BLOG: The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium Conference

BLOG: The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium Conference

Brighton UK, 3-4 October 2018

Summary by Frans Sengers (King’s College London)

The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) is a group of policy-makers and funding agencies working together to give substance to a new ‘frame’ for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy. This new frame is called ‘Transformative Innovation Policy’ and it aims to mobilise innovation to address global societal challenges related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including climate change, inequality, employment and pathways to economic growth and development. (This is different from traditional STI policy ideas, which focus more on R&D investment or national innovation systems). The consortium co-ordinator is the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex in the UK, and members are innovation ministries and funding agencies from Colombia, Finland, Mexico, Norway, South Africa and Sweden (and additional projects in China, Panama and Brazil).

On 3-4 October 2018 the second TIPC conference was organised in Brighton, UK. This conference discussed the move from transformative theory (much of this initial conceptual work is based on Schot and Steinmueller’s academic articulation of the new frame for STI policy) toward transformative action by exploring key milestones and achievements of the consortium and by co-creating new layers of knowledge to link theory and practice. The conference includes keynotes by academics and practitioners, parallel sessions on topics such as experimentation and learning and plenty of opportunities for open debate, reflection and networking.

A number of inno4sd partners were invited to the conference. Dr Frans Sengers reports on very interesting discussions.


Keynote 1: Sylvia Schwaag-Serger (Lund University)

As a former policy-maker now working in academia, Sylvia Schwaag-Serger is well placed to make the link between research and practice. Her keynote was about addressing the Sustainable Development Goals through Transformative Innovation Policy. She illustrated this with insights from the Nordic countries, particularly from Sweden. The question is ‘how to institutionalise environmental and social resilience in a well-functioning society’. In that respect, Sweden is positioned as a successful society (prosperous, equal, high-trust, technologically advanced, innovation leader), but also as a country with certain innovation challenges (particularly in terms of slow pace of policymaking and the ‘lagging pockets’ of healthcare and higher education). Sweden is good in commercialisation and incremental innovation, but poor in unrelated diversification and it lacks of a portfolio approach. In terms of innovation policy Sweden needs institutional memory (current budget processes and policy silos are ill equipped for this), a longer-term view and missions (inspired by the work of Mazzucato), and a toolbox to facilitate more adaptive regulation and risky experimentation (the current mentality is one of ‘feel free to experiment, but don’t dare to fail’). Building on these last two points, it is key to balance between accountability and agility.

The last point in the keynote about ‘accountability vs agility’ created a lively discussion. There was widespread agreement that here are more enemies to agility in innovation policy and direction than accountability – especially the ‘capture’ by vested industrial interests.

The point about the need for experimentation also raised interesting responses and reflection. It was argued that is not productive to think about the up-scaling of one experiment as ‘the single way’ to address a problem, but that there are always multiple ways that can work besides one another. Others argued that we should be aware that ‘sometimes experiments become a substitute for actual political will’, which is problematic because nothing then happens after the initial experiment, especially in Norway this often appears to be the case – a large set of experiments, but no follow up.

From here on, the discussion on experimentation moved to governance and coordination. According to some ‘experimentation is the opposite of governmental coordination’ and to upscale experiments you don’t necessarily need central coordination (e.g. top-down government), but you need ‘another layer’ and other actors (e.g. intermediaries). This results in the following deeper question on the need for central coordination: ‘can the orchestra play a new symphony without the maestro?’


Keynote 2: Erika Kraemer Mbula (University of Johannesburg)

Erika Kraemer Mbula reflected on transformative innovation in Africa. There are several important background conditions and trends shaping the development of the continent, such as demographics (a very young and rapidly growing population), urbanisation (the growth of mega slums as an increasingly shared urban future), inequalities (the Gini coefficient is very high for all African counties), finical flows (particularly important are illicit financial flows going out), ICT growth (especially ‘mobile money’ in Sub-Saharan Africa). There are many examples of niche experimentation and technology co-creation throughout the continent, at least 442 technology hubs. This includes many traditional tech parks and activity-based innovation centres, but notably also 115 co-creation hubs (third-generation models, like make spaces and fab labs, with a clear DIY ethos). Examples of co-creation hub innovations include a fire reporting systems for slum shacks and ‘maker schools’ as education innovations.

Another important point about African cities is the vast size and central position of the informal economy: ‘informal is normal’. Many informal economy innovations also fit very well with ideas about circular economy. Examples include a DIY chip cutter and innovations for informal waste collection in Kenya.

The main lessons that we can draw from this are that constrained environments are good breeding grounds for new ideas, that we need to follow the principles of openness and participation to solve practical problems, and that we need to look more at local-level innovation systems that include non-traditional partners.

During the discussion after the keynote several interesting points were raised, especially about the lack of connection between these co-creation hubs (one might have expected otherwise given that the actors involved at the forefront of digital innovation in a connected world) and about the existence of niches despite of policy (the generally accepted view is that policy a way to help construct protected spaces)


Session 1B: Experimental Cultures

According to Paula Kivimaa (SPRU Sussex University) there is an explosion of experiments in many domains, including in governance and policy.

Lucy Kimbell (University of the Arts London) presented a design perspective on governance innovation. She is involved in the EU project Futuregov, which asks the question ‘what is does government look like in 2030?’ To address this question she worked with design/arts students to explore scenarios around big government vs small government and strong citizen involvement vs weak citizen involvement.

