Relation Between Innovation And Social Change Commerce Essay


This essay is in three main sections. The first will first consider how a certain concept of innovation has come to be the dominant one amongst governments of developed countries in the twenty first century. The second part will consider sociological studies of innovation in contrast to the dominant (OECD) concept. The third part will draw conclusions regarding the deterministic model of innovation

Innovation has become one of the most over-used concepts of the twenty-first century. The development and implementation of the OECD Innovation Strategy (OECD 2010A) has seen politicians across Europe and North America tumbling over themselves to claim their country or constituency as a centre for innovation, or to comment about the need for more innovation in order to ensure future competitiveness.

In the Oxford dictionary 'innovation' is defined simply as a 'new method, idea or product'. Schumpeter (1934) was the first to place innovation at the centre of economic debate and was the first to distinguish product, organisational and process innovation. However from this humble beginning 'innovation' came in the 1990s to signify a new technological product, and then after 2000 its official meanings have broadened out again to cover something like the dictionary definition and spread across all areas of national policy including such 'unscientific' areas as education. Godin (2005; 141-3) argues that direct operationalisation of the concept of innovation was pioneered in the 1960s by the US National Science Foundation. Innovation was understood as an output of the research process, a new product. This attracted wider attention when it was taken up by the OECD's 'Gaps in Technology' report of 1968 when 'innovation performance became the key for explaining differences between the United States and Western Europe' (Godin 2005;142). The USA was seen as a better performer because it produced more innovation. At the end of the 1960s the Steacie report in the US challenged the notion that innovation was a straightforward by product of research (Godin 2005; 144-5) and from this was born the idea of innovation as an independent activity. During the 1980s national studies on innovation snowballed. Innovation was now seen as an activity, and was embodied in the first OECD standard on the subject the Oslo Manual in 1989, but it was still associated with products.

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The current Oslo Manual of 2005 defines innovation as 'the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method' (OECD 2005; 46-7). Thus already by 2005 the 'official' definition of innovation had moved beyond the purely scientific or technical product. The word implementation in the definition is there to demonstrate that an 'innovation' is not just an idea but is something that has been implemented and taken to the market. An 'innovation' in the current Oslo Manual is also then something that happens in a commercial enterprise; though this might include a number of enterprises spun off by universities, and it could also include social enterprises. The important point is that for the Oslo Manual the 'innovation' must have been 'implemented' by putting it to the market.

The Oslo Manual is important for the definition of innovation and its place in national policies for another less technical reason. With the increased global interest innovation since 20005 it has been increasingly adopted worldwide. The Latin American countries have generally adopted the Oslo Manual innovation standard since the early 2000s through their common science agency RICYT. In Europe the Community Innovation Survey was established in 1993 (Godin 2005; 143). The years since 2007 have seen a major initiative to expand R&D and innovation surveys in Africa, based on the Frascati and Oslo standards, supported by NEPAD, OECD and UNESCO.

The culmination of this movement was the current OECD (2010) strategy 'The OECD Innovation Strategy; getting a headstart on tomorrow' which puts innovation at the heart of all its member state activities across the complete OECD mandate. For example it suggests

'Empowering people to innovate

Education and training systems should equip people with the foundations to learn and develop the broad range of skills needed for innovation in all of its forms, and with the flexibility to upgrade skills and adapt to changing market conditions. To foster an innovative workplace, ensure that employment policies facilitate efficient organisational change.

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Enable consumers to be active participants in the innovation process.

Foster an entrepreneurial culture by instilling the skills and attitudes needed for creative enterprise.'

(OECD 2010; 216)

This is much more than a deterministic S&T process. It requires policies for education and skills development for innovation, user (consumer) driven innovation (most usually exemplified by Open Source software eg Linux), and in particular policies to develop the right 'attitudes' for innovation. In other words it is more of a humanistic than a technocratic process.

By contrast the current UK national strategy inspiringly named 'Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth' is much more traditional technology and 'product' centred. After trumpeting UK R&D, or rather lack of, it turns to very traditional remedies, such as small business support. The closest it gets to more 'humanistic' measures is to stress the need for closer links between universities and industry (eg see discussion of social distance in research below) (UKBIS2011; 1-4). While there is some discussion of user-driven, or rather the need for open source development, there is no discussion at all of skills and attitudes for innovation!

We have spent some time discussing the overall origins of the international concept of innovation, its changing definition, and its application across the world. This is important to indicate; firstly that there is a standard agreed international definition that has evolved from an ST or STE (Science, Technology, Engineering - depending on viewpoint) product to a broader less technical activity in private enterprise, and secondly that this definition is increasingly accepted by governments around the world.

