Last week I attended the EU-SPRI conference ”Exploring new Avenues for Innovation and Research Policies” in Lund. Overall the quality of the presentations was high and there was enough room for discussion. As always with conferences of this type, also in this case there was a lot of things to think about on the way home. Here are my main takeaway messages from the conference.
What was said
“Much of the innovation literature is nice, but…”
There seemed to be quite a lot of work on definitions, conceptual frameworks and theoretical developments among the presentations, although that may be because of my tendency to gravitate towards abstract sessions. Different “camps” or approaches to innovation studies were described with the aim to build bridges between them. Related to this a lot of definitions were offered to different concepts, or as in the case of social innovation, a lack of generally agreed upon definition was highlighted.
“Innovation is treated as a cousin from countryside”
Related to the theoretical development, the words system, ecosystem and network appeared in most of the presentations, enhancing the systemic view to innovation. However, Charles Edquist argued in his presentation that innovation policy is still rather linear and thus far behind innovation research with its systemic frameworks. This is a communication failure between researchers and politician, but also between policy makers and politicians.
“Enabling is lame”
A change in mindset about innovation on the policy side was also called for by keynote speaker Mariana Mazzucato, who adviced the government to take a more proactive role instead of focusing how to fix market or system failures or merely "enable" innovations to happen. Governments need to be a part of setting the direction of change, actively explore and learn by doing, and evaluate how their investments are creating new spaces for markets.
What was missing
Digitalisation did appear in some presentations as a key phenomenon of our time. For example, Dirk Pilat raised it as one of the new questions for innovation policy in his keynote. However, overall the analysis of digitalization seemed a bit superficial and did not really touch upon the distributed ways of acting it enables. Instead of recognizing how digitalization and networks are blurring the traditional roles of policy makers, producers, consumers and researchers, there seemed to be a drive for strengthening different categorizations.
The structure of the operating environment was also implicitly assumed to be rather static. Policy making, political structures, the financial system – all were assumed to stay rather constant. Market mechanisms based on continuing growth were assumed to exist. The polarization of political discussion and the impacts of populism were absent in the discussions, although they arguably may have major consequences for innovation and research policy.
How things were said
To end in a more light note, some musings on how innovation policy scholars in this conference preferred to present their research. First thought: words. Lots of them. Many presenters chose to have slides full of words. The upside was that only the main things were usually picked up from these visually paralyzing presentation aids. In addition, the researchers were usually rather passionate about their topic, which made the presentation exciting to follow. A hit tip to the audience, which never failed to have relevant and constructive questions, and to the organizers for allowing enough time to discuss the presentations.
To sum up, the conference was definitely a good one and one worth attending. However, perhaps a bit more future-orientation and radical thinking is needed to find the new avenues, and not end up “re-paving” the old ones .