Babies, bathwater, innovation and Gramsci…

The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (a mouthful, I know) runs internal seminars where academics get to test out new ideas/reboot old ones and generally reflect on the direction(lessness) of travel for innovation policy, science and technology policy and much else. It can be dreadful, but when it works – and it did yesterday – it is great fun and a learning opportunity with few if any equals.

Yesterday’s seminar, the first for the year, was entitled

Innovation policy at stake: should we throw the baby out with the bath water

It was delivered by Prof Philippe Laredo. The blurb went thus-

Very harsh questions emerge here and there on our cumulative knowledge on research and innovation policies. Put together they drive to ask whether we should throw the baby with the bath waters, now that the term is all over the place.

My take on this debate can be summed up around 4 main questions

  • The first is both historical and evaluative: there has not been much discussion about the gathering in one policy of ‘science’ and ‘innovation’ policies. Is it still useful? Has it ever been productive as a sectoral policy? Should not we rather consider another grouping focused on capability building regrouping higher education and (academic) research?

  • The second requires to delve again into history and the birth of S&T policies, which were mostly warranted by ‘mission oriented’ objectives. What has changed when discussing ‘societal’ challenges?

  • The third question, probably the most problematic for us in management, deals with the underlying assumptions (linked to manufacturing industries) on which the portfolios and policy mixes for innovation policies are based. Can we go on, facing politicians, keep telling the same stories on portfolios of instruments and policy mixes?

  • And the last one, I face more and more, who is this policymaker? Is not it too easy an answer to say that all is co-created or that governance is the answer?

I am not going to try to capture all that was said – and I may have got some things wrong, in which case I will correct them when told. This is mostly just bullet points of what was said, and the Q and A, with some [additional comments in square brackets]. Its purpose? Mostly as an aide-memoire for me, so After The Thesis Is Written I can come back and plug some gaps in my innovation theory knowledge.


Laredo: We need to think of science policy and innovation policy separately, and especially research and innovation policy.
Should we focus on sustainability? On what is left of previous policies?
Johan Schot paper from 2015 points to 90% of policies not working. [This one perhaps?]
Policy makers are pretty unsatisfied with academic output. We seem stuck in the manufacturing paradigm – from the 1980s onwards, same recommendations (Laredo read over 70 papers, all with pretty much interchangeable recommendations – see Q and A for more on this.)

Why do we stick to old paradigms, defend failed policies? [Mental inertia? Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, or citing Rogers.]

Laredo says four phases of innovation policy
1. collective industrial research
2.  early 80s, collaborative programs, university/industry
3. Support SMEs innovation (directly, tax credits)
4. Support the ‘start-up’ ecology.

Of course most policies a combination of these four [Cohen’s Garbage Can model from 1972, bricolage, palimpsests]

Btw, the tax credit loss to state revenues is ENORMOUS – $100bn a year, (EU and USA combined).

Look up: SPRU stuff on ‘Hidden Innovation

Remember, growing concentration of industries (i.e. fewer players, very dominant firms) means that “competition policy” doesn’t fit reality [Thomas Kuhn would be laughing]

There’s a changed relationship between producers and consumers [“Prosumers” etc]

60% of investment going into circulation of products and interactions with users, rather than ‘basic’ R and D.

Shifting role of users in driving innovation – crowd sourcing, political consumption, social innovation, sharing economy, changes in ownership/consumption patterns. Put all of these marginal things together and you have a MAJOR change in the socio-economic articulation. But we’re not studying it…(well enough)

Innovation is coming from the regions, not from the nation states. Politicians (regional), seeking re-election are asking the questions from the outside. Laredo laments ‘I have nothing to tell them’. They say to him ‘well, these conferences with 100s of experts – what do they actually achieve.’ Laredo read lots of reports and then had to agree with them. He says ‘our policy agenda [i.e. what and how innovation scholars study] should change deeply.’

There has been failure at the national level, government and bureaucratic.

[Laura Tingle, in her Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia, deals precisely with this in the country that is the setting for my case-study- Australia. The capacity to remember, let alone act, of the Federal state has been dramatically eroded over the last 20 years.]

They wash their hands of it by sub-contracting it out.

Public banks are becoming major/core actors in innovation funding, but barely studied at all (Laredo says he found three papers on it in last five years).

Innovation policy is not [illegible! In synch with?] science and tech policy.

