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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

On the economics of techno-scientific promises

Pierre-Benoît Joly

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  • 1 The idea of the economics of techno-scientific promises (ETP) was first developed when we prepared (...)

1Contemporary societies are far more intensely future-oriented than those of the past (Giddens, 1998).1Climate change is a paramount example of close entanglement of the future in the present. It illustrates how representations of adverse irreversible futures shape current behaviours when we are collectively convinced that this is the only way to avoid the unacceptable. In this case, the future is so strong that it determines the present. As suggested by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, we then observe an inversion of the arrow of time (Dupuy, 2003).

2Yet there is nothing entirely new about future-orientation. To take only the case of France in the 20th century, there is a long tradition of construction of futures in political, social and economic action. From the early 20th century Réformateurs to the post-WWII Plan and then to the Prospectivistes since the late 1960s, we find a variety of political settings, devices and tools characterizing each epoch.

3Our present time is perhaps best characterized by the combination of omnipresence of the future and its strong contestability. In short, we now have to share the present with future generations. Contrary to John M. Keynes’ famous expression, the long term does actually matter – even though we’ll all be dead! Technical debates on discount rates, triggered by the Stern Report on Climate Change, perfectly illustrate this point. Most of today’s social conflicts include a dimension related to the type of future we are creating through current choices and activities. Hence, the intensifying engagement with the future is leading to a paradoxical effect. Production of information on the future goes hand in hand with a proliferation of possible futures; it becomes a part of the problem rather than a solution by making the future more, rather than less, opaque (Brown & Michael, 2003).

  • 2 See also the papers published in the special issue of Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, V (...)

4The role of the future is particularly important for innovation and technological change. Recent literature has drawn attention to the importance of imaginaries and expectations. Indeed, the capacity to imagine futures is a crucial element in socio-technical creation. Socio-technical imaginaries encode visions of a “good” society (whichever it may be) in socio-technical networks; they are instrumental in mobilizing resources and fostering future-oriented coordination (Jasanoff & Kim, 2009). As shown by Flichy (2004), basic characteristics of Internet (free access, distributed action, interaction and cooperation in communities of equals, etc.) have stemmed from the imaginaries of the researchers in computer science who initially developed the new technology according to their own values, visions and social organization. In their analysis of pharmaco-genomics, Hedgecoe & Martin (2003) identify two competing imaginaries, and show how each of these visions is actively shaping the trajectory of this nascent technology and its potential socio-economic consequences. The acknowledgement of the role of expectation and future-oriented coordination has led a group of European Scholars to propose a sociological frame for analysing the role of techno-scientific expectations (Brown et al., 2000; Borup et al., 2006).2

5In this paper I wish to draw attention to a specific modality of construction of collective futures, namely Regimes of Economics of Techno-scientific Promises (ETP). Regimes can be seen as stabilised sets of formal and informal rules and routines, associated with a historicised order produced by the conflicts between heterogeneous and antagonistic elements that characterise the economic and legal domain (Gaudillière & Joly, 2009). As grammars, regimes evolve slowly, reflecting what happens in ongoing practices, just as the grammar of a living language continues to evolve. We coined the expression Economics of Techno scientific Promises because in such regimes, promises are not just a matter of discourses and representations. They also involve practices of exploration and experimentation; they are related to investment, and to mobilization, circulation, and accumulation of resources.

6A promise has various ingredients. The first is its link with a given problem which has to be solved. The more urgent and widely acknowledged the problem, the more attractive the promise, and the more legitimate the actions taken. The second ingredient is credibility. Credibility is determined inter alia by past activities (see the cycles of credibility in Latour, 1987) and by the social network of whoever made the promise (be it an individual or a wider collective). Both components of scientific credibility are also important for promise credibility.

7Promises are all the more important when innovation or technological change require huge resources for financing activities, adapting regulations, designing adequate policy frames, shaping new uses and new users, etc. The mobilisation of resources then requires that large audiences in heterogeneous public arenas be convinced. Biotechnology and nanotechnology are but two examples illustrating such a configuration. The very coining of such expressions has a performative effect (a new technology exists because we name it); it fits with discourses and narratives that frame the technology and define both the good futures it brings into existence and the adverse futures it helps to avoid. These narratives are not necessarily accepted at face value, and they may bring about counter-narratives and trigger socio-technical controversies. I suggest that the wider the claims of the narrative related to an innovation, the stronger the counter-narrative. Therefore, it is not uncommon in these areas (and in others) to find that futures are contested.

