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Transforming Innovation Policy

Innovation policy needs to be transformed profoundly. It has to be more focused, more efficient, more effective, and able to foster deep changes addressing complex problems in our societies and economies. The question is how to do that.

Many answers were given during the workshop organised by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) at the European University Institute, Florence; and convened by José Manuel Leceta, Johan Schot and Brigid Laffan.

The need of directionality of innovation policy is crucial, and several interventions underlined that. Charles W. Wessner suggested that directionality implies that the state encourages much more strongly the availability of venture capital in particularly for SMEs, like the SBRI program does in the US. For his part, Jakob Edler suggested that this new directionality has to do with a re-focusing of innovation policy on needs, not much on ’market demand’ in the traditional economic sense, but on society ’needs’ in a more fundamental way. This leads to the issue of grand social challenges. In that regard, Giovanni Colombo reminded about the widespread acknowledgement of that directionality. However, it is key to explore the nature and the dynamics of those grand challenges beforehand (not after!) the design of innovation policies.

The new institutions and arrangements are also crucial for the transformation of innovation policy. Johan Schot pointed at different issues, and stressed in particular the role of new modes of governance and new institutions that link the role of the state, business and civil society in new ways. This is highly related to the new book The Governance of Socio-Technical Systems: Explaining Change by myself and Jakob Edler, where we conceptualise governance and indicate how these new arrangements are taking shape. During the seminar in Florence, several concrete examples of this were given, including my own intervention about the emergence of global-reaching ‘product development partnerships’ for some neglected diseases like Malaria or AIDS.

Following from the question about the current efficiency of innovation policy in organisational terms, Massimiliano Granieri looked into the role of public administration and law, presenting the findings of his book from 2012 Innovation Law and Policy in the European Union. It puts a critical light on the incremental growth of agencies and public administration units at the EU level, and at the high complexity of innovation policy programs in a multi-level context. From this, he asks, whether an innovation policy can aspire to be really disruptive, without disrupting its own organisational framework. This is perhaps linked to the fact that the European construction (in EU and Pan-European terms) is largely based on technocratic internationalism. The new book Writing the rules for Europe by Wolfram Kaiser and Johan Schot looks into this technocratic tradition as depolitizised transnational governance by experts in the European integration processes since the mid-19th century. There seem to be strong elements of long-term continuity in European integration politics.

The remarks about technocracy brought the discussion forward towards the importance of legitimacy as social acceptance in innovation policy. Different mechanisms for acquiring legitimacy are through democratic participation and improving forms of accountability (most importantly, but not only, through parliamentary scrutiny). The notion responsible innovation refers partly to this social anchorage of innovation policy. However, as Jakob Edler pointed out, recent research results from the on-going project RES-AgorA www.res-agora.eu/ show that often the definition of the research agendas is decided by small groups of actors mainly from industry and technicians. Therefore, there is a need to open up and broaden up the social legitimacy. Aristotle Tympas suggests that the legitimacy of innovation policies would require introducing discussions about social values when identifying needs and when devising courses of action.

Regarding the opening questions above, effectiveness came back into the scene at this point. Here a remark from Charles Wessner about the performance of innovation policy seems to be quite relevant. Many European countries conduct extensive evaluations of science/research/technology/innovation programs assessing the programs’ outputs, outcomes and impact. However, the extent to which these evaluation exercises are conducive to policy learning, and more importantly, to the transformation of innovation policy in a more fundamental way is still an open question. One recent discussion in Denmark deals with the need to move beyond the myriad of individual program evaluations towards more systemic evaluation of the innovation policy as such in its systemic context. The European Union could consider that approach too.

Foto credit: Susana’s own Feb 2015: Ponte Vecchio

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