Last autumn took me back to my home country, Colombia, to be part of the Mision de Sabios (“Mission of the Wise”). My PhD supervisor Johan Schot was one of 46 national and international researchers invited to assist the Colombian government in developing public policy around Education and Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). This Mission aimed to address issues, such as human development and equality, which are of pressing concern in Colombia and are also echoed around the world.
Over the last decades, policymakers in Colombia and around the world have focussed on STI as a driver of innovation, job creation and economic growth – but is this really the answer to broader social and environmental challenges? At least in Colombia, recurrent problems such as poverty and malnutrition have not been resolved, and Colombia remains one of the countries with the highest inequality globally. Besides this, we are all now aware of the increasing degradation of vital ecosystems and the possible social and environmental impacts of climate change.
Increasing economic productivity to achieve social goals was also a common theme during this Mission of the Wise, but Johan made a slightly different suggestion. Based on his historical studies, Johan has contributed to debates around transitions to sustainability by providing frameworks to study social and technological transformation in modern societies and established the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC). His contribution to the Mission was based upon
“…The growing realisation that environmental and social goals should no longer serve mainly as a static framework of conditions for innovation, something they may help to accomplish”.
In other words, science, technology and innovation policy should prioritise social and environmental goals explicitly, rather than seeing them as enablers of innovation, or pursuing economic growth as an indirect way to achieve them. This implies a new social commitment that enables us to reduce inequality and poverty, and conserve and restore nature – and consequently, a qualitatively different type of economic growth.
Much of Johan’s current research is based on co-creation, multidisciplinarity and mixing methods, so he invited a variety of researchers from different disciplines to contribute to his work for the mission. Matias Ramirez (University of Sussex), who leads the TIPC research in Latin America, played a key role in integrating researchers from Colombia. My own contribution focussed on analysing how the structure of scientific research communities in Colombia might enable or constrain a transformative approach (chapter 3), and we learned from transformative initiatives already happening in Colombia’s regions (chapter 4). For instance, the protection of the Bogotá wetlands by social movements, or the Iza municipality’s polystyrene ban policy in Boyacá to reduce production and use of non-biodegradable materials. Lessons from these initiatives, together with Colombia’s knowledge base and scientific capabilities, could help to implement and embed transformative innovation policy across Colombia.
What next? Discussing our findings with other participants in the Commission allowed us to validate our preliminary conclusions (chapter 3 and 4), while some (such as the Commission for public health, Ciencias de la Vida y Salud) started to use the perspective of transformative innovation in their own Commission report. The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation plans to implement the recommendations from the Mission, while TIPC and this ministry plan to undertake a national program in transformative innovation with a strong regional focus. As for me, I can see a puzzle. If the SDGs include ‘traditional’ ideas about innovation which focus mainly on productivity and business as usual (SDG 8) and represent a global framework to address challenges and solutions that are global, but also locally specific… what does that mean for their ability to ‘transform our world’? Lots to think about during the next stages of my PhD.
See also this interview with Professor Johan Schot and Dr Bipashyee Ghosh on COVID-19’s consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.