Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Traveling Imaginaries of Innovation: The Practice Turn and Its Transnational Implementation

Supported by NSF Award Number SES-1457011 (Awarded March 2015)


This project explores how countries imagine their sociotechnical futures through what we call the “practice turn” in innovation policy. This turn entails a three-fold shift in the use of innovation policy as (1) the go-to answer for basic socioeconomic challenges confronting 21st-century nations and a touchstone for governmental legitimacy; (2) an actors’ category that sees innovation as desirable and achievable through standardized practices; and (3) a benchmarkable activity, preferably implemented through “best-practice transfer.” We study the “practice turn” by comparing the adoption of three “best-practice” innovation models in four cities: Bangalore (India), Boston (USA), Cambridge (UK), Karlsruhe (Germany). The models in question are the “MIT model,” the “Silicon Valley model,” and the “public engagement model.” Each research site is widely regarded as a motor of innovation in its nation, and each is a site where at least two of the models have been implemented. Informed by STS insights about the limits of standardizing, packaging, or universalizing social practices, the study asks what is at stake when social welfare is recast in terms of innovation policy and best practice transfer. The proposal uses qualitative STS research methods and focuses on the biotechnology and IT sectors for empirical analysis.

Intellectual Merit

Building particularly on Jasanoff and Kim’s notion of “sociotechnical imaginaries,” this study seeks to theorize the “practice turn” in innovation by connecting the increasing dominance of “innovation” in public policy discourses with underlying actor imaginations. We illuminate the tacit assumptions, implementation experiences, institutional transformations, and broader social impacts of “best practices transfer” efforts. In particular, we ask: 1) How did each best practice model get stabilized enough to constitute an imaginary capable of global travel and uptake in the first place? 2) How have policymakers construed these models, and what assumptions about the models do they make? 3) How are the models being locally implemented, and how are histories of regional and national development, institutions, and communities reflected, or erased, in their implementation? 4) How have the models evolved over time and how has their performance been assessed? 5) How does the circulation of these models feed back into the redefinition of each model? 6) What policy lessons does the circulation of the model hold?

Our study goes beyond previous work in STS and innovation policy in five ways: 1) It applies sociotechnical imaginaries specifically to innovation and thus breaks new theoretical ground between these domains. 2) It examines imaginaries at a scale below the nation state by targeting cities and their surrounding regions. 3) The comparative research design explores how imaginaries of innovation attain, and retain, global validity and travel “as if” they are standardized practices, while becoming re-embedded in local discourses and practices. 4) The proposal lays the foundation for an innovation theory that accounts for the “practice turn” and “best practice transfer” as a de-facto modus operandi of policy actors. This builds upon, but goes beyond, dominant analytic frameworks of pipelines and systems of innovation. 5) We pay specific attention to the implications for democratic values such as equality, participation, and access to the fruits of innovation, extending prior STS efforts on “responsible innovation” and “anticipatory governance.”

Broader Impacts

Our ambition to understand the “practice turn” and “best practice transfer” will have a direct impact on policy-practitioners (e.g., government officials, institutional managers, consultants), who increasingly turn to plugin-type policy solutions but lack the analytic tools to theorize, evaluate, and orchestrate these attempts. We will explicate the assumptions and implications of using best practice transfer to promote social welfare and seek avenues to “re-democratize” technocratic approaches to innovation policy. We will sustain close interaction with the practitioners we interview, and aim to amplify a critical public discourse on how the social welfare functions of the state are being redefined and redirected through innovation policy. Through a transnational network of researchers, we hope to extend our reach to additional regions, thus generalizing our research beyond the four selected sites and three models. The project will provide education and training at the nexus of STS and innovation policy analysis.
Download the full text of the proposal here (pdf).