Why should I buy a new phone? Notes on the governance of innovation

A review essay of “Governance of Socio-technical Systems: Explaining Change”, edited by Susana Borrás and Jakob Edler (Edward Elgar, 2014, 207 pages).

Phasing-out a useful and profitable technology

I own a Nokia 2330; it’s a small brick phone that fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. People have feelings about this: mostly, they marvel at my ability to survive without a smart-phone. Concerns go beyond my wellbeing; once a friend protested that I should be aware of the costs I impose onto my friends, for instance, by asking them for precise directions to their houses. Another suggested that I cease trying to be smarter than my phone. But my reason is simple: I don’t need a smart phone. Most of the time, I don’t even need a mobile phone. I can take and place calls from my home or my office. And who really needs a phone during their commute? Still, my device will meet an untimely end. My service provider has informed me via text message that it will phase out all 2G service and explicitly encouraged me to acquire a 3G or newer model. 

There is a correct if simplistic explanation for this announcement: my provider is not making enough money with my account and should I switch to a newer device, they will be able to sell me a data plan. The more accurate and more complex explanation is that my mobile device is part of a communications system that is integrated to other economic and social systems. As those other systems evolve, my device is becoming incompatible with them; my carrier has determined that I should be integrated.

The system integration is easy to understand from a business perspective. My carrier may very well be able to make a profit keeping my account as is, and the accounts of the legion of elderly and low-income customers who use similar devices, and still they may not find it advantageous in the long run to allow 2G devices in their network. To understand this business strategy, we need to go back no farther than the introduction of the iPhone, which in addition to being the most marketable mobile phone set a new standard platform for mobile devices. Its introduction accelerated a trend underway in the core business of carriers: the shift from voice communication to data streaming because smart phones can support layers of overlapping services that depend on fast and reliable data transfer. These services include sophisticated log capabilities, web search, geo-location, connectivity to other devices, and more recently added bio-monitoring. All those services are part of systems of their own, so it makes perfect business sense for carriers to seamlessly integrate mobile communications with all those other systems. Still, the economic rationale explains only a fraction of the systems integration underway.

The communication system of mobile telephony is also integrated with regulatory, social, and cultural systems. Consider the most mundane examples: It’s hard to imagine anyone who, having shifted from paper-and-pencil to an electronic agenda, decided to switch back afterwards. We are increasingly dependent of GPS services; while it may have once served tourists who did not wish to learn how to navigate a new city, it is now a necessity for many people who without it are lost in their home town. Not needing to remember phone numbers, the time of our next appointment, or how to go back to that restaurant we really liked, is a clear example of the integration of mobile devices into our value systems.

There are coordination efforts and mutual accommodation taking place: tech designers seek to adapt to changing values and we update our values to the new conveniences of slick gadgets. Government officials are engaged in the same mutual accommodation. They are asking how many phone booths must be left in public places, how to reach more people with public service announcements, and how to provide transit information in real-time when commuters need it. At the same time, tech designers are considering all existing regulations so their devices are compliant. Communication and regulatory systems are constantly being re-integrated.

The will behind systems integration

The integration of technical and social systems that results from innovation demands an enormous amount of planning, effort, and conflict resolution. The people involved in this process come from all quarters of the innovation ecology, including inventors, entrepreneurs, financiers, and government officials. Each of these agents may not be able to contemplate the totality of the system integration problem but they more or less understand how their respective system must evolve so as to be compatible with interrelated systems that are themselves evolving.  There is a visible willfulness in the integration task that scholars of innovation call the governance of socio-technical systems.

Introducing the term governance, I should emphasize that I do not mean merely the actions of governments or the actions of entrepreneurs. Rather, I mean the effort of all agents involved in the integration and re-integration of systems triggered by innovation; I mean all the coordination and mutual accommodation of agents from interrelated systems. And there is no single vehicle to transport all the relevant information for these agents. A classic representation of markets suggests that prices carry all the relevant information agents need to make optimal decisions. But it is impossible to project this model onto innovation because, as I suggested above, it does not adhere exclusively to economic logic; cultural and political values are also at stake. The governance task is therefore fragmented into pieces and assigned to each of the participants of the socio-technical systems involved, and they cannot resolve it as a profit-maximization problem. 

Instead, the participants must approach governance as a problem of design where the goal could be characterized as reflexive adaptation. By adaptation I mean seeking to achieve inter-system compatibility. By reflexive I mean that each actor must realize that their actions trigger adaption measures in other systems. Thus, they cannot passively adapt but rather they must anticipate the sequence of accommodations in the interaction with other agents. This is one of the most important aspects of the governance problem, because all too often neither technical nor economic criteria will suffice; quite regularly coordination must be negotiated, which is to say, innovation entails politics.

