The Fourth Quadrant Research Project (4QRP)

What can Heterodox Economic Theory Contribute to Responsible Innovation?

Dr Stevienna de Saille
University of Sheffield


The neoclassical model of growth suggests that developed economies may have reached a state in which ever-increasing input achieves less and less growth, accelerating the demand for ‘disruptive’ technologies to stimulate GDP. Responsible (Research and) Innovation (RI) was originally conceived as a way of shaping innovation towards filling real social needs rather than merely generating profit (Owen, Macnaghten, & Stilgoe 2012), however, it has increasingly been used to strengthen the same growth paradigm it was meant to challenge.
Our thesis is that the promise of RI can only be fulfilled in an enabling economic framework which accepts planetary limitations. This requires critical examination of the political economy of innovation, which has largely been left out of discussion about RI. The Fourth Quadrant Research Project (4QRP) will bring together scholars from science and technology studies, politics and economics to explore the relationship between the political economy, innovation policy, and socially responsible technology. We will draw from Herman Daly’s (1991) work on Steady State Economics and a range of critical post-crisis economic literature arguing for various heterodox positions from a-growth to degrowth (such as Klitgaard & Krall 2012; Stiglitz et al. 2010; van den Bergh 2011), as well as from socio-historic work on science policy (McNie et al 2016; von Schomberg 2013) and the social shaping of technology (Oudshoorn & Pinch 2003). Together we will develop an edited book of real-world cases to examine what these insights, theories, models and measures might contribute to the discussion of RI, to question the present growth-driven paradigm, and theorise what kinds of innovation – defined as the circulation of all kinds of novelty, some of which may reduce market-based consumption – will be needed to continue social progress in economies which may no longer be capable of GDP growth.

The Research Idea

RI is often illustrated by a two-by-two matrix which contrasts responsibility with irresponsibility along one axis and innovation and stagnation on the other. However, the quadrant for ‘responsible stagnation’ within this model has so far gone largely unmentioned, let alone explored. We use this as a means to question and better understand the political economy of science, technology and innovation (STI).


RI refers to both the specific European Commission policy governing dispersal of research money under Horizon 2020, which is deeply rooted in the values and goals of the Lisbon Treaty, and its broader definition as a framework advocating greater citizen involvement in shaping innovation towards solving complex societal problems such as energy transition. The goal is to make market-based innovation more responsible to, and integrated within, society as a whole. However, since its introduction into research policy in the early years of this decade, the discussion about RI has become increasingly less challenging of dominant norms. Similarly, although ecological economics provides different models and measures beyond GDP, it lacks any theory of the politics of technology. The project introduces specific critiques of the underlying assumptions in current STI policies, most notably that increasing applied STI is necessary for our continued pursuit of GDP-growth and that standard theories of economic growth are consistent with expectations of responsible behaviour in emerging, high-tech, and ‘disruptive’ sectors. In response, we consider alternative measures of economic growth (such the world-bank’s HDI or other composite indices), and alternative theories of economic growth, such as the established but heterodox theories emanating from ecological economics.

The Focus

We begin with the premise that developed nations may have reached the economic ‘steady state’ predicted by John Stuart Mill, so that it now requires more and more resources to produce less and less growth. Mill’s prediction was that once a steady state was reached, we would need to work less to maintain relative prosperity and would instead reap leisure time as a reward. Obviously, this has not been the case. Innovation policy continues to focus on the unquestioned assumptions of neoclassical economics, namely that the market is the most efficient way of allocating the benefits of technological progress, and the only way to maintain that progress is through continued growth as measured by GDP. However, there is increasing agreement that consumption of natural resources cannot continue at present levels, let alone increase as substantially as would be necessary to maintain growth at 3% per annum. Rather than point innovation towards achieving growth, we seek to identify and develop theory from existing endeavors which aim to create new ways of maintaining prosperity while reducing input, rather than increasing output, and enquire how the focus on GDP impedes rather than aids precisely the kind of creativity Responsible Innovation is meant to enable.

Theoretical Novelty

Our network takes its name from the 2×2 matrix which contrasts irresponsible with responsible, and innovation with stagnation. Our research focuses on ‘responsible stagnation’ as an integral and almost wholly neglected aspect of the growing interdisciplinary field of responsible innovation. Beginning with a broader definition of innovation as the take-up and circulation of novelty, we ask not how to speed up the process of innovation to stimulate growth, but rather 1) how do we innovate responsibly in an economy that is likely to remain unable to grow, 2) what kinds of creative solutions to the pressures on natural resources do we enable when we cease to consider responsible innovation through its capacity to increase GDP, and 3) how do we responsibly de-grow unproductive, obsolete, overheated or otherwise problematic technologies or even whole sectors of the economy (for example fossil fuels), without destroying the overall welfare of our societies?
Ecological economists have asked similar questions but have largely not engaged with science and technology studies as a means of understanding the relationship between technology, social relations, and the political economy. Likewise, while STS has engaged with some theory from critical political economy, it has not engaged with heterodox economics to any meaningful extent. Herman Daly’s version of steady state economics, which considers this not as a disaster, but as a desirable state of equilibrium, provides the basis for connecting these two largely disparate fields, and gives us an established, although heterodox, economic theory upon which to build our critique.


Our nascent network includes researchers working with various aspects of responsible innovation both theoretical and applied (such as technology assessment, public participation, and creative stakeholder engagement), and have backgrounds in philosophy, science communication, economics, research policy, and science and technology studies more generally. We expect to expand the network over the course of this year, before the grant will begins. All papers written within the network would be collaborations between at least one scholar with a background in economics and one who is familiar with STS. The network is designed to facilitate collective knowledge-sharing, seeking to identify synergies across the different disciplines and between empirical and theoretical projects which can enrich our research, but also to serve as a means of connecting researchers with similar interests in order to create new collaborations. The purpose is to create a shared vision of RI informed by ecological economics.

Work Plan

As we include researchers from New Zealand, the UK, Belgium, and France we have so far only been able to meet virtually. I have now been approached by Routledge to lead an edited book on ‘Responsible Stagnation’ and am applying for funding to enable us to meet face to face in order to pursue this project. We intend to develop the book proposal and chapter outlines at a primary workshop to take place at the University of Sheffield early in 2017. A follow-up visit for the book editors will take place approximately 9 months later in order to finalise the chapters, for which funding from other sources will be sought. The meeting at Sheffield will be held under the auspices of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for Public Understanding of Politics. This will take the form of an invitation-only workshop for the 12 members of the 4QRG who will be contributing to the book.


We envision the grant as a way of establishing the network as a real and ongoing presence, rather than merely virtual. Our main focus will be producing an edited volume of work to establish our theoretical and empirical arguments, grow the network and encourage more collaborative work between STS and economics scholars. We also hope to introduce ecological economics into RI by presenting papers and organising panels/streams at relevant conferences.