8The Economics of Techno-scientific Promises (ETP) can be seen as an attempt to complete the sociology of translation (Callon, 1986). In both frames, innovation processes rely on the coordination of heterogeneous actors. This requires defining identities of actors (what they do, the problems they face, etc.) in such a way that it creates an “obligatory passage point”, making the ties between the actors – at least temporarily – irreversible. Speculative claims, expectations and promises are some of actions by which an entity attempts to impose and stabilize the identity of other actors. They guide activities and define roles, provide legitimization, and attract interest and credit. Hence, promises can be considered as an important part of the translation process. Techno-scientific promises are not only of a discursive nature; they also have a material dimension, for they foster new alliances and orientate entities (humans and non-humans) towards a given project, just as translation generally does. The main difference is that ETP operates on large scale, since promises generally have to convince wider audiences. We therefore have to pay attention to the topology of the space of ETP and explicitly to take into account the diversity of arenas and of related trials of strength.

9In the first section I present an outline of the ETP regime. I then discuss internal contradictions and possible pathologies related to the ETP. To conclude, I consider how ETP challenges “technical democracy”, and explore the ways in which the two may be compatible.

Regime of the economics of techno-scientific promises – an outline

10New technological options emerge again and again, and to develop their potential they need to be nurtured, not constrained by short-term return-on-investment requirements. Of course public funds may help to sustain processes of exploration, but the mobilization of public resources is subjected to processes of competition. Claims of improvement (cognitive, technical, social, economic, etc.) consequently need to be credible for any techno-scientific exploration to take place.

11Studies of innovations show that the proponents of a new technology primarily have to fight against old technologies – and this battle is not easily won, for an emerging technology requires many adaptations if its potential is to be expressed. In addition, they may also have to fight against other options, and not only in the techno-scientific domain. Promises appear as the key element of future-oriented coordination.

12Any promise has to persuade sometimes large audiences that there is one best future, against other alternatives, and that this requires key choices to be made. While the dynamics of techno-scientific promises are a general feature of technological change and innovation, ETP regimes are particularly visible in the mode of governance of so-called new and emerging techno-sciences: biotechnologies and genomics, nanotechnologies, neurosciences, synthetic biology, etc. In these cases, emergence requires alignment of many heterogeneous actors and processes, namely: regulatory aspects like those of standardization and quality control, construction of markets, user’s learning, etc. Lack of alignment and stabilization is a source of endogenous uncertainty which hampers any longterm engagement.

13The first point to consider is the economics of credibility of the promise. Promises are by their very nature uncertain; they need to be believed in before anything is delivered. The credibility of promises is therefore both a matter of credit and a matter of rhetoric. The second point to consider is the dynamics of the sequence which flows from alternative options to strong necessity.

Promises as rhetorical devices

14The first step in the production of a promise is problematization. The sentence: “You have a problem and I have the solution” – which instantiates the promise maker as an obligatory passage point – involves the definition of the problem that has to be fixed. For instance, in the 1980s GMOs were claimed to be the solution for the world hunger problem and numerous deadly human diseases. Today they are also claimed to be able to solve global warming and to be the key for sustainable agriculture. For this claim to be credible, molecular biologists had to dismiss alternative solutions. In fact, they were eager to present plant breeding as an old technology whose potential had vanished (Joly & Ducos, 1993).

