The Power to Prosper or Peril — Innovation and the Game of Politics
Why Today's Political Opportunism Will Make Us Pay Tomorrow
When Brazilians are going to the polls again on 28 Oct to elect their new president, they are not only deciding on the fate of Latin America’s largest economy, but also on the future of the global battle to counter climate change. Jair Bolsonaro, front-runner and likely the country’s next leader, is convinced that the policies of his predecessors are to blame for Brazil’s current state of economic, political, and social affairs. Among others, he is in favour of leveraging Brazil’s fossil fuel wealth to cheaply foster economic growth at the cost of renewable energy innovation, as well as ramping up deforestation in the Amazon — the Earth’s largest tropical forest, wildlife reservoir, and ‘green lung’. Bolsonaro’s election, hence, would impact the entire globe.
Political opportunism of this sort not only gets politicians elected, it also has an impact on how innovation trajectories and technologies develop in a country — and beyond. We have experienced times where such opportunism by politicians has helped us to get a man on the moon, causing spillover effects that we still benefit from today — socially, economically, and technologically (e.g. many of the technologies used in smart phones today). Today more often than not short-sighted political opportunism no longer pushes but instead threatens and stifles innovation — a development particularly dangerous in today’s world of highly interconnected and complex problems, such as climate change. The cost we will therefore have to pay later on.
Brazil is not the only place where this happens. We have observed political opportunism thwarting innovation efforts, or at least trajectories that promised such, across the world in multiple different shapes in recent years. It is today certainly more striking in magnitude and long-term impact, however.
Donald Trump has been very active in this respect, thinking about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the heavy investments in oil pipelines, or the focus on coal as energy source in the US, not even speaking about the fracking endeavours in the country. Of course these decisions may stimulate innovation in those sectors, fracking for instance, but the investment, research, testing, and generally, development of alternative energy technologies are suffering.
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has been riding a similar wave, albeit in a different way, when her government in 2011 decided to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants, phasing-out nuclear energy. Just two years before, her coalition government had emphasised the crucial role of this (clean) energy technology. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the high flight of Germany’s Green Party threatening her party (and beating it!) in various state elections, she turned 180° around. The consequence — and one the Greens certainly did not have in mind — is the increase of coal fired power plants to cover for the electricity gap, culminating in the stand-off between energy giant RWE and environmentalists last month at Hambach forest.
Yet, precisely today a political push towards missions that tackle some of our greatest challenges would be necessary, instead of politicians rising the ranks at the cost of innovation and future (sustainable) technologies. The increased complexity of ‘wicked problems’ that carry with them not only technological, but also social and economic dimensions and are rooted deeply within our societies, would benefit from political leaders taking centre stage to push solutions rather than to stifle them for their own benefit.
In fact, not at last the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer argues that we will not be able to tackle such ‘grand challenges’ without governments at centre stage. Many other (political) economists ask for the state to play a key role not just in drafting missions leading to solution, but also participating actively through investments and risk-taking.
The role of policy and therefore politicians is also key to another dimension of the wicked problems of today: The sheer multitude of actors in a highly interlinked network that define both the problem and the solution space, require a coordinator. Governance arrangements can provide a sort of coordination through which different corners of the innovations network, public and private actors, research, investment, and technology experts, consumers, and more, can align themselves onto trajectories that deliver improvements to challenges rather than intensifying them — technologically, socially, and economically. This only works if politicians push technologies.
Of course, we need to consider that the other side of the same coin might be far from problem free. “We vastly underestimate our ability to productively shape the scientific enterprise” argues David Guston, and continues to make a case against the predominant type of innovation policy — “an oxymoron” — in general. After all, predicting how a particular technology will impact society in general and a specific problem in particular remains difficult, if not impossible.
However, precisely because this is so challenging, our best bet is to have a stakeholder involved who is not only able and willing to take a risk in this process, but also has the power to guide the diffusion and implementation of socio-technical change across society: the state. The representatives of the state are politicians, and if they turn against innovation and return to technologies of the past, then we do not stand a chance. The clock is ticking, as the IPCC climate report has emphasised this month. Politicians need to come on board and use their leverage to turn the tide rather than intensifying it — even if that means to miss out on (some) political opportunities.
Especially, because there are success stories that should motivate even the most opportunistic of political campaigners: Although Merkel's swirl in 2011 has ended the Green Party’s winning strait temporarily, they are now on their way back onto the political olymp, winning two key state elections and close to becoming Germany’s second biggest party overtaking the century old social democrats in latest federal polls. Their agenda has been clear and Germans have understood from across the political spectrum that the way we ran our economies no longer serves the purpose — motivated by a future that is less daunting than it promises to be today.
For Brazil this option is coming too late, for now. Bolsonaro’s opponent in the final face-off is Fernando Haddad of the long-ruling worker’s party (PT). Although he is keen to protect the Amazon, his relationship to the environment is far from ‘green’. It remains to be seen how much damage either of the two will do to a country that has a history of ‘green consciousness’ and who’s fate determines more than its own relationship with mother earth.
Andreas is a PhD candidate at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy at University College London (UCL). His research is on innovation policy and the coordinating role of government regarding emerging technologies, among others in Brazil. He has conducted research in Brazil for a project at the University of Oxford and regularly tweets about his work - follow him @AndyPKopp. This post is part of a project on 'Responsible Science and Innovation' at UCL.