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Critiquing the Direction for Innovation – The role of justice and exnovation

Critiquing the Direction for Innovation

The role of justice and exnovation

Call for Paper – Special Issue Journal of Responsible Innovation

Guest editors: Lukas Fuchs and Rafael Ziegler.

Innovation scholars increasingly argue that innovation is not a blind process that should be accelerated in the name of progress but is instead an outcome of networks, policies and ways of thinking yielding a directionality. For example, technological revolutions bring economic opportunities that require societal direction to materialize (Perez 2016), such as demand-side policies (Edler & Boon 2018). Qualifiers such as social, sustainable or responsible innovation indicate a need to define this direction in relation to evaluative and normative concepts and values (Ziegler 2020). Thus, the concept of “directionality of innovation” highlights that society can shape innovation, that diffusing innovation requires direction, and that the choice of direction is a deeply normative one. If unsustainable and unjust tendencies are to change direction in our “innovation societies”, a holistic understanding of innovation for societal transformation is called for.

“Direction” and “directionality” were introduced by innovation scholars to highlight that prevailing conceptions of technological innovation and progress have a “crucial but neglected normative property” (Stirling 2008). “Directionality” was introduced as a call for more academic and policy attention to “alternative possible orientations for progress” (Stirling 2009). While talk of “progress” may have become less frequent and “natural”, the need to critically discuss and change the direction of innovation remains highly pertinent in the light of current, structural unsustainability (Brondizio et al. 2019), with innovation scholars even calling for a need to understand “deep transitions” or connected, sustained transformations of a wide range of socio-technical systems in a related direction (Schot & Kanger 2018). However, even with deep transitions a worry remains that a focus on socio-technical issues prevails to the detriment of enabling socio-economic developments and normative ideals (Kemp et al. 2022).

Despite the evident need to change directionality, and in spite of an omnipresent discourse of innovation across all spheres of society, a critical discussion of directionality of innovation at the intersection of philosophy and innovation studies remains very marginal. Accordingly, this call is an invitation to philosophers as well as social scientists working on innovation to critically examine the directionality of innovation. We invite normative, epistemological and ontological contributions on the directionality of innovation.

In the wake of Rawls’s (1999) seminal contribution, political philosophers have advanced a range of theories of justice and sustainability, as well as the currency to evaluate outcomes and processes, drawing on capabilitarian, egalitarian, libertarian, republican and further ideas. Yet the implications of these theories for thinking about innovation, innovation policies and directionality have been largely neglected. How can normative political theory inform our perspectives on directionality and innovation in reation to (in)-justice and (un)sustainability?

Turning to epistemology and ontology, it is noteworthy that “directionality” was introduced in a context of pro-innovation policies (Stirling 2009). A persistent pro-innovation bias calls for a discussion of directionality focused on innovation and exnovation, i.e. the deliberate termination of existing (infra)structures, technologies, products and practices (Heyen et al. 2017), as mechanisms for direction setting. Innovation and exnovation are not just about introducing (and removing) combinations in the market but may also transform other economic distribution mechanisms (Beumer et al. 2022) and non-economic aspects of public life, such as public service provision and social practices. What is the role of exnovation complementing innovation in the critique of directionality?

These questions are beginning to be explored in relation to a wide range of societal actors. The recent identification of the state as a key entrepreneur and potential driver of mission-oriented innovation (Mazzucato 2018) raises the question on which grounds and within which limits such ambitious policy may be pursued (Papaioannou 2020). To which extent can such a political approach include exnovation if justice, sustainability or post-growth ideals are to be pursued? Beyond the state, a variety of actors from business, civil society as well as hybrid actors develop products and services, propose practices (and exit from practices) that scholars study as sustainable, grassroots or democratic innovation (Seyfang & Smith 2007, Smith 2009). These bottom-up perspectives add to the discussion of directionality by linking values and principles to organizations, networks and communities. For example, sortition has been studied as a mechanism to advance democratic ideals of the cooperative movement (Pek 2021). What is the contribution of such scholarship to the critical discussion of directionality?