15The same thing is currently occurring with nanotechnology. To take but one example – in an area were promises proliferate –, consider this quote of the Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology at a Swiss Re conference on nanotechnology (December 2004):

“Given nanotechnology’s extraordinary economic and social potential, it would be unethical, in my view, to attempt to halt scientific and technological progress in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology offers the potential for improving people’s standard of living, healthcare and nutrition; reducing or even eliminating pollution through clean production technologies; repairing existing environmental damage; feeding the world’s hungry; enabling the blind to see and the deaf to hear; eradicating diseases and offering protection against harmful bacteria and viruses; and even extending the length and the quality of life through the repair or replacement of failing organs. Given this fantastic potential, how can our attempt to harness nanotechnology’s power at the earliest opportunity – to alleviate so many earthly ills – be anything other than ethical? Conversely, how can a choice to halt be anything other than unethical?” (quoted in Rip, 2006)

16Admittedly, in both examples the problems to be fixed are very general. The problematization process is not as customized as in the case of the scallops studied by Callon. Mutatis mutandis the problematization process is retained but the set of resources used to interest wide audiences comprises general rhetorical tools. For the promise does not only have to be credible; it also has to be legitimate. Hence, we distinguish two sides of the ETP rhetoric:

1) Production of legitimacy

17By definition, choices require one to give up some options in order to focus on others. As far as technological choices are concerned, changes always have an element of uncertainty. Judges of the US Supreme Court were well aware of that when they quoted Hamlet as they considered whether to push for biotechnology or not in the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case: “Why don’t we stay with the problems we know rather than hurry to others we don’t’ know about.”

18We thus need to have “good” reasons for agreeing to reduce our future options and engaging in an uncertain journey. This is where the issue of legitimacy comes in. Max Weber once identified three sources of legitimacy: charismatic, tradition and rational-legal. Political scientists now consider that legitimacy results from both inputs (elections) and outputs (efficacy of public action). It thus relates to the authority of those who govern over those who are governed. I use the notion loosely here, with reference to the reasons why people freely accept constraints on their current or future possibilities to act.

19The first function of a promise is to shape positive expectations about the future, related to the techno-scientific changes at stake. Two rhetorical tools are generally mobilized:

  • The very idea of a techno-scientific promise is closely related to the ideology of technological progress. Techno-scientific innovations bring about economic and social progress; this is part of our collective repertoire. Like notions such as “freedom”, “equality”, and “democracy”, reference to technological progress has the property of being both very meaningful and quite flexible. Van Lente (2000) explains that the linguist McGee introduced the term ideograph to denote such notions:

“An ideograph is an ordinary language term […] a high order abstraction, representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behaviour and belief […] and guides behaviour and belief in channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable. (McGee, 1980, quoted in Van Lente, 2000: 45)

20Hence, the acceptance of techno-scientific promises has been related to the very essence of modern societies since the Enlightenment. Technological progress and the legitimacy of science to drive societies are however contested in contemporary societies (Sarewitz, 1996), and other ideographs are mobilized. For instance, in the aftermath of the Mad Cow Crisis in Europe, “Consumers’ Right to Choose” appeared as a forceful ideograph. There is in fact a dynamic of mobilization of ideographs accompanying technological trajectories. In their intent to shape positive expectations and to channel the future, proponents of techno-scientific promises are thus confronted with trials of strength in various public arenas.

  • Promises are also associated with a diagnosis of urgency. This may be related to global competition, a recurrent motive in Europe because of the fear of lagging behind: if Europe is not in the race, it will not be able to afford its social model. Given the cumulative effects of technological development, we have to hurry, those who are late won’t have any place; there is only place for winners (Frank & Cook, 1995). As the “technological progress” ideograph is fading away, we can guess that the “moral imperative” one is replacing it. Reference to a moral obligation is illustrated by the above quote of the US Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology. This interesting shift deserves closer attention since the moral imperative, although closely associated with urgency, relates to a very different regime of justification (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). Sustainable development is currently widely used as a substitute to technological progress as an ideograph. It is also associated with the care for a common future, not necessarily a better one, but at least an acceptable and sustainable one.

