Innovation for sustainable development

Les promesses de l'innovation durable
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Innovation has become the new buzzword across the globe. International organizations, governments, corporates, academia and civil society see it as the answer to major contemporary challenges. Societies and economies are under pressure from a set of profound changes: economic transformation such as globalization, new industrial geography, liberalization, commercialization and privatization; political transformation such as the rise of a multipolar world and loss of sovereignty of nation states; technological revolutions in informatics and biotechnology; and global environmental change. All these processes interact in complex ways and challenge the political, economic and social models ​​of the 20th century.

Innovations are occurring and alternative solutions to the existing problems are emerging in all sectors. Electric cars, organic farming, renewable energy and e-learning are good examples. They are growing as major programmes, supported by governments and the private sector, often integrated into sustainable economic development plans. These alternatives are also seen as green initiatives, and are assigned virtues, such as being decentralized, frugal, flexible, smart and democratic, qualities that are lacking in conventional models. They are also attributed with the potential to meet the overall global challenges such as climate change and the growth of inequalities between and within countries. Innovations and alternatives are emerging not only in industrialized countries but also in developing countries. In fact, the latter have emerged as leaders in certain technologies, such as China in solar technology, and as pioneers in the development of revolutionary applications, such as mobile banking in Kenya.

These emerging innovations and alternatives raise five major issues: (1) Should the focus be on the technological dimension of innovation, including digital and green technologies? What is their real potential? Would their rapid deployment lead towards a more sustainable society? (2) What is the role of socio-economic and policy innovations in promoting and supporting sustainable development and interacting with the technological innovations? (3) Are the emerging alternatives more sustainable and do they replace the conventional models or merely interconnect and co-evolve with them? (4) What institutional changes are required to promote innovation for sustainable development? How can public policy drive change? (5) How should governments and corporates promote innovation and widen the geography of innovation?

A Planet for Life 2014 aims to explore innovation in all its aspects, through a series of texts written by international experts on innovation and its role in supporting sustainable development. The objective of these texts is to analyse experiences from across the world and the role of innovation in a variety of areas of development such as urbanization, agriculture and food, the mobility of people and freight, education and the provision of water and energy to all (Figure 1).

Can the promises of emerging technologies be realized?

The early chapters of A Planet for Life question the promises of new technologies: can 'green tech' usher in a new industrial revolution? Does digital technology create a more inclusive and environmentally-friendly society? The authors oscillate between optimism and pessimism, but seem to agree that innovation could either benefit or be detrimental to ecosystems and society. Whether the former or the latter outcome prevails will depend on how economic and social forces drive individual and collective choices.

Is technology the cause of or the solution to the world's ecological and social problems? The historian Grégory Quénet (Radar 4) points out that in Europe and the United States, the ecological movement - whether intellectually, politically or charitably focused - has been buffeted since its beginnings by its love-hate relationship with technology. Beyond the ecological movement, all societies wonder if technology will save them from environmental threats. The philosopher Alfred Nordmann (Chapter 4) argues that society has renewed its faith in technological progress. Many who live in the industrialized world no longer see technology as a force for social progress, but as their last hope for solving environmental threats. According to Nordmann, even this hope implies a certain naivety about the technological and scientific promise of nanotechnology, life sciences and digital solutions. He underscores a particularly important message: we must not become 'credulous believers'.

The authors in A Planet for Life try to avoid this problem of credulousness, as seen in the work of Damien Demailly and Patrick Verley (Radar 1). Without denying the crucial need to develop new energy technologies, such as renewables, their work questions whether such technologies can radically change our economies and generate growth equal to that driven by the steam engine or electricity. The earlier innovations fundamentally reorganized the economy, particularly by allowing factories to scale-up production. The authors note that so-called green technologies do not create similar opportunities for restructurings: green electrons remain electrons, green cars are still cars, and both rest on widespread twentieth-century technologies, electricity and the automobile.

Carlota Perez (Chapter 1) emphasizes the importance of the digital revolution now underway, because it goes beyond creating a few new industries. Taking a historical perspective, she views new information and communication technologies as powerful tools that can completely transform the economy and create what she calls a 'new techno-economic paradigm' compatible with green manufacturing and lifestyles. In sum, Carlota Perez argues that the world is ready for a new planetary Golden Age.