The idea of governance of socio-technical systems is daunting. How do we even begin to understand it? What kinds of modes of governance exist? What are the key dimensions to understand the integration of socio-technical systems? And perhaps more pressing, who prevails in disputes about coordination and accommodation? Fortunately, Susana Borrás, from the Copenhagen Business School, and Jakob Edler, from the University of Manchester, both distinguished professors of innovation, have collected a set of case studies that shed light on these problems in an edited volume entitled Governance of Socio-technical Change: Explaining Change. What is more, they offer a very useful conceptual framework of governance that is worth reviewing here. While this volume will be of great interest to scholars of innovation—and it is written in scholarly language—I think it has great value for policymakers, entrepreneurs, and all agents involved in a practical manner in the work of innovation.

Organizing our thinking on the governance of change

The first question that Borrás and Edler tackle is how to characterize the different modes of governance. They start out with a heuristic typology across the two central categories: what kinds of agents drive innovation and how the actions of these agents are coordinated. Agents can represent the state or civil society, and actions can be coordinated via dominant or non-dominant hierarchies.

Change led by state actors

Change led by societal actors

Coordination by dominant hierarchies

Traditional deference to technocratic competence: command and control.

Monopolistic or oligopolistic industrial organization.

Coordination by non-dominant hierarchies

State agents as primus inter pares.

More competitive industries with little government oversight.

Source: Adapted from Borrás and Adler (2015), Table 1.2, p. 13.

This typology is very useful to understand why different innovative industries have different dynamics; they are governed differently. For instance, we can readily understand why consumer software and pharmaceuticals are so at odds regarding patent law. The strict (and very necessary) regulation of drug production and commercialization coupled with the oligopolistic structure of that industry creates the need and opportunity to advocate for patent protection; which is equivalent to a government subsidy. In turn, the highly competitive environment of consumer software development and its low level of regulation foster an environment where patents hinder innovation. Government intervention is neither needed nor wanted; the industry wishes to regulate itself.

This typology is also useful to understand why open source applications have gained currency much faster in the consumer segment than the contractor segment of software producers. Examples of the latter is industry specific software (e.g. to operate machinery, the stock exchange, and ATMs) or software to support national security agencies. These contractors demand proprietary software and depend on the secrecy of the source code. The software industry is not monolithic, and while highly innovative in all its segments, the innovation taking place varies greatly by its mode of governance.

Furthermore, we can understand the inherent conflicts in the governance of science. In principle, scientists are led by curiosity and organize their work in a decentralized and organic fashion. In practice, most of science is driven by mission-oriented governmental agencies and is organized in a rigid hierarchical system. Consider the centrality of prestige in science and how it is awarded by peer-review; a system controlled by the top brass of each discipline. There is nearly an irreconcilable contrast between the self-image of science and its actual governance. Using the Borrás-Edler typology, we could say that scientists imagine themselves as citizens of the south-east quadrant while they really inhabit the north-west quadrant.

There are practical lessons from the application of this typology to current controversies. For instance, no policy instrument such as patents can have the same effect on all innovation sectors because the effect will depend on the mode of governance of the sector. This corollary may sound intuitive, yet it really is at variance with the current terms of the debate on patent protection, where assertions of its effect on innovation, in either direction, are rarely qualified.

The second question Borrás and Edler address is that of the key analytical dimensions to examine socio-technical change. To this end, they draw from an ample selection of social theories of change. First, economists and sociologists fruitfully debate the advantage of social inquiry focused on agency versus institutions. Here, the synthesis offered is reminiscent of Herbert Simon’s “bounded rationality”, where the focus turns to agent decisions constrained by institutions. Second, policy scholars as well as sociologists emphasize the engineering of change. Change can be accomplished with discreet instruments such as laws and regulations, or diffused instruments such as deliberation, political participation, and techniques of conflict resolution. Third, political scientists underscore the centrality of power in the adjudication of disputes produced by systems’ change and integration. Borrás and Edler have condensed these perspectives in an analytical framework that boils down to three clean questions: who drives change? (focus on agents bounded by institutions), how is change engineered? (focus on instrumentation), and why it is accepted by society? (focus on legitimacy). The case studies contained in this edited volume illustrate the deployment of this framework with empirical research.

Standards, sustainability, incremental innovation

Arthur Daemmrich (Chapter 3) tells the story of how the German chemical company BASF succeeded marketing the biodegradable polymer Ecoflex. It is worth noting the dependence of BASF on government funding to develop Ecoflex, and on the German Institute for Standardization (DIN), making a market by setting standards. With this technology, BASF capitalized on the growing demand in Germany for biodegradables, and with its intense cooperation with DIN helped establish a standard that differentiate Ecoflex from the competition. By focusing on the enterprise (the innovation agent) and its role in engineering the market for its product by setting standards that would favor them, this story reveals the process of legitimation of this new technology. In effect, the certification of DIN was accepted by agribusinesses that sought to utilize biodegradable products.

