Managing the creative tension in innovation policy

During the past few decades, research and innovation policies in many countries have experienced what I have called a “widening and deepening” process. Widening refers to the expansion of the scope of public action fostering innovation processes well beyond the traditional focus on the creation of scientific knowledge. Today public action focuses as well into many new areas like user-driven innovation, cluster policies, public sector innovation, service innovation, or promotion of entrepreneurship. Likewise, “deepening” refers to the introduction of new forms of public action typically involving a governance-approach, or new forms of public-private interactions. During the past few decades governments have introduced new schemes and programs and revamped old ones in significant ways, in what seems to be true experimentalism. These widening and deepening are the outcomes of new agendas of research and innovation policies that have been developed from an innovation system perspective in mind, and in so doing they have also shaped the new role of research and innovation policy in the era of governance.

More recently, some countries and international organizations (OECD and EU, mostly) have launched a series of ambitious innovation strategies, with goals and concrete action plans that seem to aim at putting some priority-setting into the widening and deepening. Some strategies have a ‘reform’ agenda aiming to reduce the ‘jungle of instruments’, others put focus on new and specific areas, while other strategies try to do both.

Most interestingly, governments widening, deepening and strategy-design seem to have revolved around three large areas: the improvement of competitiveness of their economies, the promotion of scientific/academic excellence, and the solution of complex societal challenges. Naturally, these three large areas target different constituencies and stakeholders, as well as overall purposes, which are namely, the industrial/economic context, the scientific community, and the society at large. Naturally this is reflected in very different ways across the countries, depending on national traditions regarding the role of the state in the economy and society, as well as on the respective idiosyncrasies of national research and innovation systems.

Yet, this increased activism, experimentalism, and governance approach brings to the fore another important issue, namely that some traditional tensions in the governance of research and innovation system might be exacerbated. This tension refers to the fact that in any innovation system there will always be an intrinsic tension between the “politics of purpose” (the political or societal political organization of support and structures for knowledge creation) and the “self-organization of science” (here understood as all forms of knowledge production, as the internal social dynamics of recognition and acceptance among those who produce the knowledge).

My main point is that the new role of research and innovation policy in the age of governance has to be able to manage this tension, which is, after all, a creative tension.

One large problem might arrive: The problem of dichotomy, when the politics of purpose does not take into account the reality of the self-organization of knowledge production. An example of “dichotomy”: If a research and innovation system is characterized by widespread forms of innovation by “doing-using-interacting“ (DUI)(the self-organization), but the politics of purpose are solely focusing on fostering traditional “science-technology-innovation” (STI). This dichotomy will not foster innovation.

“Managing the creative tension” requires not only policy-makers to be able to avoid these situations above, but also that they are aware of three overall aspects as well:

Firstly, fostering the diversity of types of knowledge and of knowledge producers in the system. This is so because diversity generates dynamism and creativity in a society and economy. Multiple studies at firm and at national level tend to show that innovation is likely to happen when different types of knowledge are combined and different actors are put together, as this opens up for thinking differently and for approaching problems from different angles.

Secondly, securing that there are capable agents of change in the research and innovation system who are able to take up the opportunities that might emerge from new technologies and new institutional frameworks. These capable agents are typically: entrepreneurs, intra-preneurs, scientists, venture capitalists, etc; but as our notion of innovation has been deepening and widening, these agents of change are also local governments/public agencies with knowledgeable civil servants, or NGOs with high levels of social capital. An example of why empowering capable agents is important: Many countries have today the purpose to solve “societal challenges”. However, there is a great diversity in the capabilities of different societal stakeholders around those challenges: Some societal stakeholders are relatively strong and capable, i.e. firms, environmental organizations, etc; but others are traditionally week, i.e. consumer organizations, or patient organizations. This asymmetry renders difficult the political purpose to solve societal challenges, because it is much more than just having diverse knowledge types and putting the right agents together… It is paramount that those diverse agents are also capable.

Thirdly, it requires a broad understanding of evidence-based policy-making. There are today many forms of evaluation and assessment of individual policy programs. Yet, there is a sense of frustration that evaluation tends to be positively biased, and not always oriented towards encouraging organizational change. Hence, taking policy learning seriously in innovation policy requires that evidence-based policy making is not just based on evaluations or indicators. It requires a holistic understanding of the dynamics of innovation policy itself, and its own adaptability.

All these remarks are strongly linked to the notion of the ‘learning economy’ which was put forward by Lundvall and others in early 1990s. It may be that it is about time to consider whether our research and innovation policies are truly moving the research and innovation systems in this direction.

This is the topic of my speech at the conference “Kunnskap for samhandling og endring” organized by the Forskningsrådet from Norway, Oslo, February 7th, 2013.

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3 thoughts on “Managing the creative tension in innovation policy

  1. Hi Susana, thank you for this thoughtful blog. I have been thinking about these things, too. I am wondering how much the national ‘systems’ are truly systems in the operational sense. My research seems to show that the global system may be becoming more and more influential, and as it does, it overtakes most of the national systems functions and redirects towards the dynamic created by the self-organization at the global level. As this happens, it seems to me that national systems may have less control or even influence over what type of knowledge is create locally, but perhaps more control over what is exploited locally. This, a global scanning policy (similar to the Finnish system, let’s say) is more adaptive than some other national policies, which still operate as if the nation is the operative space for policy action. Would be interested in your thoughts on this.
    Caroline Wagner

  2. I enjoyed your piece. Looking at your point on evidence-based policymaking from a Latin American perspective one notes that, although great strides have been made in introducing the innovation system perspective into the political discourse, strong inert forces in policy evaluation still bias the policy process against change. An abundance of legitimizing or ‘positively biased’ approaches based on conventional methodologies contribute to it. Academic researchers have an important responsibility in changing this situation.


  3. Pingback: Managing the creative tension in innovation policy | Susana Borras … « levysimal

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