Dr Rasmus Lema joined UNU-MERIT as an Associate Professor in January 2022. Rasmus’ broad research interests cover structural change and development, new and emerging technologies, and global value chains and innovation systems. He currently investigates economic development opportunities and constraints arising from the green transformation in emerging economies and sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, Rasmus is co-editor in chief of the Journal Innovation and Development and vice-chairman of the Globelics Scientific Board. He talks with Head of Communications Diego Salama about his research agenda and his vision for his tenure in our institute.
What lines of research will you pursue at UNU-MERIT?
The core of my research agenda focuses on industrial development in and around the green economy in the Global South. In recent years, I have explored how the green transformation may open windows of opportunity for economic development through the emergence of new types of economic activities and new avenues for technological and organisational learning. I believe there is plenty of traction to continue within his research field and deepen it. But I will also want to stretch it in new directions and explore new aspects. For example, a priority will be to examine the role of new and emerging technologies in the green economy. More broadly, I intend to link this research on the green transformation to broader debates about ‘transformative innovation’ and societal change.
What is your academic background, and how is it reflected in your research?
I have a DPhil from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, but I have worked in a business and economics department for the past ten years. I have an interdisciplinary background across the social sciences, but the centre of gravity is economics, specifically evolutionary and political economics. I tend to say that my research field is ‘innovation and development’, and I have worked on various themes over the years, such as the firm-level acquisition of technological capability, international technology transfer and collaboration, global value chains and innovation systems. My interdisciplinary background means that I have adopted a problem-driven approach to design research initiatives. Letting ‘problems’ determine theory and methods rather than the other way around also means I have often worked in collaborative projects with partners with specific methodological skills or theoretical domain expertise. I am mainly trained in qualitative methods, but I have worked more and more with econometricians in recent years.
What are you most looking forward to as you start your tenure at UNU-MERIT?
Being part of UNU-MERIT and collaborating with new colleagues! Several things make UNU-MERIT an attractive workplace for me. UNU-MERIT is the only institution worldwide with a core focus that brings together technological change and innovation with global economic development. This is exactly what I do. The institute is in a phase of change, and I look forward to helping shape its future profile. Also, the position of UNU-MERIT in global and European policy arenas was another big draw for me. I look forward to working closely with policymakers and practitioners in my research. Most importantly, I look forward to joining a strong and international group of researchers and working collectively on developing new projects.
How does your research agenda connect with UNU-MERIT’s strategic plan?
At the general level, the connections span the overall goal of leveraging innovation for addressing major societal challenges in achieving the SDGs, especially those related to climate action, clean energy and industrial development. More specifically, I hope to contribute to the innovation for sustainable development agenda by developing my research on the green economy as a case. What I mean is that the green transformation comes with important opportunities for wider and significant sustainable development gains in both low and middle-income countries. But a comprehensive innovation approach may be required to turn these opportunities into reality. Numerous examples show that green development attempts succeed better when designed and co-developed with stakeholders and consider the social and capability-focused dimensions. They fail when they are too narrowly focused, for example, on the ‘hardware’ dimension of green technological innovation, without paying due attention to the social and economic aspects of the systemic nature of innovation and diffusion.
How will you work with policymakers?
I think the research agenda mentioned above can provide an important anchor point for collaboration and capacity-building initiatives with a clearly defined set of stakeholders across various types of organisations, such as relevant government organisations, NGOs and businesses. An increasing group of stakeholders is concerned with achieving important ‘co-benefits’ of the green transformation, particularly industrialisation gains and social inclusion. Over the coming years, there will be a lot of attention on these issues in the design of missions and sustainability experiments for societal transformation. I hope that engagements around these themes can strengthen UNU-MERIT’s role as a knowledge partner that responds to key policy needs, not least in the UN system and its organisations, such as UNEP, UNIDO and UNCTAD. I hope to work with policymakers to co-create research across the entire research lifecycle instead of just the usual kick-meeting with stakeholders and a policy brief at the end.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
H. Pijpers/ UNU-MERIT