SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Research Strategy

To mark our 50th anniversary, SPRU has embarked on an ambitious new strategy focused on long-term transformative change and innovation across different sectors, societies and structures. We are currently exploring a range of new research avenues under the banner of Transforming Innovation.

Research Strategy - Transforming Innovation

Whether it be in the provision of food, energy and healthcare, or in the development of more inclusive, innovative economies, our aim is to deliver new fundamental knowledge on the nature and governance of these transformative changes, as well as to offer practical ideas and solutions for setting the direction of change towards more positive societal outcomes.

The world is currently facing a series of crises and persistent problems. The modern way of provisioning our basic needs is not sustainable in the long run, and is already causing climate change on an unprecedented scale. It is clear that we cannot globalize our current ways of providing food, energy, mobility, healthcare, and water. These problems will stay with us when economic growth returns, and they will likely worsen as time progresses – with a risk of increased climate change and profound societal turmoil, tensions and war. These issues cannot be solved by optimizing current scientific and technological solutions, burning more fossil fuels, investing more money in high-tech medicine, nor by globalizing value chains and continuing to promote car-based mobility patterns. We need to move away from a costly “business as usual approach” to these persistent problems.

At SPRU, we are working to address these issues head on through an innovation policy lens that aims at transformative change. Building on the rich tradition established by our founders, Chris Freeman, Geoff Oldham, Keith Pavitt, Marie Jahoda and many others, and on the rich diversity of current activities, SPRU is in an excellent position to contribute both to the development of a new innovation theory as well as to the much needed transformation of innovation policy. We are also well placed in a university proud of its interdisciplinary legacy, and with a strong commitment to policy impact that will facilitate a multi-directional and engaged approach.

During his entire life SPRU’s founder, Chris Freeman embraced an “Economics of Hope" which embodies a positive view of the potential of mankind to use its resources constructively. We aim to transform innovation in this spirit.

Transforming Innovation 

Why focus on innovation policy? Firstly it is clear that science and technology are hugely implicated in all the persistent problems noted above. Second, these problems are connected because they are all driven by concentrated socio-political power – as currently expressed in the particular techno-economic paradigm of mass production and mass consumption and the externalization of societal impacts. Our modern society was and still is built upon the idea that promoting innovation is extremely positive and will bring many wonderful things, even when it is clear that there is a darker side to innovation too. It can lead to massive unemployment, more violence, the further destruction of our environment and other large scale impacts, for example on our privacy. Too often policy is based on the understanding that entrepreneurial activities and high-tech firms should just be stimulated and encouraged, whatever the consequences. The negative impacts of innovation then need to be solved through governmental regulation and other compensatory measures, retrospectively.

Over the past decades, innovation scholars have developed the building blocks for a new innovation theory, that aims to keep our ability to innovate, yet also find new ways of directing and embedding innovations into socially desirable directions from the outset.

Based on on-going work within SPRU and beyond, transforming Innovation means two things; it refers to the potential for innovation, in this widest sense, to radically reconfigure the entire economy and society. Second, it refers to the associated need to transform processes of innovation governance - to allow for more exploration and experimentation outside the narrow boundaries often set by incumbents, with scientific advice based on a wider range of perspectives – as well as nurture a policy making process which provides an opportunity for various stakeholders to challenge dominant and less-dominant views.

By recognising that innovation is central to Capitalism, the possibility emerges of redirecting the evolution of Capitalism through transforming innovation. Innovation is not a value free tool, it is a dynamic social process – one that involves constant social choices, whether by social control or collective action. These choices really matter, because they shape the nature of the economies and the societies within which these function. It is not only firms and the state who are key stakeholders for a future innovation policy, but also consumers as users need to be involved, as well as citizens and civil society.

So, the challenge of governance for transforming innovation refers not only to the ways that innovation is thought about or implemented, but the ways in which it is socially constituted. For example, current policy processes (or indeed any political dynamics in the presence of concentrated power) serve to close down the range of viable innovation pathways in any given setting. This occurs, for instance, through the privileging and de-politization of particular kinds of expert knowledge and the exclusion of a wide array of contending perspectives, values and interests. It is in these ways that innovation typically proceeds in particular sectors process, without taking due account of the consequences. As Andy Stirling has argued, (chapter 4 of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s report 2014) it is this syndrome that the opening up, in many different ways, of more participatory and democratic innovation governance holds the key to challenging different kinds of incumbent power and driving the needed institutional and infrastructural transformations.

Further information

‘Transforming Innovation Policy’ Video of keynote address by Professor Johan Schot, Oct 2014

‘Transforming innovation policy’ by Professor Johan Schot, blog on The Guardian, Oct 2014


Making choices in the face of uncertainty: strengthening innovation democracy? (chapter 4 of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it report 2014) by Andy Stirling