A farewell as SPRU Director – Professor Schot’s leaving lecture

Nicky Wunderlich |

As 2018 draws to a close, so does Professor Johan Schot’s five-year tenure as Director at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School. To mark his time at the helm, Professor Schot gave a farewell lecture recounting his personal and professional reflections of the time. Discussants at the seminar providing viewpoints from across the Unit were, Professor Carlota Perez, Professor Ed Steinmueller and Dr. Bipashyee Ghosh, SPRU Research Fellow and Professor Schot’s PhD student.

Professor Schot began with his initial expectations of SPRU and, then how they came to fruition:

“My expectation was that SPRU would be an opportunity to return to my transitions work, but not without giving up my historical perspective, because ultimately history is my home.

So I hoped SPRU would be a place where I could combine things, since SPRU was a place where many fields are. In fact I had high hopes, I was thrilled about the potential, so many good people, so many disciplines and perspectives with a focus on real world problems. SPRU felt like a good home for an interdisciplinary scholar. This expectation was fully fulfilled. I found out there was a lot of exciting work going on. I had to catch up, but was very happy to be challenged.”

The reflections continued around both the turbulent and jubilant times SPRU has experienced with notable moments being the 5oth Anniversary Conference, and the associated SPRU History Project, which encapsulated the many voices and perspectives that are woven into the fabric of the institution. Professor Schot spoke too of his admiration for the founders of SPRU, Chris Freeman, Keith Pavitt, Marie Jahoda, and Jackie Fuller, and particularly his time with Geoff Oldham whose international reputation and scope of work embodied SPRU’s reach and influence, and which continues to inspire globally.

Highlighting these aspects, Professor Schot said: “SPRU never has been an easy ride. It is a unique place, where policy relevant research is combined with academic work, it is an interdisciplinary place where senior and junior scholars worked together in an equal way. It is a place with passion for the work. This has led to specific set of values, and many people interviewed for the SPRU History Project, although they had left SPRU, feel connected to its legacy and to the people who have shaped it. One last relevant factor to explain the emotion which SPRU brings is that, it represents a family.  When you have worked at SPRU you become a ‘SPRUer’ for life. For this reason, we connect with alumni from across the globe, organizing newsletters and events to make people feel connected. Many of them have contributed generously to scholarships for the next generation of Master and PhD students.”

Professor Schot continued:

“In the last 5 years, SPRU has developed in a fantastic way, it outdid itself – in terms of rise of research income, growing of staff, attracting more students and generating substantial surplus. These were possible because of the amazing people in SPRU, my role was organizing the team work, and not even that, just creating the space.  I am talking about the academics, the teaching faculty and the research fellows, and also thje professional services staff.”

Moving on from the institutional focus, Professor Schot recapped on the reasoning for his principal research projects while at SPRU – the Deep Transitions Research Project and the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC). Both of which he will continue to lead while at his new institution, the University of Utrecht.

Professor Schot explained:

 “The dominance of the Science, Technology and Innovation model (that are illustrated in Frames 1 and 2) have contributed to the creation of our modern world. Let me be clear, in a historical perspective, there is a lot of positive things to say about this world in terms of reduction of poverty and democratizing of access to mobility and communication, for example, yet it has become clear that this world is not sustainable anymore in the long run, it is in need of a transition, or series of transitions or transformations. How can we move away from the current dominate STI model, in which innovation is always positive, something to be stimulated, since it leads to economic growth and competitiveness? This is a big question for which we need fresh thinking. We need a new STI innovation model which incorporates the social and environmental dimension and the institutional dimension, as well as the political and cultural dimensions. We need to think about innovation not only at the level of the firm, at the level of products and processes, but also at level of socio-technical systems. We need to think big about long term change of many socio-technical systems. This is what we try to do in the Deep Transition project. The key question we trying to answer is how can we explain how a wide range of socio-technical systems all moved in a similar, unsustainable direction, and how then can we think about another shift, this time  towards a more sustainable world. This is a fundamental question about emergence of coordination in the economy and society…connecting the personal, the individual and agency to large scale change process.”

Moving from Deep Transitions rationale to a TIPC one, Professor Schot expanded:

“In TIPC, we ask questions about the future of STI policy and its governance. How can STI policy contribute to socio-technical system change. This area of work is, however, not only about understanding STI policy, but it tries to develop a cognitive and experimental space for developing such a policy together with policy makers. This has led to the establishment of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium with members from six countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland, South Africa, Colombia and Mexico – and a host of associate projects among others with China, Panama, and now with IDRC and three African countries Kenya, Ghana and Senegal.  The ambition of TIPC is to develop narrative and substance, to demonstrate the possibilities through practical action and to create a constituency behind the ideas of Transformative Innovation Policy.  There is a large network of people ready to explore and work with these ideas.”

Professor Schot finished his talk with a warm, heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all the leadership team at SPRU, his research, teaching and professional services colleagues and particularly his assistant Pip Bolton, without who ‘it would be impossible to have done my job.’

The farewell talk was followed by messages from Professor Perez, Professor Steinmueller and Dr Ghosh.

