What is an innovation system?

Development Policy24 Jun 2009Jim Woodhill

There is much discussion emerging here about what is meant by an ‘innovation system’. Is it a ‘real thing’ that is created to drive innovation? Or, is it more subtle – engaging in existing networks and systems and helping them be more innovative and learning orientated? Innovation systems or system innovation? This might seem like a lot of fuss over semantics and terminology yet underlying this are much more fundamental issues about how change happens.

The differences between technical and institutional innovation also seems important in this regard. Some see an innovation system and the attention for institutional issues as a way of getting technology into use. Others see that the whole point of thinking about innovation systems is to deal with institutional issues – land tenure; effectiveness of farmer organisations; taxation; trade subsidies; corruption – in their own right and not just as a barrier to adopting technology. Now, dealing with such issues is of course highly political – what does this mean for research methodology and the role of researchers in engaging in processes of change? These are challenging questions for COS-SIS and the PhD students.

In one of our discussions Wenny Ho from DGIS emphasised the idea that the process of the COS-SIS programme must engage different stakeholders in an ongoing process of learning to cope with the reality that it will be impossible to predict how things will work out. Practitioners and researchers often, perhaps simplistically and unfairly, give donors a hard time about their linear ‘log-frame’ driven approaches to change. The willingness of DGIS to fund COS-SIS and Wenny’s engagement here illustrates that, DGIS at least, is not as monolithic as sometimes assumed.

If you would like a set of links on innovation systems go to (a great social book marking site) and search for cdicinnovationsystems you will get about 16 links to key documents. Also hunt down the books ‘Farmer First Revisited’ and ‘Innovation Africa’.