On the other hand, Fabrice Flipo (Chapter 2) underscores the material impact of these new technologies. He argues that computers, servers, devices and networks consume energy and require rare earths and toxic materials for their construction. Above all, they foster lifestyles and production systems that are far from immaterial. New uses, which are 'lighter' in terms of resource use, complement rather than replace those which have 'heavier' demands; videoconferencing does not replace air travel so much as facilitate communication and trade, thereby occasioning more flights in the long run. Although Flipo and Perez express contrasting opinions about the sustainability of new information and communication technology, they agree on its potential to be used for the benefit or detriment of the planet.

Kevin Urama, Mariane Mensah and Warigia Bowman (Radar 2) shed light on Africa's digital revolution, which is visible on every street corner and in nearly every village. It is the source of great hope for faster economic growth, greater democratization and more widespread development. While this revolution has had an impact on banking, healthcare, agriculture and education, the three authors emphasize the need for Africa to adopt and appropriate technologies and to ensure their universal accessibility. They conclude that ensuring ICT access to all Africans requires the building of physical, regulatory, political, commercial and social infrastructure. It must rely on the ability of citizens to use the technology, to advance democracy, participation, competency and transparency. This indeed is a major challenge.

Beyond technological innovation, what socio-economic transformation is required?

The history of industrial revolutions teaches us that technological revolutions drive or accompany social and economic changes (Perez, Chapter 1). The automobile-technology revolution in the United States, vastly disseminated with the advent of Ford's Model T, brought about a new way of working, new infrastructure, and new organizational principles that transformed the economy. The automobile revolution also drove mass consumption and aspirations for the American way of life. If humanity is serious about solving ecological and social challenges, innovations on the scale of the industrial revolution must create pathways towards sustainable development. This will require inventing and disseminating new technologies as well as new urban forms, business models, agricultural practices, food habits, lifestyles, and so forth. In short, innovation must occur in social and economic as well as technological dimensions, as several chapters of A Planet for Life illustrate.

According to David Banister (Chapter 3), an expert in mobility, if the aim is to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions enough to prevent climate warming of more than two degrees centigrade, it will not suffice to simply increase the number of fuel-efficient or electric cars in industrialized and developing countries. Instead, it will be necessary to reduce travel demand. He explains that if we limit ourselves to purely technological considerations when thinking about transportation options, we risk becoming trapped on unsustainable development paths. Thus he calls for rethinking the shape of cities, the geographic distribution of services and facilities, and other factors that would support the adoption of a more sustainable and low carbon pathway for mobility. This finding is echoed by Rajeswari S. Raina (Radar 3) who argues that the purely technological approach of various green revolutions is incapable of meeting the social and environmental challenges of India's agricultural industry. She calls for broader engagement of farmers and all those involved in scientifically-informed, ecologically, economically and socially sustainable agroecosystems.

Olivier Coutard, Jonathan Rutherford and Daniel Florentin (Chapter 5), like Stéphane Fournier and Marcelo Champredonde (Chapter 6) also argue that model transformations should go beyond purely technological developments, whether it be the supply of water and energy, or agriculture and food.

Anne-Sophie Novel (Radar 7) gives an example of a possible socio-economic revolution: the emergence of a more collaborative economy, a sharing economy facilitated by the digital revolution. Through the pooling of goods, by giving them a second life, this 'new' economy enables the optimization of the use of physical and economic capital and therefore holds the promise of green growth, although, as the author notes, the evidence to support this idea has yet to emerge. 'Sharing', in particular, illustrates the potential capacity for innovation in business models, with a shift from the sale of goods to the provision of a service, and also in consumption patterns. Alison Armstrong (Chapter 7) discusses consumption, listing innovations and faint signs of movements toward a frugal lifestyle, such as the Transition Networks communities or the Slow Living converts. Frugality discourages buying goods and services and encourages shared production and consumption. The author celebrates these status-quo-challenging initiatives while remaining pessimistic about the scope of their adoption. Powerful psychological factors drive hyperconsumerism, such as the pleasures of purchasing, strengthening a sense of self, and differentiating oneself from others. In addition, individuals often think they are greener than they really are. Armstrong nonetheless argues for public policies that could encourage more sustainable consumption.

Sustainable innovation - can it be designed?

How do these new technologies and alternatives emerge and spread across the world? Several chapters concur in finding that they do not emerge from a standardized or planned process, designed in vitro in a laboratory. Rather, collectives of diverse, distributed, uncoordinated actors create a myriad of innovative configurations in situ. Furthermore, new innovations do not merely replace existing solutions; rather, dominant, traditional models 'confront' and hybridize with supposedly more-sustainable alternatives.