If BASF is an example of innovation by standards, Allison Loconto and Marc Barbier (Chapter 4) show the strategies of governing by standards. They take the case of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling alliance (ISEAL). ISEAL, an advocate of sustainability, positions itself as a coordinating broker among standard developing organizations by offering “credibility tools” such as codes of conduct, best practices, impact assessment methods, and assurance codes. The organization advocates what is known as the tripartite system regime (TSR) around standards. TSR is a system of checks and balances to increase the credibility of producers complying with standards. The TSR regime assigns standard-setting, certification, and accreditation of the certifiers, to separate and independent bodies. The case illustrates how producers, their associations, and broker organizations work to bestow upon standards their most valuable attribute: credibility. The authors are cautious not to conflate credibility with legitimacy, but there is no question that credibility is part of the process of legitimizing technical change. In constructing credibility, these authors focus on the third question of the framework –legitimizing innovation—and from that vantage point, they illuminate the role of actors and instruments that will guide innovations in sustainability markets.

While standards are instruments of non-dominant hierarchies, the classical instrument of dominant hierarchies is regulation. David Barberá-Tomás and Jordi Molas-Gallart tell the tragic consequences of an innovation in hip-replacement prosthesis that went terribly wrong. It is estimated that about 30 thousand replaced hips failed. The FDA, under the 1976 Medical Device Act, allows incremental improvements in medical devices to go into the market after only laboratory trials, assuming that any substantive innovations have already being tested in regular clinical trials. This policy was designed as an incentive for innovation, a relief from high regulatory costs. However, the authors argue, when products have been constantly improved for a number of years after an original release, any marginal improvement comes at a higher cost or higher risk—a point they refer to as the late stage of the product life-cycle. This has tilted the balance in favor of risky improvements, as illustrated by the hip prosthesis case. The story speaks to the integration of technical and cultural systems: the policy that encourages incremental innovation may alter the way medical device companies assess the relative risk of their innovations, precisely because they focus on incremental improvements over radical ones. Returning to the analytical framework, the vantage point of regulation—instrumentation—elucidates the particular complexities and biases in agents’ decisions.

Two additional case studies discuss the discontinuation of the incandescent light bulb (ILB) and the emergence of translational research, both in Western Europe. The first study, authored by Peter Stegmaier, Stefan Kuhlmann and Vincent R. Visser (Chapter 6), focuses on a relatively smooth transition. There was wide support for replacing ILBs that translated in political will and a market willing to purchase new energy efficient bulbs. In effect, the new technical system was relatively easy to re-integrate to a social system in change—public values had shifted in Europe to favor sustainable consumption—and the authors are thus able to emphasize how agents make sense of the transition. Socio-technical change does not have a unique meaning: for citizens it means living in congruence with their values; for policy makers it means accruing political capital; for entrepreneurs it means new business opportunities. The case by Etienne Vignola-Gagné, Peter Biegelbauer and Daniel Lehner (Chapter 7) offers a similar lesson about governance. My reading of their multi-site study of the implementation of translational research—a management movement that seeks to bridge laboratory and clinical work in medical research—reveals how the different agents involved make sense of this organizational innovation. Entrepreneurs see a new market niche, researchers strive for increasing the impact of their work, and public officials align their advocacy for translation with the now regular calls for rendering publicly funded research more productive. Both chapters illuminate a lesson that is as old as it is useful to remember: technological innovation is interpreted in as many ways as the number of agents that participate in it.

Innovation for whom?

The framework and illustrations of this book are useful for those of us interested in the governance of system integration. The typology of different modes of governance and the three vantage points from which empirical analysis can be deployed are very useful indeed. Further development of this framework should include the question of how political power is redistributed by effect of innovation and the system integration and re-integration that it triggers. The question is pressing because the outcomes of innovation vary as power structures are reinforced or debilitated by the emergence of new technologies—not to mention ongoing destabilizing forces such as social movements. Put another way, the framework should be expanded to explain in which circumstances innovation exacerbates inequality. The expanded framework should probe whether the mutual accommodation is asymmetric across socio-economic groups, which is the same as asking: are poor people asked to do more adapting to new technologies? These questions have great relevance in contemporary debates about economic and political inequality. 

I believe that Borrás and Edler and their colleagues have done us a great service organizing a broad but dispersed literature and offering an intuitive and comprehensive framework to study the governance of innovation. The conceptual and empirical parts of the book are instructive and I look forward to the papers that will follow testing this framework. We need to better understand the governance of socio-technical change and the dynamics of systems integration. Without a unified framework of comparison, the ongoing efforts in various disciplines will not amount to a greater understanding of the big picture. 

I also have a selfish reason to like this book: it helps me make sense of my carrier’s push for integrating my value system to their technical system. If I decide to adapt to a newer phone, I could readily do so because I have time and other resources. But that may not be the case for many customers of 2G devices who have neither the resources nor the inclination to learn to use more complex devices. For that reason alone, I’d argue that this sort of innovation-led systems integration could be done more democratically. Still, I could meet the decision of my carrier with indifference: when the service is disconnected, I could simply try to get by without the darn toy.

Note: Thanks to Joseph Schuman for an engaging discussion of this book with me.