Inclusive innovation and diversity transition

Some musings from a Timeout Dialogue with RDI* stakeholders in sustainable energy, Vaasa/Finland

One of the main methods used in the AGDA project is Timeout Dialogue. After a pilot dialogue in Tampere, at the Geography Days event, our second meeting took place in Vaasa, where we gathered together a group of 21 persons, including participants from the University and its societal stakeholders, as well as from companies and development agencies, each working with sustainable energy and green transition issues. In this blog we summarise some of the discussed points, many of which may also be of relevance to other regions across Norden and internationally. 

Potential for innovation is everywhere!

But it cannot be achieved with the same methods, perspectives and people  

In her keynote address, information technology and satellite positioning expert and digital economy research platform director, Professor Heidi Kuusniemi, from the University of Vaasa, highlighted the importance of geographic information technology in the green transition. While the possibilities are almost limitless, practice and imagination define the current limits. 

The lack of experts also hinders attainment of the overall potential in respect of the geospatial sector. In this regard this sector also exemplifies the challenges related to green transition more generally: areas exist where significant potential for innovation has already been identified, but we currently lack the expertise to see clearly all the practical applications and additionally, in some cases, a broader  perception of what kinds of skills will be required to bridge the gap from theoretical science to practical application as this relates to green transition. 

In the comments section, the nature of the transition was challenged. In his comments, Tauno Kekäle from Merinova challenged us to think about the green transition as a mental change – a change in the way we think – rather than a physical one. The same tools and the same people (that solved the old problems) do not always produce new results. We were thus challenged to be brave and go further in the AGDA project, cautioning that “the same old tools and the same old people do not produce new results”.

Build for success! 

Lesson 1: values, diversity and psychological safety at the heart of innovation

Tim Wallin from Gambit Ltd began his comments by reminding the audience of the fact that, according to current research, homogeneous teams can, at best, only achieve mediocre results. Wallin elegantly summed up the recipe for success in three main factors: values ​​and acting according to them, diversity and psychological safety. The factors that generate success in R&D activities also show that there is a demand for deeper and wider participation and diversity. A necessary (green, or also digital) transition can thus act as a great opportunity for that.

Lesson 2: Ensure smooth day-to-day life 

In the Timeout dialogue section, diversity was discussed from the perspective of everyday life, the green transition and the regional perspective of Vaasa. In the context of the discussion, many concrete and very practical ways to combine family and work were highlighted. If the daycare centres are open from 8 am to 4 pm, then work is also done during that period. Clearly then real solutions could and should be crafted to help combine family and work. Among other things, genuinely part-time employment should be available, not unmotivating and unfair employment options where low salaries combined with, essentially, full-time work are offered.

Lesson 3: Strive for diversity 

The issue of workplace psychological safety sparked discussion from two different perspectives. First, in order for diversity to be realised, each individual needs to feel safe in the community. Secondly, new ideas and bold openings will not be realised if the everyday challenges and worries of work take away all of our energy. Moreover, when it comes to diversity, we should expand our thinking not only on the issues we identify with, but also try to listen to all kinds of different voices on a whole range of issues. Mediocre quota solutions do not satisfy anyone.

Conclusion: how to fulfill the promise of green transition? 

  1. Funding for diversity and ideation

Firstly, the current innovation field does not yet sufficiently recognise the importance of social innovation. In addition, our discussion took the position that while the younger generation is already working actively to promote the green transition, ambitious projects are still being shelved at the funding decision stage. R&D policy should have more courage to finance speculative processes, not only guaranteed end results. The relatively low importance of processes here is further indicated by the fact that reporting in respect of in-project learning is all too often consigned to the status of an afterthought while finalised contributions generally focus on reporting on results while ensuring that all funding is used. In addition, in the ideation phase of the programme, attention should be paid to whose voice actually gets heard.

  1. New ways of engagement and participation needed

In the discussion, many elements of the Vaasa energy cluster’s success story were crystallised, but also the narrative was challenged. The strength of the small town, the “happiest town in the world”, is the possibility of inclusion: when there is someone in each family making a technological transition, each family has the opportunity to experience the change process as their own. In the Vaasa energy cluster or in its immediate vicinity, a somewhat common identity is recognised in relation to the green transition of energy production. But does the identity narrative here encompass all of the people of Vaasa? Or would it be possible to make it even more inclusive? Direct democracy and participatory budgeting are amongst the tools already available to better involve citizens. 

  1. Diversity requires thought leadership, toleration of discomfort, living with uncertainty

Locally positive, albeit tentative, signs were identified of the “fuzzy front end” of innovation garnering greater attention, thus also contributing to local innovation ecosystems. These local processes can be supported by tools such as participatory budgeting, open innovation platforms, and various fast experimentation and innovation processes and streams.  The voice of the diverse citizens, users of innovations and customers still needs to be heard more strongly in the processes of a mission-oriented innovation policy. Building bridges and facilitating various forms of meetings, co-creation and dialogue between experts and residents can contribute to the discovery of new perspectives. This could also help to fulfill the promise of a sustainable transition. 

Sailing the seas of innovation requires a new seachart 

The renewed sea chart of green transition has emerged as a potential metaphor in the AGDA project, as a means of visualising the transition of inclusive innovation and a more diversity-aware and mission-driven route to bringing together gender, innovation and diversity, the three cornerstones of the AGDA project.

What is the sea chart depicting? It is a reflection of our gender-blind and diversity-deaf innovation policy which has yet to fully grasp the potentials of inclusive innovation. A more inclusive policy design would require one to envisage new routes to interesting destinations, including both old and new ports. Our innovation policy has not yet identified all of these possibilities and potentials: we tend to follow the easiest route to the same familiar port, with big machinery and perhaps also an unnecessarily heavy carbon footprint. The discussion about the cultural transition in ‘the sea’ of ​​RDI activity, has already started. The “Timeout dialogue” in Vaasa was marked by signs of cautious optimism. This is an observation we also wish to pursue in the coming AGDA dialogues, the next of which will be in Sogndal, Norway. 

*Research, Development and Innovation

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