The Study of Innovation and Sustainability… What about Politics, Economics and Culture?

“Sustainability” is a notion that is hotly debated across academic and non-academic arenas. What does this term mean?

The term has its origins within environmental movements, thus the common layman understanding that sustainability is synonymous with ‘green’. Over time however, the connotations of the term have evolved to incorporate economic and political overtones. Many conceptualisations of sustainability exist now across various disciplines, and it’s quite a challenge to identify one that comprehensively captures the normativity, complexity, uncertainty and the highly dynamic nature of the notion in the modern world. Some groups argue that environmental sustainability is supreme, as other domains such as politics and economics would not exist if the world imploded today. Others argue that the domains are intricately interlinked and thus they coevolve, therefore undue emphasis on one domain is detrimental. (By the way, in 2002, the UN incorporated ‘culture’ as a fourth sustainability domain, apart from the three traditional ‘pillars’: economic, ecological and political.) I tend to agree with the latter argument.

Now, I am interested in the interpretation of sustainability in innovation economics, and science and technology studies. So I am looking into discussions that link innovative activity to the multifaceted concept of sustainable development. Much effort has been put into this discussion already, but I have some questions about the research agenda.

Economists tend to focus on ‘sustainable economic development’, i.e. studies demonstrating how innovative activity is central to sustained economic development, so they study industrial dynamics: entry and exit of firms in industries, the composition and evolution of markets, the growth of industries, R&D, absorptive capacities of firms, regions and nations, human capital development, the economics of science, and stuff like that (Schumpeterian economics). Management scholars focus on similar issues, only at the firm level. So basically they ponder this: how can we keep the economic (or firm) engine going to sustain a desirable trajectory of/to economic development (profitability)? Some economists have begun incorporating explicit discussions of ‘green’ innovation and economic development, and in this way, cover two domains of the sustainability agenda, a laudable effort. I am now looking for literature that links innovation economics to the other sustainability domains, i.e. political justice and cultural sustainability, and I must say, I’m coming up empty so far. Is it that these two domains don’t integrate seamlessly with economics and innovation? (NB: I have seem papers that discuss the nexus between regional or national cultures, innovation and economic development… very interesting to show how contextual cultural factors have a positive or negative impact on innovation and economic growth).

From casual analysis, science and technology studies literature spreads across three of the four sustainability domains, i.e. politics, culture and economics (captured broadly as ‘society’). Most of the literature here is concerned about how innovation shapes and is shaped by society. Lately, focus on sustainability in science and technology studies has become evident, with new-ish theories advocating for the shift to “sustainable development”. From my reading so far, however, it seems that sustainable development is interpreted to be environmental sustainability, and this domain is receiving attention almost exclusively. This is evident in how literature on building sustainable energy, food and transport systems has proliferated recent STS journal issues and conferences. In this literature, politics, culture and economics serve environmental sustainability, rather than being tackled as domains of sustainability that deserve sustenance in themselves. For instance, I come up empty when I search for discussions in STS literature that overtly tackle political justice and innovation, or cultural sustainability and innovation, or social justice (in the economics sense) and sustainability. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places…

I have been pondering the above for sometime now. It goes without saying that studying sustainability (in its totality, considering all its elements) is a complex endeavour. What we see is scholars tackling sustainability domains independently, or at best, studying interactions between two domains. Being in Europe, I see an almost exclusive focus on economic and environmental sustainability. Why? Could it be because these are advanced societies where political injustices are perceived to be a thing of the past, and therefore require no overt focus now, especially in relation to innovation? What about culture? Is it that an optimum level of social justice has been attained here thus invalidating the need to study social inclusion and innovation as a sustainability concern?

I welcome thoughts on this issue.

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