A final word needs about the pragmatic implementation of collecting information on 'innovation' and more specifically relating to innovation statistics but just as significant for the overall concept of innovation. When the Oslo Standard is implemented in all countries the survey does not ask about matters 'scientific' or 'technological' the interviewers simply ask if an enterprise has introduced 'a new product', 'a new business, organisational or marketing process'. This means that while other 'science' statistics such as R&D rely on the presence of laboratories, scientists etc., innovation only requires someone with a new idea. It is a commonplace indeed to say that most 'innovation' in enterprises is a matter of copying/learning from competitors. While developing countries have few labs and 'white coats' they do have ideas and are increasingly open to ideas from competitors. Developing countries thus prefer innovation to other ST measures because it puts them on level ground with the OECD. In other words it is quite possible for a poor developing country to have as high a level of innovation as an OECD country simply by copying. This is rather like the famous progression of China in patents, moving from copying other countries 'new to China', to universal 'Triadic' patents [1] which are 'new to the world'.

In conclusion the whole political process surrounding the development and implementation of the Oslo Manual has resulted in an officially accepted framework of understanding on innovation which has moved from the idea of a new 'scientific/technical' product to a new business or organisational process. While experts such as Godin (2005) rightly assert that the concept is still embedded in science and technology, there is no question that the debate has moved in a very pragmatic manner away from innovation as 'object' to innovation as 'process'. Moreover this movement has allowed all countries in the world to be seen as 'innovative' no matter what their scientific resources, financial and human.


Having clarified the evolution of the internationally agreed definition and understanding of 'innovation' we move to consider the link between innovation and social change. Godin (2005; 149) sees the Oslo process as explicitly excluding 'social innovation' and suggests that its application to marketing and business processes as an 'afterthought'. Sociologists by contrast have been determined to put the human at the heart of the innovation process.

Latour (1001; 110) aptly remarks 'how difficult it is to avoid the twin pitfalls of sociologism and technologism'. His answer is to emphasise the process chain of innovation with continuous interaction between the human and the non-human. Interestingly Law seems to address this issue at one point by giving the innovation product a voice

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'...literature that lays stress on the interconnected and interlocking character of technical innovation. The argument is that large technical systems - and here TSR2 is being treated as an exemplar - look at and talk to themselves.' (Law 2002; 26)

Of course he is actually thinking of intelligent IT design systems, but by giving it a voice he is laying himself open to Latour's important 'trap' as even the most 'intelligent' feedback systems also involve human agents interacting with them. In analysing the human machine interface, 'the ghost in the machine; as Arthur Koestler put it, the potential for confusion as to which is which becomes very great. Perhaps this in itself indicates that they cannot be separated, but for analytic purposes some attempt must be made.

The clearest sociological approach to innovation comes from Actor Network Theory (ANT) which particularly addresses human/object interaction. These studies have proliferated since the 1990s and Latour (2005) has tried to bring discipline to the approach. He argues (Latour 2005;10-5) that true ANT studies must 1) represent 'non-humans' (products and processes?) as 'actors' that is active participants in the innovation process while not attributing to them more than 'natural agency', 2) the 'social' element of intervention must modify or be modified by the innovation process as it progresses, 3) the emphasis should not be on deconstruction of the innovation but on the creation of new relationships and institutions. These emphasise that innovations arise from teamwork and go on to study the relationships between the various players involved. For example Ietri and Lamieri (2004), modelling innovation networks, emphasised the idea of social distance as a key for explaining successful innovation.

Within the OECD (2010a; 41) strategy the increasing level of collaborative innovation has been recognised. It is becoming too expensive to innovate as a single individual or even a single firm and collaboration is more and more necessary. It is well known that over the last ten years the proportion of scientific authors from outside OECD countries has risen considerably alongside the number of publications which involve international collaboration (OECD 2010b). This undoubtedly because the social distance between scientific individuals and institutions has fallen. Many factors are involve here; most obviously the development of the internet which has provided the infrastructure for international collaboration, but additionally a broadening and deepening of the collaboration between researchers in different continents, improving education levels across the world, globalisation and the feeling of belonging to a 'global' scientific community.

The strengthening of collaboration at the local level has attracted further support for the policy of industrial clusters (eg Kowalski 20xx). Thomas and Wind (forthcoming) take the argument to the next level of humanistic modelling of the innovations process by suggesting a symbiotic relationship between participants. On the other hand for Bogers and Larsen (2012) innovation remains an uncertain process dominated by uncertainty and improvisation. What this line of research has in common is to suggest that it is the nature of the relationship between the various people involved in creating an innovation that best predicts its success. Indeed one could say that social distance between researchers/innovators has decreased in recent years, that this social distance in becoming an evermore symbiotic relationship (not just with researchers but suppliers marketers and other partners), but that even this very close collaboration cannot remove the element of chance from innovation processes.

