In the Knowledge and Ignorance Economies, the Innovation Broker Plays a Critical Role / Le courtier de l’innovation joue un rôle primordial dans les économies axées sur les connaissances et l’ignorance

Joanne Gaudet

In this second post on ignorance mobilization, Joanne Gaudet (PhD Candidate, Sociology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Ottawa and author of explores the concept of innovation brokers and how it relates to the dynamics of knowledge and ignorance mobilization. Ignorance isn’t a bad thing. Joanne tells us that ignorance is an economic driver in the knowledge and the ignorance economies.

Dans cette deuxième contribution sur la mobilisation de l’ignorance, Joanne Gaudet (candidate au doctorat en sociologie, Département de sociologie et d’anthropologie, Université d’Ottawa et auteure au explore le concept du courtier de l’innovation en lien avec les dynamiques de la mobilisation de la connaissance et de l’ignorance. Joanne nous invite à explorer l’ignorance comme moteur économique dans les économies axées sur les connaissances et l’ignorance.

Joanne Gaudet in Provence

Joanne Gaudet in Provence

This is the second of two invited posts on ignorance mobilization. In the first post, I presented ignorance mobilization and how it is complementary to knowledge mobilization.When we think of research impact in a knowledge mobilization framework, new knowledge or new technologies and applications are the first to come to mind. Thinking outside the box however, could new ignorance (i.e., new knowledge gaps understood as what we know we do not know) count as research impact? The Council of Canadian Academies certainly seems to think so. They recently added such an indicator in their expert panel document “Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment: The Expert Panel on Science Performance and Research Funding”. They proposed that “expert opinion on knowledge gaps” (i.e., new ignorance) (2012:41) could be a socio-economic indicator of potential research impact. In the context of science and technology and potential future knowledge and applications, expert opinion on new ignorance could definitely be highly valuable.

In science, it is in the experimental approach that knowledge and ignorance are produced and co-produced with stakeholders (i.e., government, civil society). Experiments can lead to new knowledge, but also to the production of valuable new ignorance (including knowledge gaps). In science therefore, there is not only a knowledge economy, but also an ignorance economy where what you know that you do not know can also be extremely valuable. The concept of experiment can also go beyond the laboratory and apply in the real world.

The discussion now ties into the concept of ‘innovation broker’ used by Laurens Klerkx and Peter Gildemacher, instead of knowledge broker. To understand the role of innovation brokers in a more holistic innovation framework, I explore how at its core, and in contrast to the term knowledge broker, innovation broker allows for the critical role of ignorance. This includes how innovation brokers identify, structure, and evaluate problems in a ‘real-world experiment’ approach (outside a laboratory).

First, I look at roles. The authors propose that a central role for the innovation broker is to analyze context and articulate demand. A critical component is the assessment of problems and opportunities. What is a problem? In this context, a problem can be understood a limit or a threshold of knowledge (ignorance) for which we want to generate knowledge (i.e., a solution). To help solve a problem, innovation brokers are therefore identifying, producing, co-producing and evaluating a problem with stakeholders. As indicated in the first blog, Robert Root-Bernstein argued that this step in innovation is one of the most critical. Why? Because asking the wrong questions after having poorly identified, (co)produced and evaluated a problem not only does not lead to solutions, it also diverts precious energy and resources. A quote from Einstein highlights the value of ignorance production: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution”. The robust processes Klerkx and Gildemacher propose, such as – the innovation brokering functions’ generic steps, proper shaping of institutional conditions, and setting methods and indicators – are critical to co-producing and mobilizing ignorance in an effort to lead to solutions.

The real-world experiment approach innovation brokers put into action tends to follow a scientific method with stages of observation (analyze context), hypothesis formulation (identify and structure the problem), and experiment (executing set methods with clear indicators). The approach therefore prepares innovation brokers to expect surprising outcomes (where surprise potentially leads to the (co)production of new ignorance). Within well-defined parameters (not trial and error), innovation brokers can then mobilize new ignorance to learn.

Ignorance Mobilization logo

Ignorance Mobilization logo

Finally, an important component of the real-world experiment approach repeatedly promoted by the authors is to involve local actors and stakeholders. Ultimately, this ensures that (1) as many of the actors as possible are involved in co-generating and deploying the innovation strategies (i.e., co-producing and agreeing upon the ignorance to mobilize), and (2) all those involved are open to mobilizing new ignorance when facing surprising results in order to learn and change innovation direction, as needed. Just like a laboratory researcher will follow a promising lead, a researcher in the real world can also learn and adjust the course of innovation by mobilizing new ignorance.

In conclusion, is innovation broker synonymous with knowledge broker? Because ‘innovation broker’ acknowledges the interplay between ignorance mobilization and knowledge mobilization, I contend that it is not a mere synonym. Is it the right term? Perhaps not, but my proposed ‘epistemic broker’ term, although technically correct, is not as palatable… further discussion is welcome!

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