2) Production of credibility

21The production of credibility has been studied by STS scholars for a long time. For a scientific theory to be credible, it needs more than validity, for credibility is the outcome of contingent social and cultural practices. As stated by Shapin (1995), there is no limit to the list of factors which may be relevant to securing credibility:

“The plausibility of the claim; the known reliability of procedures used to produce the phenomenon or claim; the directness and multiplicity of testimony; the accessibility and replicability of the phenomenon; the ability to impute bias to the claimants or to assess risks being taken in making the claim; the personal reputation of the claimants or the reputation of the platform from which they speak; knowledge of the friends an allies of claimants, including their personal reputation and power; calculations of the likely consequences of withholding assent; claimant’s class, sex, age, religion, or nationality and the characteristics associated with these; claimant’s expertise, including the means by which that expertise becomes known; the demeanor of claimants and the manner in which claims are delivered; minute aspects of the life-histories of those assessing claims and their knowledge of the life-histories of those making them.” (Shapin, 1995: 260)

22There are of course obvious differences between scientific claims and techno-scientific promises. Scientific claims are statements on research already done. Promises are by definition speculative in their essence, and at the broader level – such as the claims on nanotechnology in the quote, for instance – there are few ways to assess their validity. However, one of the first conditions for techno-scientific promises to be credible is to find support in core sets of specialists. Otherwise they cannot withstand opposition from either scientific arenas or wider public arenas. Apart from scientists of the core set, promises have to be credible for various actors, namely: government labs, government agencies, private companies, and venture capital firms. They also have to pass the test of public opinion.

23One of the key rhetorical resources for producing credibility in public arenas is a process of “naturalization” of technological advance. An extreme version (where requirements are derived from the promise of a next generation of the technology) is when developments are subsumed under law-like patterns such as Moore’s Law, Gabor’s Law, etc. The reference to a “law”, even if it is actually man-made, suggests there is no means to escape from the future, seen almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy (if enough resources are provided and effort is made).

24For scientists and technologists, the economics of techno-scientific promises is associated with cycles of credit (and credibility). For converting scientific credibility into financial credit, intellectual property rights are required, often at a very early stage. This fosters new relationships between research, higher education and industry, and emphasizes the patenting of basic knowledge.

  • 3 As claimed by Pardandian et al. (2010) this dual dynamics of promises may lead to waiting games whe (...)

25For both legitimacy and credibility, questions of scale do matter. Biotechnology was coined in the 1970s as a buzzword to attract resources, as was nanotechnology at the end of the 1990s and synthetic biology in the 2000s. Biotechnology covers a whole range of techno-scientific fields, and promises are made again and again on new technological waves such as recombinant proteins, gene therapy, genomics and post genomics, stem cells, etc. Each wave is formed by a myriad of single innovations. So there is clearly a multi-level dynamics characterized by two-way interactions between upper and lower levels. Constructing legitimacy/ credibility entails qualitatively different trials of strength according to the level considered. We can assume that legitimacy is more upper-level and credibility lower-level.3Importantly, however, both levels interact and affect the dynamics of the techno-scientific promise. The failure of gene therapy prompted a critical appraisal of the promise of biotechnology as a whole, not only by social scientists (Nightingale & Martin, 2004) but also by leading public authorities (FDA, 2004). In principle, generic promises are not submitted to validity tests. However, the level of generic promises may evolve, as a result a variety of factors, including lower level promises failure to deliver (Van Lente et al., 2010).

Techno-scientific promises as production of irreversibility

26Techno-scientific promises have both a discursive and a material dimension, and the two interact. As noted by Hedgecoe & Martin (2003), discursive structures are translated into heterogeneous sets of practices, social organization and physical artefacts. Promises (or visions) provide a framework in which the future shape and application of a technology are constructed, as they act as both an aid for decision-making and a focus for the mobilization of actors and resources.

27For techno-scientific promises to be effective, rhetoric is necessary but not sufficient. In the language of ANT, techno-scientific promises have to enroll non-humans in socio-technical networks in order to create obligatory passage points.

28There is a classical dynamics of self-fulfilling prophecy. Robert Merton (1948) pinpointed the importance of the phenomenon for social interactions.

29The prophecy of collapse of a bank can be the cause of the collapse, thus leading to its own fulfilment. However, the economics of technological change has shown that self-fulfilling prophecy also applies to techno-scientific dynamics. Bruno Latour puts it in a nutshell: a technology is not used because it is efficient; it becomes efficient because it is used (Latour, 1987). In more technical terms, the phenomenon is due to strong increasing returns, which stem from four complementary factors (Arthur, 1989): technological complementarities, dynamic economies of scale, learning by using, and network externalities. Irreversibility is not only a matter of propagation of beliefs; it is related to the fact that alternative pathways which are not nurtured at an early stage become dead options. Transgenic plants are a good example of lock in for agricultural research. Although agro-ecological innovations may have wide social, economic and environmental impact, they are locked out as an effect of the strong irreversibility associated with the socio-technical trajectory of transgenic plants (Vanloqueren & Baret, 2009).