Innovation cannot be viewed independently from competition. Various, often competing alliances of actors champion each technology and model. In the case of pursuing or abandoning ploughing in agriculture, Frédéric Goulet (Radar 6) tells us that behind a 'unisonous discourse' and a 'displayed consensus on innovation' lies intense competition that expresses itself through major controversies. He claims that 'innovation is not only about uniting, associating, linking and creating synergies: very often, as emphasized by Schumpeter (1911), it also involves destroying, dividing and criticizing' in order to get rid of competitors and promote one's interests and values.

Innovative and alternative systems articulate with existing ones, as Olivier Coutard, Jonathan Rutherford and Daniel Florentin (Chapter 5) show through a comparative analysis of the provision of water and power in three European cities. Woking, Stockholm and Magdeburg followed very different paths when their centralized electrical grids faced environmental, social and financial problems that challenged the centralized model's supremacy. One path led to a wholly decentralized off-grid model, while another revived a pre-grid approach, and the third rehabilitated the centralized grid following the re-grid model. Depending on the city, questions of innovation, sustainable development and the supply and use of infrastructure have very distinct meanings. It has led to totally different links between the centralized grid and alternative systems, even though those involved have made similar claims regarding the 'greenness' and 'sustainability' of each model.

Stéphane Fournier and Marcello Champredonde (Chapter 6) also illustrate this process of hybridization in the food-processing and agriculture industry. Producers often sell their produce through different channels to diversify their income and strategies. Consumers in turn look for diversified purchase sources, such as supermarkets, farmers' markets and organic stores; and in the process they enlarge their range of products. The conventional and alternative models evolve together, constantly influencing each other. Alternative systems frequently turn into conventional systems when, for example, producers intensify production, or processors of agricultural products seek economies of scale. Conventional food producers, processors and packagers often adopt alternative practices - organic farming and fair trade, short supply chains, and so forth - making them part of the retailing mainstream.

Alternative models are not necessarily more beneficial and sustainable than conventional ones, in contrast to popular perception. The real strength and interest of alternatives resides in their constant challenge to existing technologies, actors and models, and the ways they change economies and societies. It is no longer valid to think in terms of an eco-innovation machine that one can simply turn on; or to put our faith in the emergence of miracle technologies and models that will enable us to meet the looming challenges. The cases discussed in this volume clearly show that innovation is far removed from a linear, unidirectional process, created in a laboratory and marketed by large corporations. Instead innovations occur in many different places, created by numerous, and not necessarily coordinated, professionals and amateurs.

The rise of open innovation models recognizes the creative possibilities inherent in co-operation and collaboration. Gaël Depoorter (Radar 8) recounts the history and industrial links of shareware, a forerunner of the open movement. Selim Louafi and Eric Welch (Chapter 8) provide valuable insight by describing different aspects of the movement: open source, open access, open science, open data, and so forth. Countering common wisdom, he explains how these collaborations are not necessarily at odds with proprietary regimes based on strong intellectual property rights, nor do they affirm a romantic vision of free access to knowledge and technology. Collaborative arrangements can be quite complex, depending on the industry and the resources exchanged. Although collaborative, such arrangements do not empower all actors the same way: both Depoorter and Louafi insist that certain conditions must be fulfilled for open systems to truly work for the benefit of all.

Does sustainable development require policy innovations?

Promoting innovation for sustainable development seems a Herculean task. Alfred Nordmann (Chapter 4) warns us against the arrogant belief that we can fashion the future in any way we choose. For public officials, the challenge lies in setting up the multiple institutions and public policies needed to set the course toward sustainable development.

Lucien Chabason (Chapter 9) reviews political innovations at three territorial scales: national, regional and supranational. He uses France, the Mediterranean region and the United Nations to show how public institutions have changed in order to integrate sustainable development challenges, to invent more participatory decision-making processes, and to adopt public-policy tools. His analysis leads to a very fine reading of these attempts. For instance, he highlights how an ecologically-oriented fiscal policy can innovate by aiming to influence behaviour. At the same time, he underscores the political difficulties in implementing such a policy and calls for the adoption of a more traditional policy mix. He reminds us that those who influence and make policy must liaise with civic society and various stakeholders.

