This is one of the burning questions I’ve had ever since the beginning of this project: to figure out who are the main stakeholders driving the bioeconomy development in Germany and beyond. I’m not talking about individuals, but about organizations, institutional players who have the capacity and power to shape the trajectory of the bioeconomy transition in their own interests. In our latest paper, we’ve taken a closer look at actor networks involved in the wood-based bioeconomy innovation system in Germany. Here’s what we found:
First off, we interpreted ‘the bioeconomy’ as an innovation system in itself, where myriad institutions, actors and their various networks come together and form a so called ‘innovation system’. There’s a lot of literature out there about how these innovation systems develop, some studies focusing on specific technologies (e.g., bio-refinery innovation systems) or on broader systems that encompass multiple actors, different technologies and pathways. However, there is rather little empirical scholarship on the role of agency and social capital behind these innovation systems. Our main aim was to understand the role of these so called ‘forerunner’ actor networks in the formation of the wood-based bioeconomy innovation system.
Why the wood-based bioeconomy specifically? Well, firstly Germany has a rich and diverse forest-based sector with established and well known bio-economic activities. Secondly, the forest sector builds on a wide resource base and promises production pathways that can solve the old ‘food vs fuel’ dilemma. Other forest-rich European countries such as Finland and Sweden already have advanced forest-bioeconomies. It was thus worthwhile investigating if a forest bioeconomy would be possible in Germany as well.
We went one step further and reasoned that it’s not enough to provide a descriptive analysis of the actors involved , but it would be interesting to find out what policy beliefs they share. We thought that if we could identify some sort of common ‘core’ beliefs, it would lead us on to unveiling potential interest groups that may shape the political trajectory of the bioeconomy innovation system in Germany.
But who’s opinion counts? This was indeed the main challenge of this study: to draw the borders of our sample and find out how the identified organisations are connected to each other in terms of beliefs. We proceeded with making lists of organisations who publicly and unambiguously declare themselves to be involved in the bioeconomy development. Luckily we came across many government-supported bioeconomy clusters, that publicly list their members on their homepages. Where members were not publicly listed, we simply contacted the cluster administrators and asked how many members were part of their network. We ended up with a list of six bioeconomy-clusters with some 200 member organisations from across the country.
We then proceeded with sending out an online-survey to our contacts list. The survey allowed participants to identify contacts from raster lists, i.e.,’please select your main contacts from the list below’ , followed by a series of name generator questions, i.e, ‘please name as many contacts as possible from your network’. Respondents were further asked about the nature of their contact, e.g., if they mainly traded materials, products or were mainly exchanging ideas/strategic planning. The survey ended with a series of open questions asking about their views and beliefs regarding policy changes needed to enable the bioeconomy. We ended up with a 35% response rate, which is pretty decent for this kind studies.
So how does the network look like? Well, as one might expect, this forerunner network is mainly dominated by research, industry and policy actors. The top central organisations in the network (those who were in contact with most of the network) were a federal ministry and different research organisations focusing either on chemical and/or biotechnological processes. These were also the main brokers, bringing together different segments of the network. However, representatives from the ‘classical’ forest-based industry were either absent or at the periphery of the network. Contrary to the forest sector’s self-image that ‘we are the bioeconomy‘, our network showed that these players were rather absent from the innovation network.
What about the policy beliefs? It turned out that this is mainly a research & development and strategic network where actors mainly exchange information and knowledge. Most of the central organisations and their closest contacts, ranked climate change and economic aspects as highly relevant for the bioeconomy. Some areas of common interest could be summarized in a series of policy beliefs such as: the need for creating a bio-based market supported by a series of taxations for fossil-based products coupled with incentives for bio-based products and technologies. Some respondents also called for reducing the energetic-use of wood and, by following a cascade-use principle, increase the life span and added-value of wood-based products. Lastly, most actors called for more cooperation (within and between the different sectors) and outreach to the general public.
However, it is worthwhile noting that sampling qualitatively complex issues such as beliefs through online surveys turned out to be quite difficult. In hindsight, we could’ve perhaps asked different questions, and rather than expecting respondents to come up with their own policy suggestions, we could’ve provided them with a series of predefined one-sides statements. This would have allowed respondents to agree or disagree with our statements. But hey… we’re still learning so we promise to do it better next time 😉
So why is this important? If anything, this explorative study gave us some interesting insights into the development of the wood-based bioeconomy in Germany. Although it was beyond our scope to provide policy or network management recommendations, our results could be used in future attempts to diversify, broaden and even strengthen certain areas of the bioeconomy network. Here are some take home messages :
- The bioeconomy innovation system is quite complex which makes it quite difficult to draw its borders. It encompasses both existing technologies and emerging ones, all competing for the same resource base. Likewise, actors from different sectors that from ‘classical’ and ‘new’ bioeconomy concepts interact and compete.
- Some actors, i.e. the forest-based sector have been part of the ‘classical’ bioeconomy for a long time now, however newer bioeconomy innovation networks do not always involve these traditional players.
- At the time, the wood-based bioeconomy network in Germany is mainly composed of research, industry and policy actors.
- The participating organisations are only weakly connected, i.e. they are in contact with each other only a few times per year and mainly exchange knowledge and information, or strategic planning. Very few organisations actually exchange materials or products.
- It proved difficult to identify clear policy beliefs or even the formation of certain interest groups. It seems that the diffuse and complex nature of the bioeconomy concept, as well as the different sectoral interests make it difficult for actors to set clear or joint priorities.
- However, opening the network for other actors and stakeholders groups (e.g., citizens, forest industry, NGOs etc.) could help strengthen the network’s expertise and encourage innovation.
What’s next? We now plan to follow up on these results and use the information we gained about central actors and brokers to conduct more in-depth interviews. Hopefully we will find out more about the motivations and policy beliefs of these actors.
In the meantime, here’s a link to the full scientific article . I’d be happy to receive your questions and feedback! 👍