Annuka Berg (Finnish Environment Institute) discussed the Experimental Finland Program, which has the ambitious political aim to introduce a ‘culture of experimentation’. In doing so the government sought to combine elements of evidence-based policy trials and a lively start-up culture. In the context of this program a number of high-level strategic experiments were introduced, including basic income, service vouchers and employer-business vouchers. A continuing of discussion within the government was the widespread confusion about what an experiment is. To make this more explicitly clear, 4 functions or goals of an experiment were conceptualised: testing, multiplying influence, creating profound influence, and promoting systemic change.

Adrian Smith (SPRU Sussex University) presented his ideas about civil-society-led ‘grassroots innovation’. There is a ‘time lag’ between the institutions that experiments assume and seek to introduce and the world into which they introduce, which poses interesting ‘what if’ questions (e.g. what if we lived in a zero-carbon world?). Creative under-the-radar experiments have always been there and have continually resurfaced. The individual experiments might come and go, but the broader networks and ideas have been retained and they become emblematic for wider social movements.


Session 2D: Policy Experimentation in Cities

According to Jonas Torrens (SPRU Sussex University) city governments and other urban actors have been particularly prolific in engaging in experimentation.

Maria Schnurr (RISE, research Institute of Sweden) presented the Swedish Transport Policy Labs, particularly focusing on the ‘autopiloten’ autonomous vehicle experiment in Stockholm. The experiment was organised in a manner that promoted openness and brought many different kinds of stakeholders together. This positively received by those involved as a way of learning from each other’s perspective and even as a ‘teambuilding’ exercise.

Paola Pollmeier (RutaN, innovation centre Medellin) talked about the transformation of the city of Medellin from a crime-ridden place towards a knowledge economy and best practice example (e.g. projects such as urban cable cars). The formalised approach followed to make this happen was donated to other Latin-American cities so that this success can be replicated.

Adrian Ely (SPRU Sussex University) talked about a project on Transformation Labs (ideas behind this are inspired by Frances Westley’s work on ‘social innovation labs’), specifically in the context of an academic-led project of learning from experimentation across cultures and contexts worldwide (in China, Mexico, Argentina, Kenya and the UK).

After the talks an interesting discussion ensued about why to focus on cities as the right ‘transformation space’ unit. For some socio-technical systems (e.g. a transport system) or governance jurisdictions (e.g. a municipality) the city might be the right scale, but when we talk about addressing certain ecological or problems or changing socio-ecological systems, we should realise that the boundaries are different (e.g. biodiversity or groundwater flows do not adhere to city jurisdictions). Another interesting point was to what extent local governments always need to be involved from the start or if some desirable transformation processes can be shaped without this (e.g. some actors envision radical transformation that is deeply at odds with the agenda of local governments)


Session 3A: Science, Technology and Innovation policy in Sweden and Colombia

Panellists Alejandro Olaya (Colciencias, innovation agency Colombia) and Göran Marklund (VINNOVA, innovation agency Sweden) reflected on the experiences of national STI agencies in leading the development of Transformative Innovation Policies in Colombia and Sweden.

This session highlighted the critical role played by national science and technology agencies in encouraging and enacting processes of transformative innovation in their national economies are likely to be seen as the legitimate leaders of the transformation process, which will be challenged to go well-beyond narrow funding roles and to adopt new narratives, coordinate new networks and use a range of policy instruments that can encourage transformations. To that end, the VINNOVA agency of Sweden has the Grand Challenges programme and the Colciencias agency of Colombia recently produced the ‘Libro Verde’ (Green Book) policy document on how the Colombian STI system can help meet the Sustainable Development Goals through transformative innovation.


Session 4A: Training and Capacity Building to support Transformative Innovation

The panellists reflected on training and Capacity Building Programme on Transformative Innovation for researchers and policymakers, which aims to change mind-sets through deep learning, creating opportunities for the development and embedding of the TIP approach in national and regional policymaking and analysis.

Geert Wilms (Agricultural Innovation agency Brabant) argued for a ‘small wins’ approach by providing small funds to highly innovative farmers, who really need financial and moral support because their ideas make them outcasts within the increasingly smaller farmer community (example of the Vegetarian Butcher in the Netherlands).

Ann Kingiri (African Centre for Technology Studies) talked about building research capacity in Africa through AfricaLics (a network that represents the African branch of the broader GLOBELICS network).

Cristian Matti (from his role as Knowledge and Learning Manager at Transition Hub with the EIT Climate-KIC) talked about the importance of putting problem-solving central (defining the problem and owning the problem), about practitioners creating their own learning experience (this recasts the role of the learning manager from the traditional classroom mentality to more of a facilitator which requires much preparatory work), and about the role of codification and visualisation (for instance by constructing Social Network Analysis graphs together)


Final session: reflection on TIPC

There was some reflection on the nature of what TIPC is or should be. Perhaps it should not be seen as an organisation of actors spearheading ‘the movement’ towards transformative innovation policy, but rather as a platform or temporary space for discussion to facilitate this movement.

Furthermore, the consortium should not be too evangelical in its advocacy. Instead it should be humble, since there is no clear evidence that the type of transformative innovation policy it advocates actually leads to societal transformation. TIPC should also be wary in its engagement with the up-scaling of experiments and test lab, since this is attached to an elusive but misguided discourse of control.

According to some participants the TIPC project contains an essential ‘structural hole’: there is too much emphasis on innovation agencies (they are central in the consortium and this can lead to a top-down approach) and not enough on citizens and other actors. A suggestion was to learn from the Alliance for Science & Society and to get somebody from the French INRA on board as a spokesperson for these other actor types. Others argued that it would be promising to look at the key role of local governments as well as national innovation agencies.

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EU flagThis project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 641974.