Q and A

I am going to invoke the Chatham House rule for three reasons – simplicity (self-explanatory), politics – people there were asking questions in a way that they didn’t think would be reported for ‘everyone’ [going by this blog’s normal hit rate, about 5 people] to read forever – and accuracy – if I got stuff wrong, it should appear as a misrepresentation. And I got stuff wrong.

Q. You imply there’s a lot of bathwater and very little baby.
A. Yes, sort of, and remember, the academics didn’t invent some of the constructs we use, they came from policy experiments in the real world.

Q. Most R and D is about D (development). What keeps Science Technology and Innovation together, why don’t they break up – because science needs innovation to justify its budget. Think of it as a marriage. So, if a divorce, how would we develop useful innovation policy?
A: how did they merge, look at discursive, governmental and administrative levels. Look at Vannevar Bush onwards, and in the 1963 report [don’t know which] there was no mention of science, only strategic areas for government.

[Someone who knows (a helluvalot) about these things pointed me to this paper –
THE UNITY OF SCIENCE—TECHNOLOGY byMELVIN KRANZBERG American Scientist Vol. 55, No. 1 (MARCH 1967), pp. 48-66]

Q UK Science policy became substitute for technology policy because in the late 70s/early 80s it became impossible to talk about ‘intervention’/industrial policy.
A. For employment we need incremental innovation over and above ‘breakthrough’ innovation.
We have no policy instruments for dealing with the three transformations. Things are analogous to where agriculture/manufacturing was in France in 1965. Agriculture was the major employer, so if basing report on employment would have looked at agriculture.

[Gramsci – The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

Q Who is the policy maker? How do you find them? And what is with this quantitative R and D funding obsession?
A – Second question first – In 1963 only one OECD country had a minister of science. By 1968 all but the USA had one. And there were gazillions of statisticians under them, measuring inputs (because you can do that easily) – Fraschetti manual” (sp?).

[Anecdote of the cop who finds a drunken man crawling around on hands and knees under lamp-post.
Cop – what are you doing?
Drunk – looking for my keys.
Cop – did you lose them here
Drunk – no, I lost them over there in the alley where it is dark
Cop – then why are you looking here?
Drunk – the light’s better.

As for policy makers – fascinating to see the loss of substantive competence in all governments. Fewer people around, less experience. So therefore they go through procedural processes because they don’t actually understand the issues, and then they delegate to actors [This has been PRECISELY my experience trying to get Manchester City Council to act on climate change].

Q – there are some books – The Innovation Illusion [by Erixon and Weigel]  that argue that there has been, outside of ICT, a slow down in innovation, and fewer new entrants because the incumbents have figured out how to rig the game in their own favour. See also THE Corruption of Capitalism – rentier capitalism, a few big firms/oligopolies. They get tax credits in the billions. So, big firms benefiting, getting R and D funding from tax payer for stuff that they’d do anyway, and using power to suppress [competence-destroying] innovation.
A – You can go back to the 1920s – Keynes and Kondratieff arguing that progress is slowing down. Progress is in a few areas that have a deep impact that transforms the rest of the economy [William Gibson – the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed]. So for example, electrification does this, or railways – Alfred Chandler’s book The Visible Hand.

Articulation between breakthrough disruption in areas that then transform the economic fabric. So progress not disappearing, just in specific bits.

Q – Robert J Gordon on quantifying ICT sector

Q – But is ICT same as steel? And do those numbers include robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Q – He doesn’t use data on things that haven’t happened yet.

Laredo – innovation policy in 1970s and 80s was ‘how can this new gizmo be generalised. Now it’s about the generalisation [sp?] of ongoing stuff mostly, and breakthroughs a second focus.

Q – What earlier questioner said is right – the role of powerful actors and powerful non-state actors is actually very important

Suzanna Aborra Capable actors. [Need to check this]

Q – maybe we need to look at Trump – he will definitely be shaking things up. Tweets as a way of creating scandal, forcing otherwise more powerful actors to change [I think this references Ford’s decision not to continue building cars in Mexico]

Q – need to look at market power to suppress competitors, look at specific sectors.

Q – around competition policy, market creation, we [innovation scholars] have missed a trick.

Reference – Innovation Paradox

Verdict: Wow. Normally, I dislike Q and As where it’s mostly the Big Beasts doing the talking . At a conference it can be especially tedious – people showing off to mark their turf, impress/intimidate their frenemies at other institutions. There was none of that in this though – these are people who know each other well, have regular interactions and – crucially – were engaging very thoughtfully indeed on the basis of – if you add it up – hundreds of years of thinking and writing about innovation.  Starts the MIOIR seminar series off with a bang.


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