Towards Innovation Democracy? Participation, Responsibility and Precaution in Innovation Governance.

47 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2016

Date Written: November 2014


Innovation is about more than technological invention. It involves change of many kinds: cultural, organisational and behavioural as well as technological. So, in a world crying out for social justice and ecological care, innovation holds enormous progressive potential. Yet there are no guarantees that any particular realised innovation will necessarily be positive. Indeed, powerful forces 'close down' innovation in the directions favoured by the most privileged interests. So harnessing the positive transformative potential for innovation in any given area, is not about optimizing some single self; evidently progressive trajectory in a 'race to the future'. Instead it is about collaboratively exploring diverse and uncertain pathways – in ways that deliberately balance the spurious effects of incumbent power. In other words, what are needed are more realistic, rational and vibrant 'innovation democracies'. Yet conventional innovation policy and regulation tend simply to assume that whatever products or technologies are most energetically advanced, are in some way self evidently beneficial. Scrutiny tends to be through narrow forms of quantitative 'risk assessment', focusing only on particular direct risks and asking merely whether they are 'tolerable' – often at a time too late for significant change. Technologies are typically privileged over other innovations. Attention is directed only in circumscribed ways at the pace of innovation. The result is a serious neglect for the crucial issue of the direction of innovation in any given area – and increased vulnerability to various kinds of 'lock in'. These patterns show up across all sectors. Beyond genetically modified (GM) crops, for example, there exist many other innovations for improving global food sustainability. But the relatively! low! potential for narrow commercial benefits often leave many promising options seriously neglected. With uncertainties side lined or interpreted in expedient ways, even scientific evidence itself can carry the imprint of vested interests. And official statistics often conceal the extent to which patterns of support are concentrated in favour of particular innovation pathways. Yet these effects of power remain under-acknowledged in policy making. Policy is stated simply as 'pro innovation' – as if this were a purely technical matter and always self-evidently good, rather than politically contestible. To address these challenges, innovation policy should more explicitly and transparently acknowledge the inherently political nature of the interests and motivations driving contending possible pathways. Here, this paper explores the potential for three emerging bodies of practice, relevant across all areas: participation, responsibility and precaution. Each involves a range of practical methods, catalysing and reinforcing new institutional forms. Due to its efficacy in resisting political bias, precaution is a subject of particular misunderstanding and mischief. Among other qualities, this offers a crucial guard against the error of treating the absence of evidence of harm as evidence of absence of harm – and highlights the importance of wider human and environmental values.Together, qualities of participation, responsibility and precaution help 'open up' scrutiny and accountability beyond anticipated consequences alone, to also interrogate the driving purposes of innovation. They allow societies to exercise agency not only over the rate and riskiness of innovation, but also over its direction. And they offer means to enable hither to more distributed and marginal forms of innovation – which presently manage only rarely (like renewable energy or ecological farming) to struggle to major global scale. Together, these qualities celebrate that innovation is not a matter for fear-driven technical imperatives, but requires a democratic politics of contending hopes.

Suggested Citation

Stirling, Andy, Towards Innovation Democracy? Participation, Responsibility and Precaution in Innovation Governance. (November 2014). SWPS 2014-24, Available at SSRN: or

Andy Stirling (Contact Author)

University of Sussex ( email )

Sussex House
Brighton, Sussex BNI 9RH
United Kingdom

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