Science Policy Research Unit
University of Sussex
This paper draws heavily upon analyses and conclusions developed in a programme of work spanning several years1, much of the support for which has come from the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust. A set of studies carried out for the Long Term Perspectives Subcommittee of the Information Technology EDC of Britain\u2019s National Economic Development Office2, and for the FAST and IRIS programmes of the European Community3 have also been important. The Ideas expressed here are the product of many peoples\u2019 joint work, although the present author takes responsibility for how they are here shaped and articulated.
There are many conflicting definitions of the terms invention and innovation. Although it is not always easy stick to a hard and fast distinction, this paper will attempt to follow the most common usage. This reserves the term \u2018invention\u2019 to describe a new idea or object (or sometimes the process whereby it is developed), and \u2018innovation\u2019 to cover the adoption, diffusion and use of such an idea or object4. The terms are evidently framed in terms of the study of technological change. When turning attention to social change, it makes more sense to think of the terms as referring not only to \u2018ideas or objects\u2019, but also as bearing on institutions, organisational structures and procedures, roles, and social practices. Innovation should be considered as a process, although there is not always sufficient evidence on
2 Bessant et al 1985, Miles et al 1985, Miles et al 1986
3 Thomas and Miles 1985, Miles and Thomas 1985
4 Rogers and Shoemaker 1971
The process of technological innovation has been studied in great detail, which is more than can be said for innovation which involves organisational forms. Successful technological innovation, naturally has important social dimensions \u2013 invention itself is a social process (some authors draw attention to the \u2018politics of curiosity\u20195), and the diffusion of new technologies has traditionally been studied in terms of the microeconomic and social-psychological characteristics of adopters and non-adopters. New information technology (IT) which is central to the present paper, has also been studied in such terms6. But there are broader relationships between technological and social innovation.
What is the rationale for putting the issues of social innovation and IT together? There are several overlapping reasons. IT is a revolutionary technology which is liable to be associates with significant changes in many areas of social life. The application of IT (not IT itself) will demand reactive changes in behaviour, as will be discussed below. IT offers the potential for reorganisation of many established practices in a proactive way, too \u2013 other technological inventions have been the catalyst to social innovation, and this is already apparent around IT. This paper will suggest that without appropriate strategies for social innovation which take account of these proactive possibilities, new technologies will be posing serious questions for social justice and economic progress \u2013 that we are liable to face aggravated problems of unemployment, inequality, social dualism and economic stagnation.
If IT does constitute a new technological revolution, then seeing the accompanying social innovations merely in terms of diffusion is seriously limited. For social inventions and social innovations may often be facilitated by, or dependent, upon new technologies. The super- and hyper-markets, for example, are social inventions that would not have emerged without new forms of motor transport. More broadly, the \u2018auto-industrial age\u2019 was associated with new patterns of urban development and
housing, and new ways of life as people structures their use of time (engaging, then, in innovations in their individual lives) to accommodate to and/or take advantage of these development. The new forms of motor transport could not have been successful without investment in new road systems, etc \u2013 and their popularity is likely to have been enhanced by the availability of attractive new living patterns around them. (As well as by deterioration in some previous arrangements related to the impact of motor car use \u2013 eg the decline of public transport, the despoilation of some urban environments.)
As the example suggests, there is a complex interdependence between social and technological innovation; each may depend upon the other. A first hypothesis might be that the more wide-reaching a technological innovation is, the more dependent it will be on appropriate social innovation for its successful adoption. This will be all the more true for technological revolutions.
What is a \u2018technological revolution\u2019? such revolutions may be characterised by the application of new heartland technologies that dramatically change the relative cost and factor structure of production, giving rise to new products, processes, and inter- industry linkages, across a very wide range of economic sectors6a. IT is widely identified as the heartland technology of a technological revolution whose opening stages we are currently witnessing. Many forecasters adopt a \u2018long wave\u2019 approach \u2013 successive periods of economic growth and stagnation are related to processes of new product development and rationalisation of production of established products around technological systems. (The distinction between product and process innovations is of some importance to the concerns of this paper.) Historical analogy can be used to cast light on our present predicament, by seeking parallels with earlier technological revolutions.
This approach has considerable attraction. However, some of those implicitly or explicitly using historical analogy fail to recognise the specificity of IT, effectively eliding important differences between successive core technologies. In particular,
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