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Innovation and policy

It seems unlikely that initiatives designed to reorganize innovation processes in order to construct a socially sustainable future will emerge from discourses or practices currently going on in either the economic or the political domain. Obviously, both must become engaged in the transformation process if such a re-organization is to be achieved, but we believe that the leadership in designing and initiating such a process will be provided instead by civil society.

As a European Union funded project on Innovation, Sustainability and ICT, INSITE aims to give better insights into these three grand themes to policy makers, while speaking at the same time to civil society and its organizations and seeking to create the conditions for policy and practice for sustainable innovation to take off.

These conditions include creating a network and a set of practices for Distributed Participatory Policy Organizations (DIPOs) and interpreting them in terms of a coherent theory, both to provide these organizations with new insights of their roles and to link participatory practices into a common, sustainable and systemic vision.

Distributed Participatory Policy Organizations (DIPOS)

What we call participatory policy goes in a different direction from the oft-heard calls for participatory democracy. Currently a lot of organizations, often exploiting possibilities offered by new ICT, engage directly in bottom-up social change, rather than entering public policy debates, participating in electoral politics, or seeking to induce action from legislators or government agencies. These organizations conceive, plan, implement and publicize small-scale social experiments intended to result in action, not just talk; and action that is not just one-off, like a big demonstration, but embedded in streams of interactions that result in changes in the way in which some aspects of society are organized, in accordance with social aims – like education, or services to socially marginalized groups or individuals, or extending access to (perhaps new forms of) cultural experience. Such organizations also provide interesting alternatives to some of the core features of innovation dependency, since they generally are moved by values different from economic growth, and they are often unwilling to leave it to the market to decide which innovations count as successes and which not.

A lot of different kinds of agents can be DIPOs – governmental agencies, firms and industry associations, civil society organizations: in INSITE, we focus our attention on civil society DIPOs that aim to facilitate processes of social innovation, that is, innovation directed towards socially valuable transformations. DIPOs are mesolevel organizations that enact policies at the microlevel; by promoting the proliferation of social innovation DIPOs, civil society seems to be enacting a distributed macrolevel policy to organize innovation processes that are guided by social values. INSITE envisions its role as a contribution to this policy.

Nurturing generative potential

A distributed, rather than a top-down, approach to innovation policy would promote innovation by enhancing the generative potential of relationships among participants in innovation processes. Thus policy can aim to create conditions to establish and nurture relationships with high generative potential to transform particular zones of agent-artifact space. This approach is based on the idea that it may be possible to identify relationships that are likely to produce innovations, even though ontological uncertainty precludes foreseeing what those innovations are likely to be exactly, never mind whatever cascading effects they may have. From this point of view, policy is concerned with who interacts with whom, about what, rather than targeting specific, well-defined outcomes as policy goals.