Innovation & Society: The diversity of innovation practice

by Sebastian Pfotenhauer, Uli Meyer

In 2010, with the launch of the Innovation Union initiative, the European Commission declared the continent to be in a state of ‘innovation emergency’: “We need to do much better at turning our research into new and better services and products if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace and improve the quality of life in Europe” (EC, 2016). This call for ’more innovation’ has become commonplace across countries, sectors, and organizations. Hardly a day passes without a government or organization launching an innovation strategy. Indeed, it seems as if every government or institutional initiative must answer to a ubiquitous innovation imperative in order to be desirable, economically defensible, and modern (Godin, 2012; Pfotenhauer and Jasanoff, 2017; Rammert et al., 2016). For STS scholars – whether interested in politics and the state, organizations, urban life, changing epistemic and work cultures, or broader questions of justice, responsibility, and democracy – this raises a range of critical questions.

At the MCTS, researchers across various groups analyze the politics, practices, promises, and pressures of innovation in a range of settings. What connects these researchers in their diverse projects is an interest in how the innovation pressure is reconfiguring society and its organizations in fundamental ways. That is, what does it do to societies if every university, every firm, every region, engineer, and government initiative needs to be innovative? Conversely, the projects share an interest in how innovation, despite common rhetoric and instruments, is made up of diverse practices and attempts at meaning-making that are shaped by unique social, political, and organizational factors. In other words, what do governments, firms, institutions, or individuals really do when they say they are becoming innovative?

Traveling imaginaries of innovation 

Sebastian Pfotenhauer, Alexander Wentland, Luise Ruge

In a joint project with colleagues from the U.S. and Denmark, we investigate the circulation of innovation models around the globe, focusing particularly on the ‘best practice’ models of MIT and Silicon Valley as prominent templates for reorganizing universities and regions. In this cross-country comparative study, we investigate how actors in various places envision fundamentally different things under the notion of innovation – what it is, what it is for, how it works, and who needs to be involved. We draw on the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries to show how implementations of the ‘same’ innovation model – and with it the notion of ‘innovation’ itself – are co-produced with locally specific diagnoses of a societal deficiency and equally specific understandings of acceptable remedies (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009). Analytically, the focus on supposedly standardized models in a comparative setting provides a lens onto the social and political underpinnings of innovation. This approach offers new possibilities for theorizing how and where culture matters in innovation policy: It responds to growing concerns from within the innovation studies community about the limits and prescriptiveness of existing theoretical frameworks, and takes seriously the history of failed attempts to emulate ‘success models’ like MIT or Silicon Valley elsewhere. Our approach suggests that the ‘success’ and ‘failure’ of innovation models are not a matter of how well societies are able to implement a supposedly sound universal model, but more about how effectively they articulate their imaginaries of innovation and tailor their strategies accordingly. This study ties into other ongoing MCTS projects like the reorganization of universities under the banners of ‘excellence’ or ‘entrepreneurship.’

Socio-technical futures and Industry 4.0 

Uli Meyer

Another project studies how ideas of innovation and technological progress get translated into socio-technical futures, and how these futures in turn influence society in the present. Socio-technical futures are (usually primarily technical) descriptions of what the future could possibly look like, interwoven with narratives about how certain technological developments will benefit society. They tend to start as mere descriptions of technological possibilities. If successful, they turn into socio-technical promises and even requirements. This dynamic can unfold like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because more and more people subscribe to a particular future, society performatively develops in this direction (Dierkes et al., 1996; Jasanoff and Kim, 2009; Lente and Rip, 1998). Socio-technical futures are thus both the result and a driver of the ubiquitous innovation imperative: They can only unfold because of society’s general orientation toward innovation, but at the same they act as an important stabilizing element in the innovation discourse. Examples of past socio-technical futures are Moore’s Law for the semiconductor industry, HDTV, or the information superhighway.

A recent and extremely prominent example in Germany is the concept of Industry 4.0 (known more commonly in the U.S. as the Next Production Revolution or the industrial internet). The basic promise and claim of Industry 4.0 is that industries are undergoing large-scale digital transformations due to the growing introduction of information and communication technology. This includes, among other things, the introduction of cyber-physical systems like co-bot workspaces, the increased self-organization of machines on platforms like the internet of things, and emerging ecologies of distributed innovation and digital fabrication. Only this fourth industrial revolution, so the story goes, will secure economic competitiveness and societal welfare in highly industrialized countries. It links industrial performance to the idea of software ‘updates’ and places recent and future developments in the context of a series of ongoing industrial revolutions by way of a teleological narrative. What is more, it is also caters to the promise of re-industrialization of high-wage, post-manufacturing economies. In our project, we ask why and how socio-technical futures like Industry 4.0 gain momentum and become dominant and, as a result, influence governments, firms, institutions, individuals, or society as a whole. To do so, we analyze the role and activities of different types of organizations – e.g., governmental agencies, firms, associations, unions – in such processes. At the level of individual companies, we ask how they try to translate abstract socio-technical futures into their own organization, and how this in turn influences their inter-organizational networks.

