Knowledge-transfer, technology development and innovation are central pieces for the bioeconomy transition. However, rapidly growing industries powered by advanced technologies are developing very fast, outpacing the regulatory frameworks governments have in place today. The fast evolving knowledge-based economy brings both challenges and new opportunities, but how can our governments keep up with it without hampering development ?

The importance of digitization, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have been gaining increasing attention recently as they are considered key innovation issues for the bioeconomy. For example this years’ Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin will feature a series of keynote speakers from innovation hubs such as Space Time Ventures that are expected to talk more about the most recent efforts in advancing the so called ‘4th Industrial Revolution‘.

But what does this actually mean in practice for the different economic and industrial sectors? Take for example the forestry sector, where the IoT and blockchain technology could already dramatically change forestry in the coming years. Recently, a lot of highly sophisticated and affordable technologies have become available for forest managers. Things like  drone technology or high-tech harvesting machines capable of uploading detailed digital forest plans are already in use today. According to experts, the IoT  ‘(…) is the network of physical devices, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity which enable these objects to collect and exchange data‘. With other words, the IoT could connect these different pieces of data and enable managers to optimize the entire forest industry value chain, thus potentially  enhancing operational efficiency and the overall sustainability of forest management operations.

Another example of a disruptive technology that could dramatically affect the forest sector is blockchain technology. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen aim to create a new means of tracking timber by developing a tamper proof digital system based on blockchain technology. The system will be combined with new digital protocols for physical verification and authentication. The researchers expect a series of benefits that this technology will bring, such as certification schemes and governments gaining increased legitimacy and compliance with international timber trade requirements; companies gaining from efficient traceability; whereas, consumers would benefit
from increased tax revenues, anti-corruption, and higher environmental standards. A company in Russia has already implemented the technology, and the topic seems to be gaining attention among international forest certification organizations. [Note: If you want to learn more about this topic join our Linkedin group].

However, whereas companies are routinely rolling out new products and services, governments are struggling to keep pace with these new technologies. At the same time, as trust in government is going down around the World, citizens increasingly expect companies to take on increased responsibility for governing these rapidly developing advanced technologies. The concept of ‘Agile Governance‘ has recently (re)entered the international debate,  promoted by The World Economic Forum (WEF), who launched a global initiative on Agile Governance dedicated to ‘ reimagining policy making for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  The WEF defines Agile Governance asadaptive, human-centred, inclusive and sustainable policymaking, which acknowledges that policy development is no longer limited to governments but rather is an increasingly multi-stakeholder effort.’

According to the WEF, governments are more willing to accept sharing the burden of governing emerging technologies with private sector actors and civil society representatives through different policymaking platforms such as regulatory sandboxes. Besides its literal meaning of a small box filled with sand where children play and experiment in a controlled environment, the concept of sandbox became a metaphor in the digital economy arena that refers to ‘(…) testing grounds for new business models that are not protected by current regulation, or supervised by regulatory institutions’. According to BBVA, the purpose of the sandbox is to adapt compliance with financial regulations to the growth and fast pace of innovative companies, in a way that doesn’t burden the companies with rules, but also doesn’t diminish consumer protection.

SanboxText
The Bioeconomy Sandbox and the (de)regulation dilemma

The sandbox and agile governance approaches seem like pretty neat ideas to apply to the knowledge-based bioeconomy, a development that is expected to thrive on innovation and disruptive technologies. HOWEVER, and I can’t stress this enough, I do fear that  this neoliberal approach to governance can easily get out of hand. It’s easy to imagine a world hijacked by big corporations, that bend rules, rights and regulations in the name of ‘innovation’ and ‘technology development’. If innovation in the bioeconomy arena is indeed going to happen in a ‘free, sandbox-like environment’ then it ought to include all concerned stakeholders, starting from the private sector, to civil society, down to your average consumers. Innovation is unstoppable but it concerns us all.

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