Further evidence of a wider social model for innovation comes from user-driven innovation, open innovation, and social enterprise based innovation. In the former, where the best example is open source software, innovation is driven by users themselves who take control of the core software systems and adapt it to their needs. Open Source has yet to achieve the full ground breaking impact of its promise, but with products such as Linux it has clearly demonstrated that it can be a commercial success. Some would claim that a large part of all innovation is user-driven, occurring when users or consumers suggest new ideas to companies (Rosted 2005; 53-4). In analysing the place of user-driven innovation in Denmark Rosted (2005;67) indicates that to take full advantage companies need customer focus, the skills to analyse customer needs, and the knowledge to carry out user surveys. One might also add that they need the willingness to listen to the results and the determination to act on them!

Open innovation is normally taken to mean out sourcing or licensing of innovation work, in which the company will provide open access to its own research knowledge base or facilities. In this sense th3e degree of 'openness' may be said to depend on the size of the community. For example the Nokia Research Centre lists a number of partnerships with academic institutions around the world on its Open Innovation web page ( ) and says that

By sharing resources, leveraging ideas, and tapping each other's expertise we are able to create vibrant innovation ecosystems, multiply our efforts, enhance innovation speed and efficiency, and derive more value for our organizations and ultimately for our end-customers.

Innovation in social enterprise has set another challenge for the basic model of innovation though as Borzaga and Bodini (2012) indicate 'the uses and definitions of the concept are so disparate'. They chart its use by Barrack Obama, David Cameron, and Jose Manuel Barroso. They adopt a model by Pol and Ville (2009) which distinguishes 1) business innovations, 2) 'bifocal' business/social innovations, and 3) pure social innovations. This model is also very appropriate for our discussion as type 1 can be identified with what we have labelled the dominant discourse in the OECD that is strongly tied to S&T, type 2 may relate the more recent OECD discourse which takes much more account of human agency, and type 3 can be said to lie completely outside the dominant discourse. Borzaga and Bodini would place any 'for profit' innovation in type 2. This seems very restrictive as many social enterprises, and as Borzaga and Bodini assert community businesses may have a profit element which they out back into the community. They conclude that 'market failure' of pure social innovation does not apply to the social enterprise as their aim is to improve life in the local community, and they have the ability to draw on a wide range of other resources which have social aims in mind such as public finance and volunteers. In sum social enterprises represent a source of innovation which is by and for the local community and which falls outside the regular S&T technical business model. This puts us very close to a model of innovation for social change.

User, open and social innovation are important constructs for this debate. The example of Nokia illustrates how commercial companies can see innovation as more than a purely technological process. The example of Linux shows how true openness of the Open Source community can allow truly 'social' innovation of a product which advances through ongoing user community adaptation. The example of social enterprises shows how the commercial innovation model can be extended outside the purely private profit-driven environment to one which is driven by local community needs.

By contrast Suchmann (undated) has put the human element back into innovation by stressing feminist principles and womens' approach to new ideas and innovation. Instead of attempting to broaden out the concept of the collaborative nature of the innovation process she questions the positioning of innovation itself as being located within a male techno-centred view of development. This includes the whole professionalization of scientific endeavour and the 'objectivity' involved. As an alternative she offers Barad's (2003) conception of new objects/products 'emerging' the interaction of 'people and things'. Much of Suchmann's illustrations involve female consciousness of 'corporeality' and the lack of feminine conceptions involved in robotics. It is interesting to note that the latest Korean Institute for Science and Technology (KIST) programme involving robotic teachers distributed to all pre-schools involves a clearly male robot and a robotic dog, rather than the female teacher that is the vast majority of 'real' teachers at this level of education ( Equally UNESCO data shows that while across the world women tend to graduate from higher education more than men, Myanmar is the only country in the world with more women researcher than men (UNESCO 2007).

Fig 1; The Widening Gap between men and women in Research Positions in Europe 2003

NOTE; to left of diagram women exceed men as university graduates. To the right of the diagram after men slightly exceed women in doctorate enrolments, they become overwhelmingly dominant in full professorships (right hand end of diagram.

Source; UNESCO (2007) Science Technology and Gender; an international report.

Before turning to the conclusions there is one very important aspect of innovation that seems to be missing from most sociological critiques; its disruptive quality. One exception is Pol and Ville (2009) who at least in one section question 'are all social innovations desirable?' though they do not treat extensively of disruptive innovation. The original industrial revolution (mentioned briefly by Pol and Ville) was extremely disruptive, technological innovations resulted in major loss of employment opportunities, displacing agricultural workers to new industrial locations in the cities. The ICT revolution in the 1980s and the 1990s had a similar effect, for example the technological introduction of computers into newspaper printing contributing to the major Wapping News International dispute. The defining work on disruptive innovation was Christensen (1997) who presented a model of how in the demand for a new product replaces those currently on the market. This work created a lot of interest and debate. A useful recent summary is Selhoffer et al (2012). The overall existence of disruptive innovation is however undeniable as the story of the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution indicate.

