1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · News

Innovation: Lost or found in translation



Personal reflections by Professor Steve Hughes, Co-director of Egenis.


I tend to argue that we exist in a changing world characterised by the inexorable or inevitable changes imposed by climate, population growth, demographic shift and resource depletion; the institutional changes wrought by global and local politics; and technical change powered by the expansion of our scientific knowledge. These three contrasting sets of influences stand in a dynamic interrelationship which frames the process of innovation with regard to the interplay of its responsive and opportunistic strands. This picture served as a backdrop to an open forum on the translation of knowledge to social benefit held earlier this year.

The initial rationale for the forum was to construct an opportunity for those concerned with innovation and flexible, adaptable business models to engage first hand with narratives from some notable entrepreneurs who had either founded or transformed businesses grounded in the cutting edge of the life sciences. From biologically sophisticated systems for wound treatment to novel vaccines against TB and 'flu, from bespoke genotyping networks for plant breeding to open access biological science publishing, we were able to interrogate some of the general and specific risks, solutions and barriers to the delivery of public goods and how different fields of knowledge featured in them.

On the day the particular sample of entrepreneurs and participants was representative mostly of start-up companies, so it is perhaps not surprising that they tended initially to structure their narratives and questions around a shared conventional linear model of innovation. What I interpret as the standard linear model of innovation is that which recognises and structures the translational sequence of the innovation process so that it goes as follows; invention, prototype evaluation, scale up to process or manufacture, regulatory and safety assessment and compliance, and thereafter adoption by markets and consumers. It represents a sequential set of actors who respect one another’s domains of professional expertise and each play their own part in easing the innovation process towards its realisation of an innovation embedded in society. A strong feature of the standard model is the centralisation of the knowledge which provides the big idea or the inventive step which drives and enables us to innovate and underpins delivery public goods. It also respects the importance of intellectual property rights (IPR) to harnessing the big idea and creates an environment in which exclusivity and monopoly seen a key to attracting investment. “A strong patent position is absolutely essential” was one assertion we heard early in the discussion.However, the actual narratives as they developed started to provide evidence that translation of the core idea is dependent upon many strands of knowledge from diverse domains even though the status normally accorded that sort of knowledge in the calculus of innovation is formally diminished relative to knowledge which can be annexed in patents. Nevertheless as the narratives were progressively elaborated the significance of informal knowledge to navigating the innovation process became more pronounced. Extending from the fine tuning of prototypes, to evaluation procedures for efficacy and utility, to regulatory compliance to the interpretation of user response, knowledge was drawn in whether from the published literature or from the tacit know how of practical experience. The list of correspondents grew and grew. Furthermore this burgeoning participation was characterised by the involvement of champions and informants un-thought of until the moment they turned up.Flexible open partnerships appeared as a characteristic of the adaptive business models which emerged and these featured arrangements for knowledge sharing less dependent upon the formalities of contract and service/reward agreements and territories than might be predicted of the linear innovation model. The emergent scenarios seemed much more permeable, openly networked and nuanced in negotiating the shifting sands of institutional and inevitable global change.

This perception has caused me to reflect on a fairly mature but still respected and much cited piece of social theory known as 'The strength of weak ties', first elaborated by Mark Granovetter in 1982.1 It makes the case, counterintuitive for some, that in practice groups linked by weak ties, even lacking shared language and basic mutual understandings, can organise better to achieve a goal than can groups which are tightly bound and structured by the precedents of strong ties. This reinforced my conviction that sociologists are ripe for inclusion not just as commentators but as participants in the innovation process, perhaps as moderators of the requisite weakness of ties but certainly as interpreters and informants regarding institutional change and the social elements of inevitable global change. In fact one observer in the forum spontaneously expressed the view that institutional change of the regulatory persuasion, in the instance of climate change and low carbon imperatives, is clearly driving invention and technical change. This emphasised for me the importance of monitoring and interpreting the institutional and social dimensions of change in relation to the opportunist and responsive strands of innovation. I am further persuaded by the tone of the forum that entrepreneurs are enabled by their ability to marshal knowledge and enthusiasm from diverse sources into a working network rather than to engage with it in the linear demarcated sequence prescribed in the standard innovation model and its presumed dependence on IPR. It was particularly notable that one of the entrepreneurs we learned from had moved so far in the direction of networked co-innovation as to be able to relinquish his IP position altogether. Of course the latter may represent a rather particular business model. Perhaps though it can lend something to my final assertion, which is that what we may be losing in translation is the centring of our concepts of the knowledge of enablement on intellectual property and what we may be finding is the value of inclusion and recognition of a broader concept of what constitutes that knowledge.

1 Granovetter, M. (1983). 'The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited', Sociological Theory 1: 201–233. Reprinted in Marsden, Peter V.; Lin, Nan, eds (1982). Social Structure and Network Analysis. Sage.