Innovation is about the struggle between stability and change

By Per-Anders Langendahl, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics; Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Sustainable Development

There is a growing demand for innovations that can contribute to more sustainable food production and consumption. EIP-Agri, the EU’s Green Deal, the Farm to Fork strategy, and the Swedish Food Strategy are examples of initiatives aimed at promoting innovation that can lead to more economically, socially, and ecologically sustainable food production.

However, promoting innovation is not only about developing new solutions. It also involves breaking up established relationships between people and existing technology in places (e.g., agriculture) where new solutions are considered necessary. In this blog post, I therefore want to highlight how the study of stability can help to understand innovation and change. The concept of stability is used here as a free translation of the English term ‘obduracy,’ which can also be translated to resilience or resistance. The reason I devote a few lines to stability in contrast to innovation is that efforts to promote innovation should also acknowledge the forces that resist change.

In this context, stability does not mean the same thing as innovation barriers. In the study of innovation, barriers are often seen as factors that hinder the implementation of new solutions. Common innovation barriers include, for example, the high cost for the intended user to purchase and implement new solutions, existing laws and regulations that stand in the way, or the lack of knowledge and ability among intended users to apply new solutions in their operations. Measures to overcome innovation barriers therefore often focus on economic incentives (e.g., conversion grants), information campaigns, and education, etc., to create a relationship between new solutions and their potential users. Unlike innovation barriers, stability (eng. obduracy) is about recognizing the strength of the relationship between actors, existing technology, and its practical application.

In agriculture, food factories, or stores, actors use different tools (or technologies) in their operations to produce and deliver food to consumers. In these places within food production, stable relationships have developed between existing technology and its users. The strength of the relationship between actors and the application of existing technology makes it difficult to implement new solutions (new tools and technologies). Anique Hommel has compiled a framework that helps to understand and explain different types of stability that resist innovation; these are:

  •  Frames, meaning that professional actors who develop and apply technology also develop a ‘know-how’ that limits the development of new solutions based on new technology.
  • Embeddedness, meaning that technologies (e.g., tractors) used in operations (e.g., agriculture) are simultaneously intertwined in a network of elements such as infrastructures, operational routines, and laws and regulations. New solutions are limited by the strength of the network of which existing technology is a part.
  • Persistent traditions, referring to cultural values that have developed over time and are shared by many people. Traditions create enduring ways of conducting certain types of operations, making these difficult to change.

Thus, innovation is not just about developing new solutions. It is also about a struggle between stability and change that takes place in the locations where new solutions are deemed necessary.