A new innovation politics for global pathways to sustainability?

Published on 27 January 2023

The ability of innovation – both technical and social – to stretch and redefine ‘limits to growth’ was recognised at Stockholm in 1972, and has been a key feature in debates through to Rio+20 in 2012. Compared with previous major moments of global reflection about human and planetary futures – Stockholm, Rio in 1992, Johannesburg in 2002 – we now have a better understanding of how innovation interacts with social, technological and ecological systems to contribute to transitions at multiple levels. What can this improved understanding offer in terms of governance approaches that might enhance the interaction between local initiatives and global sustainability objectives post-Rio+20?

The global political agenda over the last two decades has largely focussed on creating economic and regulatory incentives to drive more sustainable industrial development patterns within and between nation states – resulting most notably in the CBD and the UNFCCC. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Local Agenda 21’, launched at the first Rio summit, envisaged a community-led response to sustainable development challenges. Local initiatives often flourished and drew on people’s own, vibrant forms of knowledge, technology and experimentation, but for the most part they remained at the margins, focused on local sustainable development needs rather than articulating with bigger-picture global challenges. This paper discusses the successes and challenges of globally-linked local action through a number of illustrative examples, reflecting on how these have contributed to Rio 1992’s original objectives. In doing so, we will draw upon innovation studies and development studies to highlight three key issues for the new hybrid politics of innovation for sustainability that is required to link global and local. First, the direction in which innovation and development proceed. Second, the distribution of the costs, benefits and risks associated with such changes. Third, the diversity of approaches and forms of innovation that can contribute to global transitions to sustainability. Drawing on this analysis, we will also reflect on Rio+20, including the extent to which this new hybrid politics is already emerging, whether this was reflected in the formal Rio+20 outcomes, and what this suggests for the future of international sustainable development summits.

Cite this publication

Ely A, Smith A, Stirling A, Leach M, Scoones I, (2013) "Innovation politics post-Rio+20: hybrid pathways to sustainability?" Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy advance online publication, doi:10.1068/c12285j

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