A New Focus for Science, Technology and Innovation in China by Professor Fred Steward

Nicky Wunderlich |

Fred Steward, Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Sustainability, Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster and associate of TIPC, reflects on the recent visit to China to discuss Transformative Innovation Policy. 

“The Transformative Innovation Policy workshop was a timely event to assess the receptiveness of leading Chinese innovation policy experts to the new SPRU/TIPC framing of Transformative Innovation Policy.  Hosted in spring 2018, by the Chinese Academy for Science and Technology for Development (CASTED), it coincided with the opening of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.  This session of the People’s Congress has approved a set of radical constitutional changes initiated by the Communist Party Congress 6 months ago. Most western commentary on the new bundle of policies has focused solely on its implications for the consolidation of power and authority of China’s leader Xi Jinpeng.

In contrast, President of CASTED, Hu Zhijian, highlighted the policies’ relevance to the workshop’s transformative innovation theme, as embedded within the package of reforms, is a new turn toward sustainability in economic policy. This new economic framework signifies an end to the ‘growth at all costs’ model of development. Two particular constitutional amendments resonate powerfully with the agenda of Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP).  They articulate new environmental and societal challenges at the highest policy level.  The environmental challenge is that of ‘innovative, coordinated, green, and open development that is for everyone’.  The societal challenge is to ‘achieve better quality and more efficient, equitable, and sustainable development’.  CASTED President Hu Zhijian was in no doubt that such a shift could have profound implications for the direction of science, technology & innovation policy.

This new emphasis of innovation over growth, of quality over quantity reframes the agenda for innovation policy.  It is a dramatic contrast with my Beijing visit, 30 years ago, to its predecessor organisation, the National Research Centre for Science and Technology for Development.  At that time, in 1987, the launch of China’s first white paper on science and technology policy forthrightly and unambiguously proclaimed ‘the promotion of economic development as its first and foremost objective’! China’s recently published ‘Transition Strategy for Energy Consumption and Production’ (2017) strikingly illustrates the new turn in thinking.  The conventional call for a supply-side ‘energy technology revolution’ now has a novel user-side counterpoint of ‘energy consumption reform’.  Top-down ‘scientific management’ and ‘strategic actions’ are now accompanied by bottom-up ‘energy markets’ and ‘actions for all’.

The TIP workshop engaged an interesting mix of experts and practitioners from China’s innovation policy community. This ranged from transition researchers at Tsinghua University to wind-power entrepreneurs from Inner Mongolia, as well as experts from CASTED and other policy think-tanks. The discussion roamed over many issues pertinent to transformative innovation.  I was struck by two key recurring themes, both familiar in wider international discussions on sustainability transitions, yet each shaped by a particular Chinese angle.

The first concerns the opportunities and risks of broadening the remit of government innovation policy to address normative societal goals, and to embrace a wider notion of socio-technical change.   Some contributors emphasised the opportunities of proactively engaging with  other functional policy domains such as energy and transport, along with new innovation actors such as cities and new enterprises. Others were more cautious with regard to the risks of straying from the zone of established legitimacy regarding a traditional, narrow science and technology focus.  This is a familiar governance challenge given more salience by Chinese sensitivities to the boundaries between specialised technical and general societal policy spheres.

The second addressed the classic dilemma of combining top-down direction with bottom-up experimentation.  Contrary to widespread opinion, China is by no means a simple centralised statist policy system. The immense scale of the country along with the growing political realism of recent decades enables a considerable degree of diverse experimental approaches alongside central government directives. The challenge lies more in the contrast between the scope of top-down policy and the limits of bottom-up experimentation. This makes the challenge of transforming specific socio-technical systems a difficult one. The presence of about ten competing bike sharing companies in Beijing sits alongside a car-dominated city road system.  The proliferation of wind and solar businesses coexists with a national energy system dependent on coal. The boundaries of permissibility between top-down and bottom-up spheres of action remains a big issue for China.

It is evident that in order to make Transformative Innovation Policy work in China it will inevitably rub up against some of these delicate and embedded boundary issues. Nevertheless the opportunities offered by the new economic policy direction suggest that we may see interesting surprises in the coming years.”

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