We call for contributions on this theme for a workshop hosted at the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRE) in Montreal, Canada, and a subsequent special issue in the Journal of Responsible Innovation. Please submit abstracts (300 words) directly to the guest editors (L.fuchs@tue.nl and Rafael.ziegler@hec.ca) by 31st December 2022. Those accepted will be invited to present at the workshop, which will take place in spring 2023.

Beyond contributions from philosophy, we welcome a wide range of scholarly approaches, including theoretical and empirical work from STS, sustainability and innovation studies.

Contributions may, for instance, address one of the following questions:

  • What are the implications of normative theories of justice for thinking about the directionality of innovation?
  • What is the relation between innovation and exnovation for changing societal directions?
  • Is the direction of innovation an appropriate subject for discussions of justice and political philosophy?
  • Does directionality sufficiently challenge mainstream innovation discourse?
  • How can research on social, responsible and grassroots innovation help us rethink directionality?
  • On which grounds and within which limits can societal actors contribute to the directionality for innovation?
  • Is the concept of direction of innovation applicable to forms of innovation beyond market-exchange?
  • What are effective mechanisms for changing directionality, and how do approaches such as exnovation or demand-side policies compare with each other?
  • How can ideas about the just distribution of burdens and obligations to act in the face of climate change inform directionality (Caney 2018)?


  • Beumer, , Maat, H., & Glover, D. (2022). It’s not the market, stupid: On the importance of non-market economies in sustainability transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 42, 429-441.
  • Brondizio, E. S., Settele, J., Díaz, S., & Ngo, H. T. (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES Report.
  • Caney, (2018). Climate Change. In: Olsaretti, S. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of distributive justice. Oxford University Press.
  • Edler, , & Boon, W. P. (2018). ‘The next generation of innovation policy: Directionality and the role of demand-oriented instruments’—Introduction to the special section. Science and Public Policy, 45(4), 433-434
  • Heyen, A., Hermwille, L., & Wehnert, T. (2017). Out of the comfort zone! Governing the exnovation of unsustainable technologies and practices. GAIA-Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 26(4), 326-331.
  • Kemp, R. Pel, B., Scholl, C. & Boons, F. (2022). Diversifying deep transitions: Accounting for socio-economic directionality, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 44 : 110-124, DOI:1016/j.eist.2022.06.002
  • Mazzucato,     (2018).     Mission-oriented     innovation     policies:    challenges    and opportunities. Industrial and Corporate Change, 27(5), 803-815.
  • Papaioannou, (2020). Reflections on the entrepreneurial state, innovation and social justice. Review of Evolutionary Political Economy, 1(2), 199-220.
  • Pek, S. (2021). Drawing out democracy: The role of sortition in preventing and overcoming organizational degeneration in worker-owned Journal of Management Inquiry, 30(2), 193-206.
  • Perez, C. (2016). ‘Capitalism, technology and a green global golden age: the role of history in helping to shape the future’. In: Jacobs, M. & Mazzucato, M. (eds). Rethinking capitalism: economics and policy for sustainable and inclusive growth, 191-217. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rawls, (1999). A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Schot, , & Kanger, L. (2018). Deep transitions: Emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality. Research Policy, 47(6), 1045-1059.
  • Seyfang, , & Smith, A. (2007). Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environmental politics, 16(4), 584-603.
  • Smith, (2009). Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stirling, , 2008. Opening up and closing down power, participation, and pluralism in the social appraisal technology. Sci. Technol. Hum. Values 33 (2), 262–294.
  • Stirling, A., 2009. Direction, Distribution, Diversity! Pluralising Progress in Innovation, Sustainability and SPEPS Working Paper 32, STEPS Centre. University of Sussex.
  • Ziegler, (2020). Innovation, ethics and our common futures: A collaborative philosophy. Edward Elgar Publishing.