Innovation Studies – The New Research Agenda

After my nice experience in Kiel, I’m now participating in another mini-conference organised by the Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), a research centre based at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. There have been some excellent discussions on the challenges that we who are doing research on innovation face in our day-to-day work, and ideas on how to circumvent these problems.

Among the discussions was a conversation about the direction that Innovation Studies should take to tackle the problems of our world today. Several areas of research that have so far been neglected were highlighted by Ben Martin, including ‘dark innovation’ i.e. innovation activity that cannot be measured by R&D funding and patents, but is innovation nonetheless; incremental innovation, process innovations, financial innovations, innovation in developing countries; mundane innovations especially those used by women as opposed to the acute focus on ‘boy toys’ (cars, electronics, high-tech stuff); innovations for sustainable development rather than innovation for economic growth; innovations fostering ‘fairness for all’ rather that ‘winner take all’ as we have seen in the technology sphere, etc. See the working paper here for a more in-depth discussion on a new research agenda.

Beyond these areas, there was a call to bold research that tackles ‘Grand Challenges’, the persistent problems of modern society such as poverty and inequality, global health, climate change, food security and energy. These problems are so large and complex that they must be tackled by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach in scholarly work. Theoretical influences from evolutionary economics and science and technology studies (STS) if combined, already provide a powerful starting point. Further, the importance of applied research alongside basic research in addressing this agenda must be underscored. Senior scholars in the room, among them Johan Schot, challenged doctoral students present to orient their research to make a meaningful contribution to these areas, and to take bold steps into uncharted territory.

Whenever senior scholars address doctoral students in forums like these, they adopt a ‘passing of the mantle’ stance, basically saying, “The world as we know it is complex, and gets more complex by the day. We as scholars-of-old have done our part, and you are the next generation of scholars, and the fate of the future rests on your shoulders. Go ye, therefore, and change the world!”

What a great responsibility to shoulder as a young academic who often relies on senior scholars for validation. But who else can carry this burden if not my generation of academics? Such discussions remind me that soon, I’ll no longer be a lowly doctoral student making harmless conjectures about phenomena in the world. Therefore I should already work towards becoming a serious voice in global debate and policy design. I’d better be making the right decisions on how I position my research, and muster the hubris to articulate my convictions about where we should be going. This responsibility is especially important for me, coming from Sub-Sahara Africa where there’s a dearth of objective, rigorous, consistent, evidence-based research.

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