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News / Symposium ’09: Session 3 – What opportunities are presented by the global redistribution of innovative activity?

This session was chaired by Martin Bell and discussed the opportunities and challenges resulting from the emergence of new centres of science and innovation.

Drawing initially on the Demos “Atlas of Ideas” project, and the international activities of the Royal Society, the session debated differing perspectives on the global “redistribution” of innovation, looking at how the increase in certain types of innovation in China, India and Latin America have contributed to poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability, and how governments can manage the changing dynamics of competition and collaboration, and work together to facilitate innovation that serves environmental, social and economic goals.

Speakers:
– Dr James Wilsdon
– Prof Xiulian Zhang (Zhang’s slides)
– Dr Suman Sahai (Suman’s slides)
– Dr Anabel Marin (Anabel’s slides)
Speaker biographies

Drawing on several years of work on the ‘Atlas of Ideas’ project, which engaged with similar issues to those already discussed during the day – hidden vs visible innovation, national vs cosmopolitan as well as issues of scale vs. direction – James Wilsdon pointed again to shifting geographies of innovation, most recently exemplified by the launch of the King Abdullah Science and Technology University in Saudi Arabia. These raise questions not only about competitiveness and the international flow of skilled scientific labour, but also about the governance of science, technology and innovation trajectories.

The entry of so many new players makes international decision-making in the area of emerging technologies less predictable and more plural, and raises challenges and opportunities for the kinds of governance changes on which the manifesto project focuses.

Turning to recent work in the Royal Society, James introduced the area of geo-engineering and argued that as a result of such international dynamics it was important to expand the circle of discussion outside traditional bases. Broad international collaboration will be vital to avoid any potential harm that might result from unilateral action or even a ‘green finger’ scenario (that describes individual entrepreneurs taking the initiative with large-scale engineering of the climate). Renewed interest in science diplomacy in the US and UK is an exciting area in which such collaboration is being taken more seriously.

Turning to the manifesto draft, James raised the vital challenge of bringing its messages into the heart of science policy in government, rather than just the margins. The Royal Society’s inquiry into the “Fruits of Curiosity: science, innovation and future sources of wealth” will report in March 2010, during the society’s 650th anniversary year. How can the emerging agenda highlighted in the new manifesto link up with these debates as we move towards a new government (in the UK) and a new set of economic and environmental challenges internationally?

Xiulan Zhang delivered a presentation reflecting on innovation, sustainability and development based on recent developments in China (at the time celebrating 60 years of the People’s Republic, and recently 30 years since reform and opening up).

Highlighting the rapid changes that are going on in China’s society at present, she emphasised the high speed, high risk era that the country was witnessing. The risk from development, as well as the risks to development, are thus now becoming a priority.

The challenge in her opinion was to build resilient development – including institutions and infrastructure that can maintain high growth but at the same time social cohesion and environmental sustainability. These had been tested not only in the 1997 Asian financial crisis but also more recently when huge numbers of workers returned from the coastal areas as a result of the economic downturn, many to start rural enterprises that employed millions of people. Building on the growing rural economies, social insurance, education and healthcare investments were increasingly being deployed as part of the new welfare state agenda. At the same time, the government is investing in rural infrastructures and diversified human resources for indigenous innovation.

Suman Sahai talked about alternative forms of innovation (rather than R&D-focussed approaches) in India, highlighting that there remain under-recognised initiatives that could contribute substantially to poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability challenges. Such informal innovation responds to people’s problems, rather than those concentrating on economic growth.

As an example, she pointed to the Indian National Knowledge Commission, the content of which focuses on mining, energy, automobiles, banking systems etc. In the agriculture field, the focus is on biotechnology.

Suman’s argument is that other forms of innovation are absent, and that all of us, in our national contexts, need to accord value and social prestige to informal innovation, which has been stripped of aspirational value.

Anabel Marin’s presentation focussed on interlinked innovations in the agricultural sector in Latin America as a case study of how wider innovation benefits can develop from an economic focus on natural resource endowments (still common in many African and Latin American economies).

Highlighting especially the productivity impact of zero tillage technology (which relied on agrochemicals, transgenic seeds and also social innovations including the emergence of professional contractors), she also pointed to more questionable effects, e.g. both creation and destruction of employment.

In addition, she highlighted the risks from the current trajectory – to the environment, to the ability of Argentina (currently relying heavily on imported knowledge around transgenic seeds) to produce its own innovations and to poverty reduction (currently little-affected) – and pointed to the choices available to the Argentinean government about which technological pathways to support. She especially highlighted the intense costs of such support, and, given conflicting interests, asked if both GM and non-GM trajectories were possible.

In the question and answer session, comments were made about the cost of supporting certain forms of innovation. Referring to Anabel’s presentation and the previous example of KAUST, it was questioned whether this represented the original manifesto’s concept of “scientific conspicuous consumption”. Rather than focussing on a supply mentality, it was important to concentrate on more effective innovation (in terms of outcomes). For better or for worse, this will usually emerge from empowering those markets that are currently neglected due to poverty and inequality. Xiulan added that state demand (in order to maintain competitiveness) and consumer demand (articulating people’s needs) worked together. Especially in the case of shanzhai innovation, the market plays a key role.

Raphael Kaplinsky put forward the suggestion that rapidly growing markets in China and India represented “second bottom billion”/ “a near bottom of the pyramid”, and argued that the Manifesto ought to recognise that more, moving from what he characterised as a Schumacherian perspective towards a Schumpeterian perspective.

Fred Steward argued that there seemed to be a shift in Chinese policy on climate change… representing a broader shared agenda between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world, alongside an extraordinary diversity of innovations being highlighted. Neither Schumpeterian nor Schumacherian models of innovation are adequate in this context. The new manifesto has to try to articulate an appropriate model, conceptualising a new thinking about diversity in innovation.

Anabel Marin’s presentation had put forward a choice about technological pathways and the kinds of policies that might support them. Andrew Barnett added that there was a presumption in the draft manifesto document that governments were able to implement these policies, whereas in reality the ability of the state to mediate these hugely difficult conflicting interests effectively is an important consideration, and various other actors play a significant role.

>> Full Symposium Report (PDF, 310KB)

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