Innovation Not Just About Technology
Earlier this month, at a meeting of South Australia’s mining business leaders, the Premier, Jay Weatherill, called for those present to take global leadership in technology innovation to bring about transformative and lasting change in regards to social well-being and the environment.
However, to go one step further, what is actually needed are low carbon innovations, ones that reduce the environmental and social costs associated with using high-carbon technologies. Whilst it is clear that technology is crucial to, for instance, the development of an advanced manufacturing sector, what business and political leaders need to understand is that innovation is not just about gadgets or machines, but is also about the way we do things, and this can depend on social and cultural reasons, as much as technical and political. This means that innovation involves a whole host of different stakeholders, collectively known as “communities”, not just high-tech companies and universities, but small-to-medium enterprises, competitors and members of the public.
Understanding how innovations emerge from the activities of such communities as they seek to achieve their collective or individual goals is crucial if we are to achieve “transformative and lasting change”. One key aspect that is often fatally ignored is the social context in which the innovation will operate. With low carbon innovations, we are seeking massive behavioural changes in society, asking the public to accept, for instance, new energy infrastructure and to change patters of energy demand. Furthermore, innovations must also take into account existing capabilities, skills and natural resources within the societies they aim to serve. Hence, the public must be involved at all stages of innovation, from pre-design to use, whilst governments must introduce policies that bring down barriers, develop skills and create market “pull”.
There are good reasons to engage the public in low carbon innovation. Encouraging behavioural change is one, but we also need to build trust, political legitimacy, dispel ignorance and misunderstandings, raise scientific literacy and mobilise favourable attitudes to scientific and technological innovation. The public can also be a valuable resource for inspiration, as witnessed by the countless “ideas competitions” active on the Web today. Port Augusta Mayor Joy Baluch (also at the recent meeting) may be a thorn in the side of the mining industry, but she is only championing what should be the norm – public engagement in decisions about technologies and policies that may affect them.
Cultural issues can sometimes be barriers to innovation – witness the debates about “poo water” in Australia – but this just emphasises that it is users who adopt new technologies and practices and, hence, it is important to include users in innovation processes. Governments need policies that recognise this, whilst at the same time build legitimacy and provide high-level leadership.
Mr Weatherill calls for leadership. We require the same from him.
Prof. Stefaan Simons
Director, International Energy Policy Institute
University College London