At the end of the summer I attended a one week NOVA PhD course ‘Innovation systems in the Bioeconomy’, hosted by the Forest Bioeconomy, Business and Sustainability (FBBS) group at the University of Helsinki, Finland. This five-day course aimed to provide a systematic overview of innovation, innovation systems, and their role in industrial transformation towards a forest-based bioeconomy. Below are some extracts from an essay I prepared for the course, where I reflected on its content and delved deeper into the politics of innovations discussion.
Hetemäki & co claim that in order to achieve a more momentous transition towards a bio-based economy, the European forest-based sector would have to undergo a process of ‘creative destruction’ . This process can be understood as an ‘industrial mutation’, where economic activities or sectors eventually decline and vanish, while at the same time new technologies, products and business models emerge. The main reasons behind this continuous evolutionary process is maintaining the market economy , or in this case, for achieving a bio-based economy. Such processes have been well documented in European and US industries from different sectors, where companies had to continuously adapt,
innovate and reinvent themselves. Yet ‘traditional’ forest based industries, characterized as mature, resistant to change, and lacking innovation, have often found themselves taken aback by structural changes that eventually led to their decline. A series of such structural changes currently affecting European forest products markets are caused by e.g., digital media replacing graphics papers, policies focused on climate change and renewable energy, or by investments in R&D aimed at the renewal of the forest-based industries towards the bioeconomy .
It was from this perspective that the discussions in the NOVA course started. The discussions set out from the premise that a transition to a more sustainable bio-based economy is necessary and inevitable. Yet how the forest sector navigates through this transition will have major implications for many of its traditional industries. Thus, whereas some segments of forest industries in Europe are in decline (e.g., graphics papers) or stagnate (packaging papers, sawnwood), other segments are on the rise (e.g., biochemical or engineered wood products). Potentials for new production concepts and business models are emerging, such as lignocellulosic biorefineries, bio-product mills or prefabricated wood elements.
However, in order to adapt to such structural changes, forest companies would have to embrace innovation and foster an innovative culture. Additionally, as the forest sector is gradually diversifying its forest-based activities, traditional actor networks are changing, and new actors are entering into the forest-based sector (e.g., energy and chemical companies as well as private investor groups) thus fundamentally reshaping traditional business structures.
The pervasiveness of politics
Coming from an environmental policy background, the discussions around innovations from organizational, business and marketing perspectives were particularly interesting for me. They also raised a lot of questions around the very nature of the bioeconomy concept, as well as to the ‘politics of innovation systems’.
Regarding the nature of the bioeconomy concept, most policy incentives present bioeconomy as an uncontested evolutionary process that serves to maintain the vitality of capitalism, or of a ‘sustainable’ market economy. Quite often questions revolve around ‘ how can companies make bioeconomy happen?’ rather than first dealing with more fundamental questions of ‘what is bioeconomy ?’ and ‘who is really benefiting from this?‘. More critical voices in research have taken a rather Marxist theoretical approach to bioeconomy by describing it as mainly a political project, not simply or primarily as a techno-scientific or economic one. In this view, this project may bring about a particular set of political–institutional agendas or can risk being hijacked by groups seeking to legitimize their own agendas. Thus concepts such as ‘bioeconomy’, ‘innovation’ or even ‘sustainable’ may be used as discursive vehicles to serve own interests.
This perspective encourages us to look beyond firms focusing on market entry, and generating knowledge, but rather investigating the political agency of different actors and their activities of coalition building, lobbying, or creating narratives etc. It is no secret that the pervasiveness of politics can influence different functions in an innovation system such as ‘market formation’ and ‘legitimation’. Thus, it is perhaps worthwhile going beyond our fixation with innovation, and ‘newness’, and try to better understand what are the underlying reasons behind the innovation mantra. Who knows, in some cases it may not always be the case that new inventions or products are need, but rather systems rethinking, or simply doing things differently, more efficiently and sustainable.
Overall, this course provided an interesting platform for discussing different frameworks and concepts for studying innovations under the bioeconomy. The text above is just one of many perspectives on innovations in the bioeconomy. Fellow course participants have also taken a shot at interpreting innovation from the perspective of their own research fields and schools of thought. I warmly recommend these essays for a great overview of different approaches to innovation in the forest bioeconomy.