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Five fallacies of innovation, and what they mean for understanding the nexus

Exposure and interrogation of some of the common assumptions around innovation can help to flesh out the interplay between nexus study and innovation, and what this interplay means for transformation more generally. To do this, this blog draws upon some examples from innovation around anaerobic digestion (AD), one of our Stepping Up case studies, which I have discussed previously here, here and here. This work was presented last week at the Transformations 2017 conference, which truly sought to walk the talk, and tried hard (and did well, I think) to shake everyone out of established patterns of being, doing, and thinking around transformational change.

Questioning the first of these assumptions, that innovation (only) solves problems, is at the heart of the importance of nexus thinking for societal transformation. While innovation clearly solves perceived problems in specific domains of interest, it almost always also creates problems in other domains. Incentivising the production of low carbon biogas, heat and electricity for example also creates incentives for producing and transporting feedstocks, such as dedicated energy crops in a potentially unsustainable manner. Understanding and managing perverse outcomes such as these is critical if we are interested in innovation being truly sustainable.

Second, while many innovation studies focus on the dynamic innovators at the centre of innovation processes, innovation can perhaps more accurately (and more helpfully) be understood as being shaped by a constellation of actors with different values and interests, as well as varying degrees of 'skin in the game'. Getting to grips with the nexus requires understanding how these vagaries are manifested in unintended outcomes, for example in bringing about unsustainable, uneconomic and politically harmful rent-seeking activities.

Third, innovation is most obviously about change, and there is a tendency to focus in on the dynamics of change. However, employing new technologies and behaviours almost always necessitates doing away with established ones, and there is a real need to understand the mechanisms of incumbency and inertia, and to understand and engage with those actors and institutions that have much to gain from maintaining established norms - as well as resisting change. Sustainable transformation, in my view, is unlikely to come solely from actors situated outside of established systems. Innovation in AD for example is constrained by layers of inertia around how we generate, perceive and treat food waste, and figuring out the mechanisms behind these sources of inertia, and how they might be overcome, is central to understanding innovation more broadly.

Fourth, when we (as scholar, policymakers or civil society) consider innovation (from the Latin novare – new) there is a forgivable tendency to emphasise novelty. New stuff is fresh, exciting, and full of promise. However, the endpoint of innovation is often infrastructure, and that new, sexy innovation of today is can soon turn into the ageing, no-longer-fit-for-purpose infrastructure of tomorrow. From an economic perspective, the high capital cost and highly variable operating costs of AD projects means that plant represent considerable sunk costs, whose recovery can be challenged by fluctuations in the availability of feedstock over project lifetimes. Where innovation is likely to become infrastructure, it is important to consider the value of that infrastructure over the long term, economically and otherwise. Another option is to innovate in the direction of modular, transportable and customisable AD plant, which reimagines infrastructure into something much more flexible (see here for an example of this).

And fifth, the urgency of climate change and of other challenges across water, food and energy compels us to focus on how innovation might be accelerated. Faster, when it comes to innovation, is better. However, rapid progression in one direction may also mean a rapid succession of unintended outcomes in others, meaning that our capacity to address such outcomes must at least keep pace with their emergence. In thinking about innovation and the nexus then, there is a real argument to be made for ‘making haste slowly’, i.e. balancing urgency with diligence, which in turn necessitates innovation governance to be both reflective and reflexive in the way that innovation is shaped.

Reflecting on the relationship between innovation and the water-energy-food nexus in such ways has been highly instructive in helping us think about both, as well as what they both mean for transformation. While we don’t suggest that AD (or indeed any innovation on its own) can be considered transformational, our focus on the unintended outcomes of innovation suggest that getting better at nexus thinking is absolutely a key condition of transformation.

Steppingup 2016