30A basic trade-off needs to be made here, for while the failure to take certain options into account inhibits the emergence of techno-scientific changes; but an early choice may cause the wrong direction to be taken and lock-in to occur. There is no ready-made rationale to determine when choices should be made. All we know is that history matters and that technological trajectories are path dependent. We cannot be sure that the path adopted is the most efficient one, and it is not possible to reject claims that alternative paths would have been more fruitful.

31The important point is that there is a sequence which flows from identification of plurality of options to the making of a promise and then to requirements and necessity. This basic feature of any technological dynamics is exacerbated in ETP regimes. It prevents alternative futures from competing with the promised one.

32We can add a bit of complexity to the picture. The process of emerging irreversibility is not a fully deterministic one. Empirical analysis shows that there is space for contingencies. Like scallops or fishermen, genes, electrons, farmers, consumers, and so on may not conform to the innovators’ – promise-maker’s – script. Flexibility and real-time adaptation are therefore keys for conducting the process. Taking the innovator’s perspective is interesting here, for considering “path creation” helps in identifying the resources required to create new path dependency (Garud & Karnoe, 2001).

  • 4 The relation between foresight and ETP regimes deserves close attention. As some scholars argue, fo (...)

33But the entrepreneur’s perspective, although interesting, is just one piece of the bigger picture. Consider for instance the importance of tools and devices explicitly designed for future-oriented coordination. Foresight, road-maps, real-time assessment, and so on blossom in many techno-scientific fields since irreversible engagements require a reduction of the endogenous uncertainty.4

34In fact the reduction of futures appears necessary, and strong path-dependency is the rule. This is why Michel Callon is right when he states that science is a public good to the extent that it provides a way to increase the diversity of sociotechnical options (Callon, 1994).

Techno-scientific promises and their publics

35The ETP regime works with a specific governance assumption: a division of labour between technology promoters and enactors on the one hand, and civil society on the other: “Let us (= promoters) work on the promises without too much interference from civil society, so that you can be happy customers as well as citizens profiting from the European social model”. The Aho Report (2006) for the European Commission is explicit about this assumption in its recommendations, when it discusses:

“The need for Europe to provide an innovation-friendly market for its business […]. This needs actions on regulation, standards, public procurement, IPR and fostering a culture which celebrates innovation.”


“Europe and its citizens should realize that their way of life is under threat but also that the path to prosperity through research and innovation is open if large scale action is taken now by their leaders before it is too late.”

37In addition to the need to foster “a culture which celebrates innovation”, so that techno-scientific promises (if and when realized) will have fertile ground, the ETP regime now also recognizes the need to consider societal embedding and public reactions at an early stage. Lessons from biotechnology and, in other respects, from pharmaceuticals, have been important here. One could argue that big promises inevitably run the risk of attracting big concerns. Indicative of how lessons are taken up is the way in which the promotion of nanotechnology in the USA and Europe is accompanied by consideration of current and future ethical, legal and social aspects.

38Promoters of technological innovation and policy-makers can fall into the trap of seeing civil society, under the rubric of “the public”, as outsiders, to be taken into account, for sure, but as “irrational”, prone to be scared without reason, and always to be monitored by opinion polls. “Fears of the public fears” (Rip, 2006) have been closely studied by social scientists, who demonstrate that the “deficit model” is inappropriate (Wynne, 1996). But neither those analyses nor the continued public interest in new science and technology – and the overall trust in the institutions of science “in general” that is found in such polls, including the Eurobarometer – change anything of these myths.

39This relation is deeply entrenched in the ETP regime; it is not specific of our time. In her study of the electrical engineers in the United States towards the end of the nineteenth century, Carolyn Marvin shows that they were eager to dismiss negative attitudes of the public as naïve and irrational, and that they felt invested with the task to teach the public “proper” promises concerning electricity (Marvin, 1988).

