Transformative Innovation and the SDGs

How can Science, Technology and Innovation Policy help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

The year 2020 marks the beginning of the United Nations’ Decade of Action; a global drive to accelerate efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals seek to address the spectrum of challenges faced by the modern world - such as poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation - and they require a huge global effort and worldwide commitment to change. 

Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy can undoubtedly play a vital role in achieving the Goals, by delivering transitions to sustainable technical and ecological practices. However, some scientists and academics are concerned that existing systems of innovation are ill-equipped for the task of addressing these enormous social and environmental challenges. 

The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC), a global partnership of innovation agencies co-ordinated by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) with centres at Utrecht University and the Polytechnic University of Valencia, has called for a paradigm shift in priorities, methodologies and approaches to innovation policy. 

Historically, STI policy has been geared towards a system of individual consumption and economic growth, which favours certain activities at the expense of others,” says Professor Ed Steinmueller, whose paper on the Three Frames of Innovation (2018), co-authored with Professor Johan Schot, underpins the work of TIPC. 

“If we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to shift the focus of STI policy, and support transformative processes that prioritise social and environmental justice.” 

Targeting Transformative Outcomes 

Long-lasting change does not occur in one giant leap. Rather, it is an evolutionary and institutional process that involves a myriad of constantly changing variables. 

That being the case, TIPC has developed an approach that prioritises ‘transformative outcomes’ rather than specific one-off interventions. This focus recognises the complex dynamics of change, and the need for many types of knowledge and innovation inputs spread over a long-term process. 

Dr Matias Ramirez, Senior Lecturer at SPRU and TIPC’s Principle Investigator, explains the thinking behind transformative outcomes:  

Transformations require the rules that underpin our current socio-technical systems to be changed. These rules can be regulative (standards and protocols), cognitive (beliefs) or normative (values and norms), and they all contribute to the primacy of a particular way of doing things (a regime). 

“In order to transform these systems, we need to create and expand alternative ways of doing things. We call these alternative systems ‘niches’. 

“Since many different groups with diverse interests are involved in these regimes and niches, such transformations are highly political and riddled with conflict. Furthermore, the transformative process is highly dependent on the specific geographical and spatial conditions in which it occurs” 

TIPC’s ‘transformative outcomes’ fall under three categories, which support long-term transformative processes: 

  • Building and nurturing niches can provide spaces for formulating alternative practices from which new rules and systems can emerge.  
  • Expanding and mainstreaming niches can secure a level of acceptance and credibility that encourages popular take-up of new ideas 
  • Finally, opening up and unlocking regimes can challenge the norm and make space for alternative practices. 

Targeting these areas of transformation can guide the interventions of STI agencies and policy-makers to support unfolding transitions. 

Transformation in practice: Place-based social movements 

Dr Ramirez’s recent research into local place-based social movements demonstrates the value of nurturing and expanding niches, and challenging existing regimes. 

“Place-based social movements bring together a diverse range of people, including grassroots activists, lawyers, scientists and local residents,” says Ramirez, “The various agendas and technical expertise of these groups influence one another and lead to new forms of knowledge production that stimulate change.” 

Ramirez cites a famous case from Bogota, Colombia, as an example: 

The urban wetlands of Bogota were once rich ecosystems that were home to a diverse variety of wildlife and plants. However, in the 1980s and 90s, sustained pollution, deforestation and water contamination caused severe environmental deterioration in the area. 

network of local people responded by developing strategies of resistance. After initial requests to protect the wetlands were ignored by ineffectual politicians and corrupt police, the social movement took direct action by blocking roads and protesting in the streets. This was combined with popular participatory activities, such as co-ordinated clean-up efforts and environmental education programmes for local school students and neighbours. 

The alliances formed during this period provided a platform for further activity, including legal actions and funded university research projects, which shifted public attitudes towards the wetlands and pressured local authorities to change urban planning policies.  

“The wetlands social movement illustrates how building relationships between activists and researchers can lead to changes in socio technical and socio ecological systems,” says Ramirez.  

Such alliances are founded on a two-way relationship: scientists provide credibility to the demands of local activists, while in turn the priorities of the scientists are influenced by the agendas of the social movements, leading to new forms of knowledge production. 

The success of the Bogota wetlands social movement demonstrates how nurturing and mainstreaming existing niche activities can achieve transformative results, and shows the value of supporting transformative activities that are already taking place among a range of actors from civil society. 

The Latin American Hub 

The lessons of the Bogota wetlands movement, and other examples of system transformations from around the world, are feeding into one of TIPC’s latest initiatives: The Latin American Hub. 

The Hub brings together ten organisations and institutions based in three Latin American countries in a joint venture to implement the experimental policy methods developed by TIPC. 

The hub is working with Latin American institutions on projects that include health, food, urban waste and regional sustainability to develop a methodology that can enhance thinking and practices related to systems transformationCurrent policy experiments in the region are exploring routes to sustainable transitions in agriculture, waste management, and water efficiency. 

“Scientific knowledge is important for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Dr Ramirez, who is co-ordinating the work of the Latin American Hub from SPRU, “but it needs to be integrated with local knowledge, local actors and local priorities to have maximum impact.” 

With just ten years to achieve the ambitious targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, nothing less than maximum impact will suffice. And for Dr Ramirez, the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America have only increased the urgency of this work. 

“COVID-19 has exposed inequalities in healthcare, the impacts of large concentrations of people living in urban areas, and the need for more sustainable local food production” says Ramirez. 

“The need to engage with many different areas and players for enabling transformative change has never been more apparent.” 

About the researcher

Matias Ramirez is Senior Lecturer in Management and the Sussex Principle Investigator of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium. His research interests include transformative innovation policy, with particular emphasis on questions of social inclusion and sustainability in Latin America, and regional innovation as well as transformation in food and agriculture.

Read the papers

Ghosh, B., Kivimaa, P., Ramirez, M., Schot, J., Torrens, J., 2020. Transformative Outcomes: Assessing and reorienting experimentation with transformative innovation policy. TIPC Working Paper, TIPCWP 2020-02.  


Ramirez, Matias, Hernando Garcia Esteves, Javier, Yandy Romero Goyeneche, Oscar and Obando Rodriguez, Claudia E (2020) Fostering place-based coalitions between social movements and science for sustainable urban environments: a case of embedded agency. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. ISSN 2399-6544 


Schot, J., Steinmueller, W.E., 2018. Three frames for innovation policy: R&D, systems of innovation and transformative change. Res. Policy 47, 1554–1567.