Irène Alvarez, Julien Calas and Ray Victurine (Radar 9) analyse a set of innovative policies used to finance biodiversity. They include simple innovations, such as ecotourism in nature reserves, and more complicated ones, such as conservation trust funds or compensation. Such sources of funding provide relevant solutions to the chronic underfunding that afflicts biodiversity preservation. The authors emphasize the need to combine rather than substitute these innovations with traditional public financing tools. The usefulness of the former goes beyond their status as new sources of funding: they provide virtuous models for natural resource use and management while involving a wide variety of actors - the true challenge of sustainability.

Jon Marco Church (Chapter 10) examines innovation in terms of the governance of sustainability challenges. He concludes, somewhat provocatively, that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. Since the early 1990s, experts and decision-makers have called for new institutions capable of taking a long-term view - promoting international treaties, convening expert commissions, and animating public debate, among other strategies. They have called, in short, for exactly the same kinds of measures taken for decades on other issues. Despite a pervasive discourse about expert and civil society participation, national governments will ultimately wield sustainable development governance to affirm their power domestically and internationally.

Some have presented the digital revolution as a means of rebalancing the power of individuals in society and improving citizen access to the decision-making process. Carole-Anne Sénit (Radar 10) notes that the Internet has multiplied the number of innovative consultative practices. The most visible is citizen input to the United Nations' post-2015 development agenda. Such examples raise hope that a more inclusive and larger body of people will help design international policies, and that better access to information will increase transparency. However, the author cautions that most input comes from traditional civil-society organizations in wealthy countries. Internet access requires major improvements before citizens from all classes of society and all countries are able to provide input.

A historical analysis of sustainable development policy implementation helps us understand the power of inertia. Bernard Barraqué and Rosa Formiga-Johnsson (Chapter 11) describe the difficulty with which large Brazilian cities migrate from a technological approach to water management (based on large-scale projects) to a territorial one (favouring resource conservation and protection). While cities have set up new institutions, they do not replace the existing institutions on which the cities were built - vested interests and old institutions act as roadblocks to change.

Models and simulations have become de rigueur tools for integrating environmental, economic and social challenges. Raphael Jozan (Radar 11) shows the limits of such tools by studying watershed management around the Aral Sea: the sophisticated tools rely on official statistics, provide a truncated view of the economy, and are used exclusively by officials. In the case of the Aral Sea, the use of models ultimately perpetuates the old solutions, namely major hydraulic projects. The author's analysis reveals a fundamental challenge to changing the current social and technological trajectory: how to encourage and accommodate a plurality of experts and alternative forms of knowledge and counter-models.

Globalizing innovation

The final chapters of A Planet for Life 2014 put the spotlight on innovations in the context of globalization and rising emerging economies.

Is the geography of innovation changing worldwide? Conventional wisdom holds that 'the North innovates and the South copies', particularly when it comes to technology. However, Navi Radjou (Chapter 12) counters that idea. He argues that China, Brazil, India and Africa are emerging centres of innovation, propelled by ever-increasing demand from their immense domestic markets and thousands of indigenous entrepreneurs and companies. The author argues that the geography of innovation is creating an opportunity for sustainable development worldwide. He holds that emerging countries now pioneer a new approach: 'frugal innovation', or maximum value creation at the least cost with the fewest resources. This approach has already reconfigured some industries, such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Frugal innovation is faster and cheaper than traditional innovation that is elitist and non-inclusive. According to Radjou, the industrialized world could learn much from this 'new paradigm'. Indeed, many Western companies have reworked their research and development models within a globalized network of innovation that extends to developing countries.

How can developing countries become a part of the globalized innovation network? Through analysing national innovation systems in Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa (BRICS), José Eduardo Cassiolato (Chapter 13) shows that BRICS governments have indeed increased efforts to promote domestic innovation; the author analyses their common strategies to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly from multinationals, to ensure technology transfers, to modernize manufacturing and increase productivity. In the final analysis, attracting multinational companies and FDI have had only a small impact on the BRICS' ability to innovate. Multinationals enter emerging economies seeking benefits and tax breaks, chiefly cheap labour and access to domestic markets. Some have established domestic research and development centres, which usually adapt technologies conceived in developed countries to meet their needs. The failure of FDI to make an impact on the capacity to innovate in developing countries is also due to the weak absorption capacity of domestic industry in these countries. Cassiolato argues that the BRICS must guide foreign investment, ensuring that it ties into the local industrial fabric and benefits domestic firms.

