The (grand)father of innovation studies – Jan Fagerberg

Written by: Nora Dokken Harboe and Johannes Sommerset Bjartnes

Professor Jan Fagerberg genuinely believes in people’s ability to invent new and better ways to do things. Teknovatøren met the newly retired professor in his new (and much smaller) office to discuss innovation, climate change and what the TIK-centre means to him.

You have a background from Political Science, History and Economics. How did your interest in innovation evolve?
Back in the days when you were studying, innovation studies was not yet an established field and in many ways you were one of the pioneers within the field. When I started studying, I had never heard of innovation and certainly not innovation studies. I was supposed to study journalism, but I had been advised not to, and rather take some courses at “Blindern”. Therefore, I started studying Political Science and History, and later Economics, the field in which I ended up doing my master’s degree. Economics was an odd field at the time. During my studies, some of my fellow students were inspired by Marxism and alternative ways of looking at economy and the society. I followed a course on Marxism and found it very interesting. I met a more dynamic perspective on economy. The Marxists looked at economic development in the long run; as well as the connection between economic and social development. In many ways this was the beginning of my interest in innovation and economic development in the long run.

Fagerberg leans back and reflects upon his early work life in The Ministry and Environment (To day the Ministry of Climate and Environment) and The Ministry of Finance. His initial plan was to work with long-term planning in the Ministry of Finance. After working in the ministries for a while Fagerberg applied for a research grant. He named the project “Competitiveness and Business Structure”.

When I look back at it, it was actually about innovation. The project was about how the state can, through influencing the business structure towards new activities that are more efficient, increase economic growth. Now innovation in many ways has become a “buzzword”. Yes, isn’t it horrible? What then is innovation today? In many ways it has become a “buzzword”; It is something positive that everyone wants to be a part of. Every time you are at an airport and look at the advertisements for the big consultancy firms, the firms identify themselves with innovation. But in some ways this can be positive.

«I genuinly believe in people´s ability to innovate, technically as well as socially»

In what ways?
Before, innovation was associated with something very special, something that just happened in very advanced firms and required a lot of resources. Now innovation is brought home: everyone can take part in it and gain advantage from it. But many people use the term innovation imprecisely -many prides themselves with the term in order to gain economic benefits.

One of the reasons why we wanted to interview you is that you have become Professor Emeritus.
(Laughs) Yes, it’s a big honour. Now you don’t have any leashes and can do as you like. Do you have any new research projects? I want to continue writing. I am interested in how innovation policy can help lead the society in a direction that is more sustainable and help us solve environmental problems.

Is there hope?
Yes, I think so! There is a lot that must be done, but it is possible. The issue seems overwhelming, but I think it’s important to divide the issue into smaller parts. Climate change is by far the biggest challenge, and if we don’t manage to do something about that, we will not be able to solve the other problems.

“Proficient student with interdiciplinary backgrounds will continue learning all their life”

Are you a technology optimist? Can technology solve the problem?
Technology in itself will not solve anything. We have to solve the problems through technology and through the way in which we are living our lives. I think new technology is important, but new technology doesn’t mean anything if we don’t manage to change the way we live. But I genuinely believe in people’s ability to innovate, technologically as well as socially.

Art by Petter Bakken @iamhoy

Do you have a climate and environmental engagement?
It is difficult not to have that. You have to be quite stupid if you don’t have it. If we don’t have an environmental engagement, we will get a society that is not good for living.

You have a long career here at the TIK-Centre. How has it been?
The TIK-centre is an important community within this field. The reason why I was engaged in starting The Centre was because I wanted to make sure that research and teaching on innovation had a home in the Norwegian university system. Let’s hope that The Centre will have a long life.

We are at different ends of the “TIK-stream”, we are fresh students, you are Professor Emeritus: If you were a student today, what would have been your focus?
It will be interesting and important to look at the connection between technology and sustainable development: everything from solar energy to car sharing in cities are interesting topics. Something very positive that we have experienced at the TIK-Centre is that there are students from different fields.

What are your thoughts on TIK ́s interdisciplinarity?
I think the interdisciplinarity is a great strength. Proficient students with interdisciplinary backgrounds will continue learning all their life.