The State: Back in, or back off?

Shall the state be back in, leading missions for transformative innovation policy? Or shall the state back off, letting society lead the change?

There seems to be a fundamental dilemma associated to the role of the state in relation to transformative innovation policy. The dilemma is about whether the state shall be back in the driving seat, leading concrete and clearly defined type-2 missions for transformative change? Or shall the state, on the contrary, back off from that role, letting society itself to lead transformative change? This is not a trivial question, because it is at the core of political expectations and scientific findings about the role of the state for solving collective problems.

Innovation policies are these days increasingly focusing on addressing grand challenges. Many governments in low and high income countries have been putting emphasis on them, particularly in view of addressing the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN. More and more, innovation policies are no longer just about job creation, productivity and economic growth. To a higher degree than before, they also aim at contributing to find solutions to those complex problems (like limiting climate change, improving life quality for aging societies, or producing affordable medicines for neglected diseases). The creation of the so-called “type-2 mission oriented instruments” is one way in which governments are actually deploying their efforts in that direction. Governments define a mission in collaboration with stakeholders, co-creating and cofounding those very targeted efforts. It is all about mobilizing resources under the umbrella of state action, in order to reach those missions.

However, there is a fundamental dilemma permeating the whole discussion. That dilemma has to do with the limits and feasibility of the state as a central actor.

The annual conference of EU-SPRI held in Paris on June 6th-8th discussed this question at large. Some participants preferred the state as the main source of coordination for collective action (at inter-national, national, regional or local levels); whereas other participants emphasized the key role of society as the only real source of solutions through constant experimentation.

Those discussions were more political than scientific. In fact, and this is my point here, this question is not a matter of pre-defined political preferences or predilections. It is a matter of scientific empirical research. As social scientists we must be able to bring forward empirical evidence that shows the diversity of circumstances and conditions under which some transformative socio-technical changes are based on governance modes where the state is on the leading seat; and those where transformative changes are largely based on society leading change. We shall treat this question scientifically, by using analytical devices that are methodologically and theoretically robust, as well as socially robust. After all is about understanding how are real solutions put forward and how they work. Not about pre-conceived preferences.



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