In search of a common language to support innovation and transform our society

A light bulb to convey an idea

Sociologists and engineers take different approaches to stimulating innovation. Inspired by the Eu-SPRI winter school organised by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, Gijs Diercks and Henrik Larsen, PhD students from the Centre for Environmental Policy, argue that finding a common language is crucial to bridging the divide.

Addressing global challenges such as climate change, food security and resource scarcity demands radical change in the way we live, produce and consume. The changes needed are so deep and fundamental that they are often labelled as ‘transformative’. It is widely accepted that innovation, here broadly understood as ‘turning novelty into practice’, will play a big part in enabling this transformation. This idea is emphasised for instance in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. Fostering such innovation however also requires a change in policy. We travelled to Brighton to learn more about the type of  innovation policy framework that can underpin transformative change.

Is the dust settling?

From what we saw at SPRU, it seems that a new understanding of what an effective policy framework for innovation could look like is taking shape. Global challenges like climate change are so complex, the argument goes, that programmes led centrally by national governments with a set vision to push certain technologies forward, are both insufficient and unlikely. Instead, innovation policy for transformative change should embrace a wider variety of actors, different forms of knowledge and modes of innovation.

In practice, this means encouraging and enabling more informal and more inclusive approaches. One example is grassroots innovation, leading bottom-up solutions for sustainable development and taking place in alternative settings such as makerspaces or hackerspaces. This new narrative provides alternatives to university and industry led models of innovation by establishing informal networks of people and ideas, such as the Honey Bee Network or POC21, that are pooling existing solutions developed by innovators across the world. It also means loosening controls and oversight and allowing for more tentative and experimental forms of governance. A good example is the concept of Urban Living Labs, that allow for radical experiments such as the ‘Mobility as a service’ scheme in Helsinki, a potentially transformative innovation that aims to make car ownership redundant.

One goal, two approaches

How does this compare to views of innovation at Imperial? There too, overarching global challenges are playing an increasing role in research agendas. The university is building on existing strategies to stimulate innovation and formulating and advocating for new approaches. For instance, Imperial College London is responding to global challenges by opening up a new campus in White City, supporting plans for West London to become ‘the Silicon Valley of cleantech’. The underlying assumption is that the brains of Imperial and the creative class of London, together with the financial elite of The City, will create a breeding ground for breakthrough technologies that will bring down greenhouse gas emissions, make food production more efficient and create a bio-based economy.

It’s not about who’s right

It’s clear to us that there are many different views about what innovation policy for transformative change could look like. SPRU ascribes to a sociological discourse of broad societal change, whereas Imperial tends to put more faith in an engineering discourse of techno-scientific solutions. The obvious reaction is to ask: so, who is right? However, this might not be the right question. Rather, how do we prevent a further growing of the fault line between two groups, which will be increasingly difficult to overcome? How can we bridge the divide by emphasising common ground rather than differences?

Understanding of innovation

Engineering Discourse Sociological Discourse
Puts emphasis on: Puts emphasis on (often in addition to the engineering discourse)
Innovation Process Commercialisation of science Turning novelty into practice
Actors Academia – Industry – State Civil society – Other public bodies
Mode of innovation Science, technology, innovation Doing, using and interacting
Activities Supply-side focused Demand-side focused

Finding common ground

To put things simply, one viewpoint emphasises the social side of innovation, whereas the other stresses the technological aspects. To bridge this divide, we need to deliberately use a language that does not separate, but connects the two. A promising approach is to explicitly talk about the ‘socio-technical’, a term with a longstanding history within innovation studies. A socio-technical framing of innovation accepts that technology both shapes its social environment and in turn is shaped by it. For instance, consider how the introduction of the car has completely reshaped our mobility patterns, proof that technology shapes the social environment. Yet, at the same time, these patterns are constantly shaped by different social practices and cultural meanings, leading to distinctively different mobility systems from place to place, proving that the social environment shapes technology. This dynamic process is often referred to as ‘co-evolution’ between technology and the social environment. The outcome of these interactions between a variety of social groups cannot be predetermined, but is the result of a variety of social and technical factors.

Wind energy wheel that is not spinning
Modern wind turbines owe a lot to grassroots innovation

This might sound radical but it is important to remind ourselves that this is not a new story, and that examples can be found throughout history. One example where citizens had an active role in innovation is the story of modern wind power, which has its origins not with engineers in technological universities but with networks of Danish farmers and grassroots innovators. A more recent example of an innovation that emerged not from the lab but from society is Blockchain, the technology behind the Bitcoin, with a huge transformative potential by enabling individuals to transact with each other without the need of a third party. But even technologies that do have their origins in more traditional academic environments, such as 3D-printing, we often observe that experimentation is done by a diversity of actors, including artists and designers. Together, these diverse groups will shape its currently unknown pathways: a co-evolution between new technologies, business models, user practices and cultural meanings, in which everyone participates.

Speaking the same language

We believe this narrative resonates with both sides of the divide. Making these commonalities explicit therefore seems a logical starting point for a common language for innovation to support transformative change. This socio-technical language has potential to radically open up discussion about what is needed and what could be done to address global challenges. This might direct attention away from the conventional actors (e.g. firms, universities, states) to a broader and more diverse set of actors, including cities and public service providers (for instance around waste, water, transport or energy), and acknowledging an active role for users, consumers and citizens in innovation. We believe this understanding of innovation brings a narrative that can be shared by both engineers and sociologists. This is the message we will take back back to Imperial College London.

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