Societal innovations to tackle burning challenges

EPA/JAN WOITAS

A sign points to the solar park 'Solar Valley' in Bitterfeld-Wolfen in Germany. Media reports state that the location for solar development is one of the largest solar sites in Europe.

Societal innovations to tackle burning challenges


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This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2016

Belgium – Brussels The Paris climate agreement increased our faith in global commitments. As there are many challenges that can only be tackled together, the deal also gave new impetus for societal innovations. Without going more deeply into the climate questions, I want to elaborate the concept of transformation and whether it could offer a giant leap through which innovation and entrepreneurship could become our common global action culture.

Various EU strategies and many other measures have already shown positive results, but how can programmes and funding be used to encourage practical action in a transformational way, perhaps even as a paradigm shift towards more effective innovation policy?  The key question to ask is “how” – how can we change our way of thinking and working significantly to make them more innovative?

The winners of global economic and welfare competition are the nations and regions that are able to take advantage of new innovation and business opportunities faster than others. Major economic transitions and renewals in industrial structures and global innovation competitiveness are possible, but usually require strong and profitable businesses, political will, and consensus among stakeholders. Such joint commitment is usually triggered by necessity in times of economic turbulence, or crisis that provides an opportunity to initiate change and renewal.

Tackling climate change requires the use of both existing and new research-based knowledge, as well as scaling good practices to be used globally.

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The notions of knowledge creation and the transfer of knowledge into practice have taken new forms. In the interfaces between universities, industry, public authorities and citizens, knowledge co-creation, exploitation, and capacity-building processes constitute important concepts.. As many phenomena of the digital society have already demonstrated, significant transformation takes place from the bottom up – and a pervasive mind-set of “entrepreneurial discovery” is critical.

Discovery means more than innovation. It is itself a new activity – exploring, experimenting and learning what should be done in the relevant industry or ecosystem. Entrepreneurial discovery means experimentation, risk-taking, and also failing, and it means individuals working together with others in networks, assessing alternatives, setting goals and creating innovations in an open-minded way. This is what the world needs now for tackling climate change and other burning challenges.

Top-down management is no longer enough to create favourable conditions for the necessary changes in innovation policy. The drivers of change are diverse bottom-up initiatives in fast growing co-creation innovation communities.

To facilitate this change, the last decade has seen the growing importance of new operational units characterised by a strong co-creative and collaborative approach, usually operating in association with universities, municipalities and corporate entities. Examples include Incubators and Accelerators, Living Labs, Entrepreneurial Hubs, Development Labs, Social Innovation Labs, Fab Labs, Societal Innovation Learning Camps and Future Centres. Their role is proving essential for the success of innovation ecosystem.

Governments have an important role as enablers of innovation and economic change, builders of shared platforms for decision-making and setting priorities for the knowledge economy. Let me share an example from Finland, where the Helsinki Region is transforming into a sustainable regional innovation ecosystem, and its new West-Metro Corridor to connect the southern part of Espoo to downtown Helsinki will start operating next August. The main outcome will not be increased transportation capacity, but the overall renewal of the whole urban area. The most visible outcome is the Espoo Innovation Garden, a concept that Espoo is using to spread the innovative mind-set throughout the region. This Innovation Garden is the largest technology, innovation and business hub in Northern Europe: an ecosystem of companies, universities and technology centres which accounts for 50% of Finland’s R&D, a living community employing more than 40 000 professionals in 800 companies, 25 R&D centres and a number of Centres of Excellence. This innovation ecosystem, with its living labs, accelerators, incubators, societal innovation camps and entrepreneurial hubs, operates diverse test beds for the rapid prototyping of user-driven innovations: new products, services, processes, structures and systems with the promise of being transformative and scalable.

A socially motivated and open innovation ecosystem is at the heart of the new generation of innovation activities – complex and global by nature, and emerging through online community participation. We can – and we must – learn from this.

The number one priority of the European Committee of the Regions in 2016 is to focus on the entrepreneurial spirit of regions and cities. However, to deliver this objective effectively, all European regions should move towards open innovation, within a human-centred vision of partnerships between public and private sector actors, universities and citizens. This means modernising the traditional Triple Helix model of academia, industry and government. The development requires multidisciplinarity, breaking silos, and moving to mega-endeavours instead of hundreds of projects operating on their own.

The strong base for targeted change can be built on best practice, bench-learning and co-creation: bottom-up experimenting and rapid prototyping. Technology already offers enormous opportunities – but technology alone is not enough. We need more societal innovation. We need new types of human-centred mind-sets, effective toolboxes, and new competences for knowledge co-creation and shared knowledge management. And ultimately, we must have collaboration. Regions and cities should build their renewal on strategic cooperation, based on benchmarking – and ultimately, bench-learning. In this way they can become truly transformative.

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