Accepted paper:

A solution looking for a problem? Interrogating the 'innovation imperative' and the 'deficit model' of innovation


Sebastian Pfotenhauer (Technical University of Munich)
Erik Aarden (Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt)
Joakim Juhl (Harvard STS / Aalborg University)

Paper short abstract:

We analyze the proliferating "deficit model" of innovation, in which a lack of innovation is seen as hindering social progress. Using case studies from three countries and drawing parallels to PUS, we develop a framework for how innovation deficits operate and legitimize policy interventions.

Paper long abstract:

As innovation is becoming an imperative for policy-makers in Europe, there is a growing tendency to frame societal problems as problems of innovation. This logic suggests that we are unable to address Europe's grand challenges and ensure economic competitiveness because our societies, institutions, scientific activities or individual predispositions are not sufficiently geared towards innovation. In this paper, we analyze this "deficit model" of innovation, in which a lack of innovation is routinely invoked as the main obstacle to social progress to justify major political and institutional interventions. Drawing parallels to research on the deficit model of Public Understanding of Science (PUS), we develop a theoretical framework that captures the dynamics and normative implications of deficit construction. We apply this framework to three empirical case studies of recent innovation strategies in Luxembourg, Portugal, and Denmark. Attention to this deficit model is important, we argue, because it is an essential part of how innovation transforms societies in the 21st century: not only through new technological possibilities or economic growth, but also by shaping policy discourse, narrowing policy options, and legitimizing social interventions. The deficit model caters to a pro-innovation bias and tends to marginalize rationales, values, and social functions that do not explicitly support innovation. Moreover, it delegates decisions about sweeping social reconfigurations to innovation experts, which raises questions of accountability and democratic governance. Experiences from the history of PUS suggest that the present deficit logic and its technocratic overtones bear the risk of significant social and political conflict.

panel F11
Technopolitics of integration. Charting imaginaries of innovation in the European Union