Professor Fred Steward on innovation and the transition to a low-carbon society

In a new video, Fred Steward, Professor of Innovation and Sustainability at PSI, discusses the shift in the conception of innovation from individual products and processes to changing whole systems.


The past five years has seen the emergence of a new policy discourse in the UK and Europe on the transition to a low-carbon society / green economy. A striking feature is its recognition of the need for pervasive transformative change in systems of production and consumption in order to address the challenge of climate change - for example, in the UK Climate Change Act and the EU Roadmap for a competitive low-carbon economy. The designation of climate change as the ‘˜biggest market failure ever' (Stern Review, 2006) has led to a widespread view that such a transition is more likely to be led by purposive public action rather than to arise through emergent market processes.

Attention is focused on modes of ‘˜innovation' which promise to meet popular expectations of prosperity with far lower greenhouse-gas emissions. ‘˜Innovation policy' is therefore a crucial, if not very visible, domain with respect to the pursuit of solutions to mitigate dangerous climate change. The modern era of innovation policy dates from the 1990s (EU Innovation Green Paper). It bears the imprint of its narrower science-push ancestry mixed with a neoliberal ‘˜light touch' rejection of ‘˜picking winners'. Incumbent business support for ‘grand project’ solutions (for example, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage) seeks to accommodate this legacy through a science and technology-driven hegemonic narrative. This is increasingly challenged by an alternative, broad-based challenge-led innovation-policy discourse. This latter emphasises user-led, local practice-based solutions (eg, household energy efficiency, low-impact mobility systems).

The talk argues that this alternative will remain a subordinate one without a new multilevel governance coalition led by municipal actors with a counterhegemonic narrative which avoids narrow localism. It is suggested that the critique of ‘˜vulgar Keynesianism' may be better directed at the technology-driven rather than the challenge-led model.

Watch the video

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

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