Accepted paper:

"A Solution Looking for a Problem?" Interrogating the Deficit Model of Innovation


Sebastian Pfotenhauer (Technical University of Munich)
Erik Aarden (University of Vienna)
Joakim Juhl (Harvard STS / Aalborg University)

Paper short abstract:

The call for innovation has become ubiquitous. As a result, policy-makers increasingly recast social problems as problems of (insufficient) innovation. Here, we interrogate and theorize this “deficit model of innovation” routinely used to generate diagnoses of defunct societies and institutions.

Paper long abstract:

Innovation has ceased to be a purely analytic category used in retrospect to explain technological change or economic growth. Instead, it has obtained a forward-looking, promissory, almost teleological quality. As a result, social problems are increasingly framed in terms of (insufficient) innovation, and policy-changes justified accordingly: The reason why societies face problems and countries are falling behind - so the logic goes - is BECAUSE of a lack of innovation. This deficit diagnosis is usually accompanied by secondary diagnoses of specific sites and processes where the right preconditions for innovation are lacking - a risk-averse public, lacking STEM education, or a small percentage of GDP invested in R&D. We argue that this deficit framing of innovation is neither accidental nor inconsequential. It renders innovation a policy desideratum and instrument in its own right, wielded proactively and in the name of a better future to reconfigure societies in broad strokes, while circumventing the need for profound engagement with complex underlying causes or local socio-political interests. We call this pattern whereby innovation is routinely mobilized to generate diagnoses of defunct societies and institutions, and propose healthier, more innovative ones, the "deficit model of innovation." We develop the 'deficit model' on three levels of analysis: the diagnosis of deficient societies, deficient institutions, deficient science. Drawing on STS work on the construction of deficits in the public understanding of science (PUS), we show how the notion of a deficit simultaneously legitimates expert rationality, limits potential solutions, and delegitimizes oppositional problem framings and critiques.

panel T071
Innovation: Discourses, politics, societies, and blind spots