40When government agencies and political representatives become the advocates of promise, a confusion of roles and accountabilities may result. The role of policy makers, promoting specific interests around techno-scientific promises while being in charge of the public interest may become problematic when concerns are raised about the new developments. Space for public deliberation quickly becomes reduced to polarized interactions for or against the techno-scientific promise.

Some pathological features of the ETP regime

41I will now turn to the identification of key problems associated with this ETP regime. My aim is not to produce a comprehensive view of the pros and cons; for instance, I won’t try to assess the amount of resources diverted from production of knowledge and used for venture capitalists, law firms, marketing, etc. I simply wish to highlight some pathological features which are specific to the ETP regime. This is nothing but a first attempt to define the moral and economic order associated with this regime.

Hype/hope cycle

42Promises are closely related to hype and hope and, interestingly, recent fashionable management models are built on them. The hype/hope cycle was identified in the late 1990s by Gartner, one of the largest IT consultancy companies in the world. The basic idea is that new technologies tend to follow different trajectories of hype, hope, and despair as they are discovered by different groups of people and finally adopted. In Gartner’s world view, the visibility of new technologies peaks early as initial excitement gains steam. This phase is followed by a “trough of disillusionment” in which inflated expectations hit reality. But as technologies prove themselves, their visibility begins to grow again at a more measured pace. Thus, knowing the position of a given technology on the cycle is necessary for designing corporate strategies and deciding when and how to engage.

43This model has been criticized by various scholars on different grounds (see for instance Borup et al., 2006). However, although technically sound, such criticisms miss an important point: the hype/hope cycle is not useful for analysing the quality and accuracy of the representation of a reality, but it is interesting for what it represents and what it does not. According to the model, any technology follows the hype/hope cycle. It assumes that there is a systematic lag between the dynamics of the social and the sticky processes of technological creation. In the world of the hype/hope cycle, everybody wants the technology before it even exists. It is frankly a strange world, so different from those performed by old-fashion diffusion models.

44One of the effects of the cycle is to naturalize the disillusionment. Hence, there is no accountability in the promises which nurture hype and hope; there is just a “natural” cycle. Such a representation obviously overlooks key problems. Consider health technologies, rightly called “technologies of hope” by Sarah Franklin. Speculative claims may induce great expectations from those who suffer from incurable diseases, which may lead to painful disappointments. The GM case offers an interesting example of how expectations related to medical treatment were highlighted in order to foster the acceptance of the technology. In the French debate, anti-GM activists were accused of hindering the procurement of treatment for children suffering from cystic fibrosis because they opposed the production of transgenic corn expressing a gastric lipase.5It was then discovered that alternatives to GM plants existed and that risks related to pollen contamination were to be considered seriously. Serious moral issues associated with the ETP regime can thus be found.

45With the hype/hope cycle there is also little to learn about promises which are not fulfilled. Critical returns on the failure of promises to deliver may however be highly instructive. Nightingale and Martin (2004) show the importance and the fertility of this approach in the case of medical biotechnologies. This type of analysis could usefully be taken much further.

Figure 1: The hype/hope cycle

Figure 1: The hype/hope cycle

Source: Gartner’s 2009 Hype Cycle Special Report – Press Release

Breakthrough v. control

46Techno-scientific promises rest on the rhetoric of novelty or breakthrough. Since mobilizing resources requires old technologies to be dismissed, promoters usually highlight the radical novelty of the technology. However, such a strong discontinuity means radical uncertainty on how it may impact health and the environment, or even ontological uncertainties. This explains that narratives about new technologies follow a common pattern. The technology is presented as brand new (it will create a new society through genetic modification or offer nano-implants for human enhancement) when technological elites speak to investors, policy-makers or patent offices, and to publics to be enrolled in the new venture. But the same technology is said to be nothing unusual (we have been modifying genetic make-up of organisms all the time, nanotechnology is just about making things smaller and faster) when actual or anticipated concerns have to be assuaged. When the two claims encounter each other, this dual narrative may be a source of distrust because of the lack of consistency.