Test beds: testing the future 

Franziska Engels, Alex Wentland, Sebastian Pfotenhauer

In the crossroads of the previous two projects the question arises how practices and promises become universally desirable – or, asked differently, when and how models become models. That is, when do we consider a local practice as sufficiently understood in order to be seen as standardizable, package-able, transferable, or scalable (Hilgartner, 2015; Latour, 1990)? One particularly interesting innovation practice in this regard is ‘test beds’ (and related concepts such as ‘living labs’ or ‘real-life laboratories’). ‘Test beds’ have emerged as a prominent innovation model across geographical regions, scales, and technical domains.

Feeding on the popular ‘grand challenges’ discourse and the growing insight that adequate responses to these challenges will require complex transformations, test beds promise to ‘pilot,’ or ‘test,’ sociotechnical futures under ‘real-world conditions’ while at the same time providing a stepping stone and a vehicle capable of bringing this very future about. Most widely invoked in the context of sustainable energy transitions, test beds are deemed particularly useful for areas that are characterized by a high degree of complexity and uncertainty and that require experimental space for new forms of collaborative innovation activity. In a joint project with the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), we explore and problematize the notion of test beds in energy contexts at various scales, including sustainable energy campuses and regional energy initiatives. The project investigates how the test bed approach marks a shift in the conceptual understanding of how innovation operates and at what scale, and who ought to be involved in this collective innovation endeavor. Test beds, moreover, imply normative changes in the relationship between innovation and society, as society both acts as the laboratory for innovation and, at the same time, is enrolled at an early stage to performatively enact the future that it is supposed to test. In particular, we explore how test beds operate with a tacit expectation of scalability that requires social work and specific forms of vision alignment (Engels et al., 2017). Again, this project ties synergistically into various other projects at the MCTS, such as the role of urban laboratories and participatory infrastructures in ‘smart cities.’

Innovation scripts in firm settings 

Judith Igelsböck, Uli Meyer

The dominance of certain prominent role models and discourses around innovation, such as Silicon Valley and the inevitable rise of Industry 4.0, bear witness to isomorphic tendencies of imitation and homogenization in the innovation landscape. Against the background of a pervasive innovation imperative and the fear of becoming the ‘next Kodak,’ industrial organizations thus face a permanent pressure to innovate. But what does this actually mean to individual organizations? What do firms really do when they decide to – or feel pressured to – become innovative? Where do they get their ideas from and how do such ideas spread? In one project, we seek to understand how ‘innovation scripts’ function as mode of normalization within and across industrial fields. While innovation is closely interwoven with paradigms of creativity and novelty, industrial organizations tend to follow similar scripts and thus innovate in similar ways. This project is an empirical quest for the innovation scripts that guide innovation activities in terms of the human and non-human ‘agents of change’ mobilized to perform innovation, the distribution of roles and responsibilities among them, and the innovation settings in which innovation is supposed to be taking place (Akrich, 1992). The analysis attempts to contribute to a theoretical understanding of where the ideas about how to innovate come from, how such ideas circulate and manifest, and how this dynamic impacts society.

Innovation in inter- and transnational settings 

Mascha Gugganig, Nina Witjes, Nina Frahm, Verena Kontschieder, Federica Pepponi

Cutting across the aforementioned projects sits another set of questions around how science and innovation function when they explicitly seek to straddle cultural and jurisdictional boundaries. Throughout a range of projects, researchers at the MCTS explore how science, technology, and innovation play out in – and help configure – international settings, for example, in the making of institutions, identities, discourses, or representations. For instance, which visions of Europe are advanced through robotics or food innovation in EU-funded research consortia? How do national understandings regarding the need for and limits of new robotics or food technologies differ? How does this add up to one cohesive European approach (if at all)? What does it mean do foster regimes of responsible innovation in international settings such as the OECD or the EU? And how do knowledge practices and technology enter into international relations, e.g., in the form of remote sensing and security technologies? Across these projects, ongoing work seeks to address tensions between tendencies to standardize and harmonize innovation practice on the one hand, and the immutable diversity of innovation’s socio-cultural embedding on the other. It builds on long-standing comparative research traditions in STS research (Jasanoff, 2005) as well as STS literature on infrastructures and standardized regimes (Barry, 2006; Timmermans and Berg, 1997).