“Technical innovation is not programmed according to short-term and profitable ends”

“Innovation will solve all our problems. This messianic refrain sung at every crisis, according to which technical innovation and innovative entrepreneurs will save us from catastrophe, does not stand up to the analysis of innovation processes by management sciences and by history, which, more than the concept of innovation itself, question that of “rupture”. Even if it displeases industrialists or politicians, history does in fact make intelligible the choices and actions of the actors over a more or less long time. However, faced with ecological threats, inducing risks for democracies, we must admit that what happens to us also results from the way in which we innovate and how we consider innovation.

Since Fernand Braudel and his work Material civilization, economy and capitalism, reissued in 2022 by Armand Colin, we know that mastering means of transport and energy has always been the sine qua non of flows and exchanges. They are the ones who have structured the successive globalisations, economic growth is based on these physical flows. As companies assume the functions of design, production and distribution, innovation does indeed play a major role in these processes.

Take the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was developed in twelve months, which is indeed unprecedented. According to certain analyses, it would be a “break”, because, until then, the development of a vaccine took about ten years. But this is a short-sighted analysis of the year 2020 alone, relayed by North American panegyrics for the purpose of taking control of the drug market. Because, yes, health is a market.

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However, these analyzes only too rarely mention the cumulative aspect of the research carried out over five decades, in particular the role of the Institut Pasteur, in Paris, at the origin of messenger RNA thanks to the work of François Jacob, d ‘André Lwoff and Jacques Monod, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1965. Pfizer benefited (without paying any royalties) from the initial effort of fundamental public research. Beneath the surface of the innovative exploit, the analysis of the innovation makes it possible to uncover deeper layers, over longer periods of time.

The importance of the unknown

The break implies a “before” and an “after”, an innovation that would make a clean sweep of the past. However, the analysis of this notion shows that it is rather a question of putting it into words to qualify or justify, depending on who uses the concept, the introduction of new objects, services, technologies, but also structures, methods and organizations, while others remain in use. Not only are ruptures rare, but they do not eradicate all old innovations. They can perpetuate them and cause them to evolve. This approach by uses therefore makes it possible to analyze resistance, persistence, reception and dissemination of innovations in societies. Today, the importance given to repair, maintenance, recycling, circularity and frugality gives full place to the analysis and history of incremental innovations.

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