Building the absorptive capacity is not an easy task, as explained by Wei Zhao and Joël Ruet (Chapter 14). They present a China that operates halfway between imitation and indigenous innovation, despite huge efforts to promote domestic innovation capacity. Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has led constant and voluntary measures to encourage research and development and the expansion of companies into high-tech industries. It has created all kinds of technology centres and industrial parks. It has also financed laboratories, procured goods and services, created a dedicated banking system, and obligated foreign companies to transfer technology. China counts the highest number of professionals employed in research and development activities in the world, but the centres and industries remain siloed for the most part, and the favoured companies have gained market share 'as distributors and sellers, not technology innovators'. China's brand of capitalism shows major weaknesses in the rest of the private sector, which finds it very hard to engage in innovation. Consequently, China has revised its innovation strategy, targeting fewer technology sectors and aiming for better articulation between scientific/technical institutions and private enterprise, particularly small and medium-sized businesses.

In analysing India's national innovation system, Sunil Mani (Radar 13) sees a similar situation. Domestic research and development capacity remains weak despite the Indian government's relentless tax incentives and other efforts to boost investment in domestic research and development. The author suggests that India faces another major development challenge: an overconcentration of innovation capacity in some sectors and regions. While India has successfully innovated in the IT, pharmaceuticals and automobile manufacturing industries, other sectors, such as agriculture or green technology, receive inadequate attention. The author also observes two different worlds appearing in the one country: some regions, lacking connections to the innovation economy, wither and grow poorer, while other regions that are better integrated into globalization not only benefit from it but also stand to gain from the pro-innovation public policies.

The caricature of a global south that can only copy is on its last legs, as Navi Radjou claims. However, many developing countries still count on imitation for reliable growth. John Mathews and Keun Lee (Radar 15) show that this leap-frogging industrialization strategy is an old one: Germany pursued it in the nineteenth century, and Japan and South Korea in the twentieth. Unfortunately for sustainability concerns, the authors show that a 'wall of patents' may curb the dissemination of environmentally-friendly technologies, such as solar energy and light-emitting diodes.

Is the globalization of trade, particularly green goods and services, a boon for sustainable development? Tancrède Voituriez and Xin Wang (Chapter 15) draw lessons from the solar-energy trade war fought in 2013 by China and the European Union. The Europeans threatened to slap import tariffs on Chinese photovoltaic panels, accusing China - unconvincingly, in the authors' view - of dumping. The authors question an idealized vision of globalization that perfectly combines Europe's ability to invent things with China's low-cost manufacturing ability. The looming threat is that China's control of solar-panel production could inhibit research and development of next-generation technologies - in industrialized countries in general, and in Europe in particular. The international community must rise to the challenge of defining more conducive and better-coordinated trade rules that support green technology innovation and dissemination.


Finally, we can gather the lessons learnt from this book into the five aforementioned issues, to understand innovation for sustainable development.

(1) Although technology holds much promise in terms of sustainable development, we should not be credulous believers in the power of technology. Technological innovation is essential for sustainable development, but - like digital technology - its transformational potential can be exploited for the benefit or the detriment of ecosystems and societies.

(2) The articles highlight that innovation for sustainable development is not only about making changes to technologies, and that innovation in technologies cannot be separated from socio-economic developments. Innovating for sustainable development must be understood and carried out within this broader context.

(3) Alternative solutions are not necessarily more sustainable than conventional models. In any case, the alternatives do not develop by substitution and the different models are interconnected, they co-evolve and lead to a myriad of unprecedented socio-technical configurations. Alternative models challenge the established models, and lead actors to significantly revise their business models, to rethink the governance of infrastructure, territories and resources.

(4) Clearly, we do not have an eco-innovation machine that can be started at will. Sustainable innovation cannot be imposed arbitrarily, and efforts to drive change face multiple obstacles of a technical, political, financial and economic nature.

(5) While we may be witnessing the collapse of the myth that Northern countries innovate and Southern ones copy, the reality of the geography of innovation is always that of highly concentrated clusters that are mainly located in the North. In developing countries, governments should have a much broader and integrated vision that extends beyond the massive promotion ofR&D, or the attraction of FDI. International organizations, governments, and corporates must recognize that innovation is not developed within confined spaces, but instead arises in the field, and should promote the establishment of collaborative open innovation models that fully involve society. The challenge of innovation for sustainable development is immense: it is nothing less than setting entire societies in motion.

Countries and regions covered in this edition

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