Transformative innovation and socio-technical transitions to address grand challenges

AuthorFrank Geels, University of Manchester
Frank W. Geels
Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability,
Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester
1. Introduction
1.1 Grand challenges in a policy
context: climate change, SDGs,
and economic growth
Transformative innovation and systemic
transitions are attracting increasing attention
in the context of three policy problems. First,
addressing climate change will require radical
innovation and low-carbon transition in many
systems, as the Commission’s recent climate
strategy recognises: ‘The transition to a net-
zero greenhouse gas emission economy by
mid-century will radically transform our energy
system, land and agriculture sector, modernise
our industrial fabric and our transport systems
and cities’ (EC, 2018a: 6).
Second, addressing other grand societal
challenges (such as ageing, obesity, energy
security, urban quality of life, and inequality)
and the Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) will require transformative innovations
in health care, agro-food and urban systems,
as Vice-Presidents Timmermans and Katainen
note in the foreword to the Commission’s recent
Ref‌lections Paper: ‘Sustainable development
means that we need to modernise our
economy to embrace sustainable consumption
and production patterns, to correct the
imbalances in our food system, and to our
mobility, the way we produce and use energy,
and design our buildings on to a sustainable
path’ (EC, 2019: 3).
Third, low-carbon and sustainability transitions
of‌fer attractive growth prospects, as the
Commission’s expert group on green growth
and jobs concludes: ‘There is a huge competitive
opportunity for Europe to ride this ‘green’
trajectory and turn environmental problems
into solutions for promoting investment and
jobs. Such a green direction implies the use of
technological capacities (which the EU has) in
order to drastically increase the productivity of
The aim of the chapter is to present the
role of transformative innovation as a new
paradigm to address many of the most
pressing societal challenges we are facing,
notably transition to sustainability and
combatting climate change. It elaborates on
what it means for research and innovation
(R&I) policy and attempts to ‘operationalise’
these transitions.
This chapter presents a broader conceptual
model to benef‌it policies for transformative
innovation and grand challenges that goes
beyond the linear model and innovation
system approaches. The new role for R&I is
to support socio-economic transformations,
but it needs to be complemented with other
policies to have a stronger impact. Aer
introducing the socio-technical transitions
and potential barriers for the uptake of
these niche innovations, the f‌inal analytical
section gives several examples where these
transformations have taken place, in both
energy and mobility. The chapter closes with
an extensive overview of policy conclusions.
Figure 9-1 Three frames in innovation policy
Framing Key features Policy rationale Policy approaches
Science and
technology for
growth (since 1950s)
Linear innovation model,
driven by R&D (research
and development)
Addressing market
failures (f‌irms invest
insuf‌f‌iciently in R&D
because of public good
character of innovation)
State f‌inancing
of R&D; subsidies
or tax incentives for
business R&D
National and sectoral
systems of innovation
for improved
(since 1980s)
Focus on knowledge
f‌lows between upstream
actors (universities,
f‌irms, agencies)
Responding to system
failures, e.g. improving
linkages between
actors, addressing
institutional problems
(in laws, property rights,
Promoting science
hubs and science-
industry collaboration;
education and training;
cluster policies
change to address
grand challenges
(since 2010s)
Nurture radical
innovation and new
pathways; shape
directionality of
Promote system
which incumbent
actors are slow or
reluctant to do
Missions and goals
(SDGs, climate targets),
assisting new entrants,
creating transformative
coalitions, learning,
Science, research and innovation performance of the EU 2020
Source: Author's elaboration based on Schot and Steinmueller, 2018
Stat. link:‌iles/srip/2020/partii/chapter9/f‌igure_9-1.xlsx
energy and material resources (which the EU
only has in limited quantities). The markets of
the future are bound to grow in that direction’
(EC, 2016: 11). But to exploit and compete
globally in this area, radical innovation should
be nurtured: ‘Europe is relatively strong in
adding or sustaining value for existing products,
services and processes, known as incremental
innovation. (…) But Europe needs to do better
at generating disruptive and breakthrough
innovations’ (EC, 2018b: 11).
1.2 Analytical challenges for
innovation policy
Transformative innovation and systemic transi-
tions pose analytical challenges for innovation
policy that come in addition to traditional chal-
lenges. Schot and Steinmueller (2018) distinguish
three frames for innovation policy, which
respectively focus on stimulating R&D, improv-
ing knowledge f‌lows in innovation systems, and
stimulating transformation (Figure 9-1).

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT