In this first installment of our ‘Rethinking Research’ series, we speak with Dr. Nanditha Mathew, who leads our new research team entitled, ‘Conflicting and Complementary Policies for Development’. Head of Communications Howard Hudson put the questions to Nanditha in the context of our new foundational programme, Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development. The CI4SD programme, launched in July 2021, explores crossovers with other disciplines, while connecting with policymakers, citizens and academic communities. Through these partnerships, UNU-MERIT is building a new research agenda that is multidisciplinary, academically rigorous, policy and societally relevant — and that aims to make a decisive contribution to the 2030 agenda.
HH: How exactly will your team and project fit into our new foundational programme on ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’?
NM: Our project fits well the need to broaden purely technologically-driven approaches to the challenges of climate change and resilience, including organisational and social changes. That is why, in short, we submitted a ‘wild card’ application. The challenge that we identify is that in the context of such change, policies may often conflict with each other, so at times will need to be supported by complementary policies.
Developed countries are massively investing in green technologies to address climate change. To ensure returns on investment, they will likely need strong Intellectual Property Rights. But if these technologies are not widely diffused, the innovation loses the public good aspect – thus excluding many, particularly developing economies, from benefiting from the new technologies (which limits the effects of innovation on a global scale to mitigate climate change). So how can one address such conflicting, paradoxical policies?
In the same way, to address several challenges, we often need to apply multiple tools that are complementary to each other, in the sense that missing one lowers the effectiveness of the others. For example, sharing knowledge from the Global North to South is useless if the South is not able to absorb that knowledge. Similarly, giving firms R&D tax incentives is useless if there is no scientific personnel able to do the research.
There are many different ways to conceive of comprehensive innovation, including moving beyond classical technological ideas and at times beyond economics. If you ask me which Artificial Intelligence technologies are going to become general purpose technologies in the future, I might not be able to say as an economist – but maybe an engineer would know. So our plan is to spread the ‘net’ wide, move beyond classical and traditional ways of thinking, and take a more interdisciplinary approach. To break down silos, in other words.
The idea is to have a comprehensive view and application of innovation systems. Hence, a primary focus will be on development. After all, innovation is the key to growth and development of countries. Therefore, the concept of innovation should be enlarged outside just formal innovation or patenting, and also to sectors of the economy that are not just R&D intensive. By doing so, innovation will be relevant not just to the Global North, but expanding worldwide, including developing countries. We hope to do this within our project and so bring UNU-MERIT to the core of innovation and development debates.
There are different ways innovation can be viewed comprehensively. One way is to look not just at the positive effects of innovation, but also the negative side. Another way is to view innovation from its governance perspective. For example, how do institutions shape the diffusion of innovation? Even the targets to be achieved from innovation should be not just GDP or productivity growth, but broadly societal welfare, with a broad spectrum of targets — e.g. reduction in inequality, reducing greenhouse emissions, right to information, and data privacy.
HH: How much of a change does this represent from your previous activities?
NM: Our team gave ourselves a challenge: to identify scientific works that we would classify within the economics of innovation from an evolutionary perspective, but not within comprehensive innovation. In the process, we agreed not to aim for an exact or mathematical definition – because comprehensive innovation could mean a comprehensive way of viewing economics of innovation, from different perspectives. For instance, how the economics of innovation can intersect with other disciplines to provide evidence on the complex interactions between innovation, society, technology and the economy?
In this project, we are putting forward a broad research agenda and several different lines of work come within this project. An example of a research article is one where we use the biology concept of ‘nestnedness’ to build a natural ordering of firm activities, to holistically look at the simultaneous interaction between different firm activities (i.e. quantifying firm capabilities).
Another example is research into the complementarity of improved ‘grey’ infrastructure and demand for ‘green’ environmentally sustainable products and services. In other words, which complementary tools can augment the demand for green products, thereby increasing the contribution of green innovation to societal welfare?
To achieve these goals, we need more external collaboration, more cross-cutting internal links, and more interdisciplinary research. Clearly, we should build on what we have, to make the most of our comparative advantage, but the ultimate questions remains: how can we do so comprehensively?
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers