6 The move to firms, technology strategy, systems of innovation and ‘publics’

The study of technology policy and innovation is dynamic. The study of technology shaping has brought an overtly social dimension to what was once an overtly economic and political perspective. The study of innovation processes, instead of a narrow focus on studies of science and technology, also added a strong jolt. The emphasis on innovation processes has moved research closer to the point of production and use. Innovation research has moved from study of one-off innovations, to whole industrial sectors, and to the role of the firm. Altogether this has allowed a more integrative approach to emerge in the last decade – the study of systems of innovation.

In that way, the processes of innovation are shown to be systemic and involving more than a good knowledge of scientific discovery and its application. Nonetheless, the study of innovation is not just about looking for ways of commercializing science. Faulkner’s synthetic research on the different types of knowledge used in innovation (1994) illustrates the rich and diverse mix of theoretical and practical skills required.

Recently, another dynamic has emerged in policy studies of science and technology - that of the ‘public’ (or perhaps ‘publics’). Debates over environmental damage, in particular, highlight that the public has become extremely cynical about certain types of official expert advice. One response has been to advocate that more public understanding of science is undertaken, implying that scientists need to educate the public so that they are better informed about science and thus more accepting of it. However, another response has been that the scientists may be part of the problem and need educating also, since they seem to be so out of touch with common concerns of citizens groups. This leads to the view that there is not one ‘public’, but citizens with different situations and concerns and thus no one best approach to innovation.

A study led from the Open University (Policy Influences on Technologies in European Agriculture - PITA) looked at whether the world’s biggest agro-chemicals companies trying to commercialize genetically modified crops have changed their innovation systems in the light of public disquiet about risks and uncertainties (Tait et al, 2002). These companies have traditionally seen their key users/customers as farmers, one particular type of public. They are also increasingly confident in dealing with government and EU regulators, who can be seen as a kind of ‘filter’ for public concerns. But the research showed that they were much less confident in dealing directly with public concerns, whether directly articulated, for instance via the media, or via non-government organizations.

To summarise, in this unit I have introduced two related big issues – technology shaping and technology policy. In technology policy, I mapped the moves from government/market approaches towards more multi-social agent approaches, where the different ‘publics’ wish to participate more in what some see as the risky and uncertain environments of new science and technology. This change is, at one level, a result of major scientific uncertainty leading to more organized public concern (for example, as a result of nuclear accidents and more recently mad cow disease). But also this opening up of science and technology increases opportunities for more social groups to become involved in the pressure for increased public accountability of new technologies.

As we saw earlier, technology policy analysis and research has historically focused either on issues of promotion or on issues of regulation. Technological promotion can take the form of initiatives to promote a whole technology (like IT or biotechnology, aerospace or renewable energy technologies), an industrial sector (like electrical engineering or construction), a section of industry (like small and medium enterprises), or even a specific firm. It can also take a regional perspective, such as when measures are proposed to address the uneven technological development across a country, or say the European Union.

Policies to promote technology were a significant part of the successful development of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries of East Asia, as well as China, India, and Latin America. Almost all those countries which became independent after the second world war, in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean established formal policies to promote technologies and encourage those with such technologies to invest.We have seen that the classic notion of technology policy meaning state policy for technology has broadened considerably – both to encompass the role of different interest groups in shaping public policy, and to take up the increasing use of initiatives that are mixed public/private, or require public steering of private and voluntary activities.

5 Public participation