It is thus extremely important to note that innovation whether technological or social can lead to very damaging social change. Such social changes made be a direct consequence of the technological, replacing a man by a computer, or they may be very indirect. Indeed to the general public one of the most common consequences of the introduction of technological change is negative social impacts. It would indeed be more appropriate to consider clear examples of technology leading to positive social change; the field of medicine would be one obvious place to start although it is unclear to what degree medical advances have a 'social' impact.

In relation to this debate the discussion above may at least imply that recontextualising the product or the technological side of innovation within the human network and the organisational context might help to mitigate the adverse effects of technology on society.


In the first section of this essay we set out the dominant political discourse on innovation and the way it has evolved since the 1990s and before. We saw that this has moved from a thoroughly technical understanding of the issue to a more humanistic studying of the process both in terms of behaviour within the firm and in terms of skills development. In the second part of the essay we set out some of the sociological and social approaches to studying technological innovation. Research in this area seems to have concentrated on producing an increasingly in-depth understanding of the relationship between the technology and the human agency in the innovation process. The discussion also sought to set down an understanding of social and user-led innovation.

Finally we come to the discussion of the question of a deterministic understanding of innovation and social change. Bijker and Law (1994; 8) begin their volume by stating 'If there is not internal technical logic that drives innovation, then technologically determinist explanations will not do....Technologies do not have momentum of their own at the outset..' In reviewing the place of social science research in innovation Howaldt Kopp and Schwarz (2009) identify the overall drivers of research as evolving government policy, specifically in the UK and Germany. They note how this has evolved across different government ministries moving for example from the high tech support in the 1970-80s, to business advice, and so towards more social issues. They conclude that the social sciences should not just limit themselves to critique and commentary on innovation, but that if they consider the development of high level knowledge they may make a direct contribution to innovation in the same way as the technological sciences do.

The first point here is that the dominant discourse as represented by OECD has itself moved away from a technology driven model of change. It might of course be argued that this policy shift came about because of sociology research, though Howaldt, Kopp and Schwarz (2009), the clearest review of both policy change and theory would seem to doubt this.

This change suggests then that at least in the current political climate (pace the UK Innovation Strategy) a sociological critique of deterministic innovation is banging at an open door. If we look at this critique in detail it appears to start from the premise that innovation is a process that involves the detailed interaction of people and technology in which it is inherently wrong to single out one or the other as the instigator of social change. The disruptive nature if innovation also signals that such change is not necessarily 'progress' but may be a step back at least in terms of human issues like employment.

A second level of sociological critique suggests that the impact within the organisation is in terms of new processes and organisational arrangements, whether within the innovating firm, within the sector (much innovation is copying competitors), or in society at large. The implication is that these changes brought about by the wider Agent-Network links are larger than the immediate impact of pure technology. This is also in alignment with OECD discourse that increasingly emphasises process and organisational change, as well as the 'non-Schumpeterian' skills for an innovative society.

A third level of sociological analysis regards the social impact of innovation, or social innovation. Here we have a debate as to the existence of 'purely social' innovation. This could also be seen as a debate to pull innovation completely out of the technological and into the social world. A glib response would be to say that the confusion in the literature suggests that this has not proved successful. A more careful viewpoint might be to say that there are some lines of enquiry which bear some fruit. The whole area of innovation in social enterprises has much potential as bodies positioned between the private and the public. Alongside the implementation of its strategy OECD has also been pursuing a major stream of work on innovation in the public sector.

Sociological critique in the area of organisational innovation seems rather thin on the ground. Perhaps this is because the area is the focus of general studies of organisation and organisation of change which consequently give less prominence to innovation and S&T. Still given the increasing trend in identifying organisation change as innovation per se it would be fruitful to pursue sociological enquiry in this direction. Furthermore studies framed on the basis of theories of organisational change would seem to be a good follow up to ANT analysis. Lam (2004) suggests that the separation of theory of organisation change from those of organisation structure and organisation learning is responsible for the overall lack of a coherent theory of innovation in this area.

Overall the deterministic critique of innovation runs clear and true. It is something that has not been pursued by sociologists, but by other innovation specialists including those with technological expertise. Sociologists have a major part to play in this because of their discipline in looking at social and institutional structures. The various models cited in this paper, especially ANT, present various illuminating frameworks which place the human and broader social elements back into the innovation paradigm. There is clear evidence that the dominant discourse as represented here by OECD has also moved in this direction. The question, as Howaldt, Kopp and Schwarz (2009) themselves pose, is where next for the sociology of innovation? Their answer is that sociology must travel to the heart of innovation itself. We will see if they are right.