welcome, yet were unaccompanied by policy initiatives that could tackle society’s imbalances. This commitment to social justice is alongside the announcement of a new industrial strategy. Both aims require the Government to direct STI policy towards tackling issues that have far-reaching effects on the economy and society. The direction of STI policy should be decided based on how it can solve these central societal ills. Paradoxically the commitment to ratify the Paris Agreement for example, was swiftly followed by approval  of further fossil fuel exploration in the form of fracking in Lancashire, overturning too a local democratic process. The fragments of policy that have surfaced appear to amplify a UK-first and conventional approach to growth and innovation. Not, alas around creating policy and strategy that could transform our approach and offer solutions to sustainability, inequality and the democratic deficit.

We need innovation policy that redefines progress, aims for sustainable development and addresses inequality – many governments and peoples across the world would echo this desire.  One opportunity for policy reform is the development of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) to be launched in 2018. The signs are positive. The newly established Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) moves in the desired direction with the objective of funding ‘challenge-led’ interdisciplinary research which strengthens the ‘capacity for
innovation within both the UK and developing countries’. However, are current methods for specifying and evaluating this type of research fit-for-purpose? For this we must ask a more fundamental research question – do we have our ideas, assumptions, approaches, systems and policies on innovation correct?

This central question formed the crux of the debate at Science Policy Research Unit’s (SPRU) recent 50th anniversary conference. The conference’s overarching theme of ‘Transforming Innovation’ aimed discussion at the transformative ability of innovation to address social and environmental issues as well as economic ones. The starting point for this debate featured whether we should also transform the way we innovate innovation policy. At the conference opening, the announcement of a new international partnership – Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) – took centre stage. The founding partners, along with SPRU, the South African National Research Foundation (working with the Department of Science and Technology); Research Council of Norway; Colombian’s Colciencias from the Department of Science, Technology & Innovation – all pledged to join a joint research and action programme to understand which epoch(s) their national innovation frameworks exist in – Innovation Policy 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0?  With VINNOVA Sweden’s Innovation Agency and the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation – Tekes signing since, the Consortium is growing rapidly. A host of other countries’ research agencies are making headway to also becoming members.



Disadvantageous as it is for the UK to leave the EU club, we should not conflate the EU as being Europe. Now that the so-called ‘quiet revolution’ has taken place, the opportunity and requirement for greater vision is manifest. New initiatives can be European, since the EU is not Europe (as described in Writing the Rules for Europe) but should also be global. The causes of Brexit are a shared challenge across the world.

The journey to TIPC’s formation builds on two elements. First, the diagnosis that our world is in ‘Deep Transition’ and second, that our current innovation policies do not address the problems of the world in transition. Two papers accompanying the announcement of the Consortium provide background. The first piece of research surmises that the global nature of the multiple crises we precariously navigate are symptoms of the world being in a ‘Second Deep Transition’ (Schot and Kanger, 2016). The ‘First Deep Transition’ began with and went beyond industrialisation, reverberating and morphing over the subsequent 150 years into our current dominant social and technological system. Our current position was created from a specific mindset and set of values. While noting (but not championing) a linear representation of science-based growth – we seem to have reached the end of this road with its clear climate, energy and inequality dead-ends. It’s simply not able to alter or address our urgent global issues. Fundamental, fragmenting change is afoot due to incumbent neoliberal economics and innovation systems being unable to deliver the innovative change we need. We do not have the correct fundamental framing of innovation to be able to fulfil the earth’s urgent brief to halt environmental degradation, tackle national and global inequality and to therefore, crucially, protect the democratic values we cherish.  We are running a colossal risk. The combination of mega-trends we are experiencing if unchecked could lead to World War III. It’s an an uncomfortable irony that while disastrous for society, global wars have been historically good for innovation and technology. Let’s attempt to learn the two harsh warnings from our past and set about transitioning to alternative socio-technical systems that create fresh, progressive, innovative practices without having to have a cataclysmic global conflict.

So if we accept the global diagnosis of a ‘Second Deep Transition’ and its potential longer term threat, what are our options? And how might we discover and embed them? We need to re-assess the assumptions and practices that define innovation policy. We need a Transformative Innovation Policy, which we call Innovation Policy 3.0.  Innovation Policy 3.0 highlights that the countries of the world have previously relied on two frames of innovation to drive their growth and development. Innovation Policy 1.0 focuses on funding R&D, big science, mission oriented research and breakthrough innovation with a reliance on firms and large scale government initiatives (such as space exploration, health and defence). Innovation Policy 2.0 starts from the fact that producing knowledge alone does not produce change — entrepreneurship and a system of effective relationships between industry, universities and governments is required.  This so-called National System of Innovation brings the fruits of this knowledge to the market. Both frames’ main rationale is to drive economic growth which provides the jobs and tax income to manage the distribution function of the economy. The new Industrial Strategy currently being forged by Mrs. May’s Government will begin from this starting point too. Should it?  Beginning with Innovation Policy 1.0 and 2.0, our new paper argues that framing a new Transformative Innovation Policy is necessary which can then address social and environmental needs head on. There are elements of this already in place, for example, responsible research and innovation, social innovation, sustainability transitions, pathways to sustainability policies and mission-oriented policies explicitly aimed at societal goals. However, these need to be brought together and extended in a new coherent policy rationale and frame with a set of policy instruments. The new global consortium – Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium – will seek the research and evidence base for these news policy instruments.  We need to begin by ‘innovating innovation’ rather than creating strategies that are based on the same assumptions on what innovation does for markets and the economy. After all, if you keep on doing what you’ve always done you’ll keep on getting what you always got.

The engine of innovation for our economic and societal growth has faltered. We must give time, thought and space to rethinking. Not tinkering but rebuilding and creating new engines for prosperity and sustainability. Without a revision of our fundamental assumptions we will not have the resources or means to fulfil humankind’s basic needs during this century and have grim prospects for the next. There will no doubt be ‘policy mixes’ that combine elements of the three frames but our priority is to fill the gap where Transformative Innovation Policy – ‘Innovation policy 3.0’ – needs to be planted and then grown. Even at its pilot stage, TIPC gives a practical and cognitive space in which to do this. Looking to different, post-Brexit, international partnerships, supported by such initiatives as the GCRF (Global Challenges Research Fund) that harness the Global South as well as the North’s potential for new knowledge is crucial. Brexit Britain is a symptom of global and national inability to address the world in transition. It may, unintentionally, galvanize the fresh ideas and thinking from research that provide the antidote.


Post a comment

Copyright © 2024 Johan Schot