14. Geography and policy complexity in normative innovation policy thinking: what are the issues and how should they be tackled?

Convenors: Elvira Uyarra, Iris Wanzenböck, Huiwen Gong, Robert Hassink, Edurne Magro, Keving Morgan, Lars Coenen and Kieron Flanagan.

Session type: Full paper session.

Recent years have seen renewed interest in challenges, missions and problems as drivers for innovation policy, part of a ‘normative turn’ (Weber and Rohracher 2012; Schot and Steinmueller, 2018). An emerging consensus holds that innovation policy should address the complex policy challenges or ‘wicked problems’ the world faces today. This requires a stronger role for ‘the state’ (Mazzucato, 2013, Boon and Edler, 2018).

Challenges may be global in nature but are faced differently in different places. Places are also differently endowed with knowledge, resources and organisational capacities for response (Wanzenbӧck and Frenken, 2020; Uyarra et al, 2019), and can be laboratories for experimentation in responses to challenges (Morgan, 2018).

Yet we see surprisingly little place sensitivity or recognition of policy complexities and dynamics in the new normative turn (Coenen et al, 2015; Coenen and Morgan, 2020). There also remains a disconnection between this agenda and long-standing efforts to promote ‘smart specialization’ (Hassink and Gong, 2019). It also seems strangely disconnected from relevant work on the sustainability challenge, for instance the geography of transitions (see e.g. Binz et al, 2020).

This special track aims at addressing this gap, examining potential and actual roles for public intervention from a multi-scalar, multi-actor perspective, and focusing on the role of regions and places in the directional innovation policy. We welcome relevant paper submissions, e.g. addressing:

  • How should we understand the ‘geography of problems’ in the new directional innovation policy?
  • How might different grand challenges map onto different spatial scales and governance levels? Do they require different multi-level and multi-actor divisions of labour?
  • What is the role of regions in supporting the emergence of a variety of solutions (e.g. social, technical, public sector) to societal problems?
  • What are the co-ordination and implementation challenges and possibilities of the new innovation policies? What leeway and capabilities do local and regional actors have to influence directional policies?
  • Are notions of prioritization via entrepreneurial discovery processes compatible with the selection of missions or challenges?
  • Is experimentation in public policy and implementation compatible with strong challenge orientation?



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Boon, W., & Edler, J. (2018). Demand, challenges, and innovation. Making sense of new trends in innovation policy. Science and Public Policy, 45(4), 435-447.

Coenen, L., Hansen, T., & Rekers, J. V. (2015). Innovation Policy for Grand Challenges. An Economic Geography Perspective. Geography Compass, 9(9), 483-496.

Coenen, L., & Morgan, K. (2020). Evolving geographies of innovation: Existing paradigms, critiques and possible alternatives. Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift-Norwegian Journal of Geography, 74(1), 13-24.

Hassink, R., & Gong, H. (2019). Six critical questions about smart specialization. European Planning Studies, 27(10), 2049-2065.

Mazzucato, M., (2013). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths. Anthem Press.

Morgan, K. (2018). Experimental governance and territorial development. Paris: OECD (Background paper for seminar 5: Experimental governance 14 December 2018).

Schot, J., Steinmueller, W.E., (2018). Three frames for innovation policy: R&D, systems of innovation and transformative change. Research Policy 47, 1554–1567.

Uyarra, E., Zabala-Iturriagagoitia, J. M., Flanagan, K., & Magro, E. (2020). Public procurement, innovation and industrial policy: Rationales, roles, capabilities and implementation. Research Policy, 49(1), 103844.

Wanzenböck, I., & Frenken, K. (2020). The subsidiarity principle in innovation policy for societal challenges. Global Transitions, 2, 51-59.

 Weber, K.M., Rohracher, H., (2012). Legitimizing research, technology and innovation policies for transformative change: Combining insights from innovation systems and multi-level perspective in a comprehensive ‘failures’ framework. Research Policy 41, 1037–1047.