The last few days I have been a participant in a conference about transformative innovation policy. It was quite a treat to be a participant in an event and not to be a moderator or speaker. The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium is an initiative of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. Many other governments, research alliances and academics are part of this initiative.
It was great to hear the voices of the gurus whose material I usually only get to read. A core concept of the initiative is the idea that there are 3 frames of innovation policy (Schot & Steinmuller, 2016). In my vocabulary a frame is the punctuated equilibrium that exists between paradigm shifts. The first frame of innovation policy was mainly about R&D and regulation. The second frame shifted towards national systems of innovation and entrepreneurship. The third and most recent shift is towards transformative innovation policy. I will not go into the description of the frames, I want to focus on one thought that struck me during the conference, and it is about the organizations (or agents) that are supposed to help on this process of transformative innovation.
Economic change is a complex process. Transformative innovation tries to achieve a particular (broad) kind of change in a society. A wide range of organizations in the science, technology and innovation domain would have to collaborate and even change themselves to enable or promote transformative change. While some changes may have to do with technology development, adaptation or other kinds of innovation, other changes would be more about social technologies like improving cross silo collaboration, mobilizing a broader range of civil actors into innovation activities, experimenting with policy and learning by doing. However, many these organizations themselves are often very rigid, hierarchical, and to some degree clumsy, especially in developing countries. What I mean with clumsy is that research requires a degree of planning, organizations need to coordinate across disciplines and themes, and that governance and oversight remains necessary and important. So when there is a sudden shift these organizations struggle to change quickly. They are rigid, and many of their internal systems and the predominant organizations culture are designed to withstand distraction, and to plow straight on through obstacles, resistance and confusion. So to a large extent, many of these organizations are primed to ignore weak signals, soft voices and serendipity.
These kinds of organizations are my clients. So let me not complain too much about their ability to make sense of what is going on around them. The ideas shared in this conference would inspire many of my clients and friends working in the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa, and the network of academics, researchers and technology centers we have here. I am excited about many of the concepts, but also weary that there is little space to fail or time to lose due to political and societal pressure to show results.