Professor Perez, whose influential long-wave theory has heavily influenced Professor Schot’s Deep Transition’s work, said:

“I had met Johan Schot when I was on the Advisory Board of one of his projects in the Netherlands. I had been impressed by his handling of the diversity of views in the team. I had known SPRU since 1983, when, under the leadership of Chris Freeman and Geoff Oldham, it was seen across the world as the ‘Holy Grail’ of technology and technology policy. When Johan came as director, five years ago – I can’t believe it’s been so long! –  I felt he was the right person. It was a moment when, due to various circumstances, SPRU was on the verge of dismantling. Johan managed to bring it back to strength and to the limelight. He negotiated with the university a support team – which SPRU had never had – and more professor posts which, together with the funds he brought, reduced insecurity. He set up two big international projects one in theory another in policy. The image I have is that he lifted SPRU from the third basement to the third floor. But most of all, he brought back pride, as well as the participatory spirit of the founders. Thank you, Johan!”

Professor Steinmueller, fittingly began his vignette with a quote from an historian, Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier, a Polish-Jewish migrant to the UK:

One would expect people to remember the past and to imagine the future.  But in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience, and when trying to gauge the future they cite supposed analogies from the past: till, by a double process of repetition, they imagine the past and remember the future.’

Taking this inversion, of imagining the past and remembering the future, Professor Steinmueller elaborated:

“As someone who has been a lifelong student of history and science fiction [case in point is that the quote is used in the Korean sci-fi movie ‘Illang: The Wolf Brigade’], I greatly appreciate Namier’s observation.”

“At first glance, Namier appears to be criticising the limits of human understanding. If we can only gauge the future through the lens of an imagined past, then we are captured or strait-jacketed. These bindings are even tighter if we believe the past is an objective truth with an authoritative narrative. One may read Namier in a different way.  One may remember the future in order to imagine the past.  If we remember a future of meaningful abundance, disappearance of exclusion, and the ongoing challenge of discovery, then what is the past that we imagine?

Many of our memories are false.  We make them up as we go along…We have many talks in our sleep, and sometimes in our waking life with those who are not with us. When we remember those not yet born and what they have to say to us about their lives and world, it is time to imagine a past that leads some of these voices to be bad dreams.

Johan has been with us for five years.  In that time, I imagine that SPRU has done very well and even further I imagine that these five years were a vitally important inflection point towards an even better future. Johan has described his achievements in managerial and research terms and, of course, these have been important. The research horizon he has opened is, for me, deeply inspiring and engaging.

However, I would like to imagine this past somewhat differently and also link to Johan’s remarks.  We began again to imagine our past – to actively engage in this imaginative construction.  For some, this has been problematic – in their imagined past (no less real) SPRU was X or Y.  For others, imagining our past has deepened our sense of belonging and vision of what SPRU is not only to those who live in it but those who have partaken of it. In the end, SPRU is an imaginary, a vision in which scientific and technological knowledge is connected to all the other facets of society.  Those with a fascination with these connections have a home amongst us. Those who remember a future with hope and determination to foster humanity’s flourishing are part of us.

Johan has brought not only the sociological imagination, but also the historical imagination into the culture of SPRU and the future I would remember is one in which this deepens and broadens. For me, personally, our research together over this five years has been some of the most enriching and inspiring of my career.”

Next up for the discussants was Dr Ghosh, who recently received her PhD, supervised by Professor Schot. Dr Ghosh emphasised Professor Schot’s ambition to think big for research purposes and his passion for teaching and mentoring young scholars. She said:

“I have learnt a lot from him over the course of time and my research interests are immensely inspired and influenced by his work…One of the things I liked about Johan’s work is his passion to address the biggest and the most difficult problems that this world is facing on the most massive scale possible. If you think about both Deep Transitions and Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium, one thing that is common in both research programmes, is the vastness of its scope and huge ambition to reach out for and solve sustainability problems faced by not just one system, not just in one country, but across systems and across countries. This ambition to study and influence global sustainability through transformative innovation is typical of Johan’s style, while acknowledging the context specificity of experiments, policy processes, political and socio-cultural differences. So as he was supervising my thesis…I was constantly encouraged to think about the wider implications of my research for other cities, not just in Global South but also cities in Global north facing similar challenges…I feel genuinely lucky to have the opportunity to work with him for my doctoral thesis as well as on the other projects. And as you can gather..it can be quite overwhelming to digest all this in one go, but at the same time I feel it is extremely inspiring to learn about all of his ongoing work and how they connect together in terms of thinking about the past, present and the future of the world in transition.”

Dr Ghosh finished by giving her thanks and best wishes to Professor Schot in his new role at UGLOBE at the University of Utrect.

The lecture was rounded off with words from the audience, and from the new interim SPRU Director, Gordon MacKerron, who presented Professor Schot with photograph of the old west pier in Brighton, a shapshot of the view from Professor Schot’s Brighton home. A drinks reception and fitting farewell party marked the end of the evening.

Following the evening gathering, where the SPRU band played, Professor Schot summarised his feelings: “The seminar and the party express what is best about SPRU, huge collegiality and warm spirit, a passion for and dedication to improving the world. SPRU is in my heart, and I am looking forward to continuing to participate in work with Unit.”



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