Invention As A Hub

In a linear model of innovation, innovation is imagined to proceed through an orderly sequence of steps, from pure scientific research, to applied science, formulation as a technology, then developing and scaling up distribution of that technology as a product. One alternative model might be that of a “techno-social hub”. In a techno-social hub model, science, applied science, capital provision, product development and the exchange of products and services in the market are connected to each other through a media of technology and social processes. This can be represented graphically as a techno-social hub node connected by a single edge to nodes representing research, applied research, and so on. These nodes are similar but not identical to the stages in the linear model of innovation.

The techno-social model is an improvement on the linear model, as it distinguishes different factors in innovation without unrealistically segregating those factors. It represents that once a technological or process innovation is made, influence doesn’t flow in a straight line, but feeds back to different parts of society via the artifact or social change. For example, the development and use of the Newcomen steam engine in factories in 18th century Britain opened up the possibility of applied research and prototypes of steam trains by the early 19th and the capital provision required to build railway networks. The steam engine also spurred pure research in thermodynamics and was an influence on the psychological theories of Freud.

Operationally this model recognises the importance of institutions and organisations that support each aspect of innovation, such as universities for basic research and markets for exchange and use. By emphasizing the links between different stages it might direct policy makers and people in the field to the importance of good communications amongst organisations, via physical co-location, libraries, journal publication, less formal collaboration over the Internet, and so on. It recognises that, in William Gibson’s phrase, “the street finds its own use for things”, and that research and capital should be able to dynamically react to new uses of a technology.

A disadvantage of the model may be underemphasizing the links between closely related areas, such as basic and applied research. By placing technology at the centre of the model, it tends to technological determinism. The social aspect of the techno-social may also be too broad a category to effectively operationalise for setting innovation policy. Overall, however, the techno-social hub model avoids the constraints of the linear model at the cost of being slightly harder to say, and draw.

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