47There is a huge communication problem associated with the ETP regime, but there is also something more profound. In such a regime, promoters tend to overstate the capacity of control associated with the power of the new tools. For instance, genetic engineering was presented as a much cleaner and more precise technology than plant breeding. The promotion of GMOs was thus based on a representation of genes and molecular biology which is now considered as widely inaccurate (see Fox Keller, 2000). The same applies to nanotechnology (Rip, 2006). The promise of control over matter on a nano-scale is a recurrent element in public statements about nanotechnology. Conversely, Jean-Pierre Dupuy convincingly argued that nano-scientists and technologists are just sophisticated tinkers or intentional sorcerer’s apprentices (Dupuy, 2004). Confronted with the emerging properties of complex systems, there is no possibility for prediction, we have to experiment. The problem with the ETP regime is that it compels all the actors to run after the novelty, thus transforming society into a laboratory (Krohn & Weyer, 1994).

Escalation: utopian v. dystopian pronouncements

48The bigger the promise, the stronger the reactions it triggers. Huge promises may lead to endless discussions on pointless issues, thus preventing relevant ones from being correctly addressed. Take the case of nanotechnology, with the debates prompted by prophecies on human enhancement, or with the controversy on the grey goo. This helped draw attention towards nanotechnology, but on issues loosely articulated with the research agenda. However, the process of escalation is so intensive that even now nanotechnologies are considered as an ideal laboratory for the study of the matrix of futures (Chateauraynaud, 2005).

49GM plants have been promoted as the solution to the world hunger problem and an obligatory passage point on the route to sustainable agriculture. However, this technological fix has been challenged on the grounds that the origins of the problem are merely socio-economic or political. The promise has also been challenged from a technological standpoint. Opponents have claimed that, when considering the world hunger problem and resources conservation, the kind of agriculture at stake is locally adapted, peasant farming. And small peasants cannot afford GMOs which are designed by agri-investors as the big universal solution. The claim of a techno-conspiracy is then opposed to the techno-scientific promise. In a way, pros and cons are locked in an escalating process were each one is trapped by its own hyperbole.

50Escalations related to promises overshadow some important problems and may lead to unwittingly excluding certain futures (Rose, 2005). Biomedical research is the extreme case where (bio)technologies of hope mobilize resources, while epidemiologists have shown that common disorders such as obesity, stomach ulcers and heart disease are determined by environmental and socio-economic factors such as poverty. Hence, Nightingale and Martin rightly contend that:

“Unrealistic expectations are dangerous as they lead to poor decisions, misplaced hope, and distorted priorities, and can distract us from acting on the knowledge we already have about the prevention of illness and disease.” (Nightingale & Martin, 2004: 568)

The policy of the ETP regime – imagining alternatives6

  • 6 This section is adapted from the Chapter “Reinventing innovation” co-authored with Michel Callon an (...)

51There are innovation approaches and models which do not fit the ETP regime. The case of OSS (Open Source Software) – and, more broadly, development of open-access tools in information technologies – shows that the distributed model of innovation can be more user-centred and that one of the motives of its promoters is to redistribute agency, knowledge and power. In other words, there is a normative model of society being performed as well.

52I now want to explore whether such approaches might add up to an alternative regime: as such, and because of the pathological features of the ETP regime. This is particularly important because the latter regime appears to be becoming hegemonic. This happens when techno-scientific promises start to function as a political order, with the tyranny of urgency and the naturalization of technological progress. Civil society is then taken into account only as the final and undifferentiated passive recipient of innovation, and labelled the enemy of innovation when it resists.

53As illustrated with the OSS case, good alternatives to the ETP regime are regimes based on distributed action. Eric Von Hippel (2005) has written about “democratizing innovation”, but not in the sense of political democratization where citizens would have more voice, and be listened to. However important democratization might be, Von Hippel is drawing attention to something else: phenomena like user-induced innovation and community-based innovation. His concrete examples are drawn from the information and communication sector (where the distinction between developers and users is not sharp), and from sports (like mountain biking and kite surfing). Franco Malerba (2006), recognizing the same phenomena, adds participatory design (in information technology), and introduces the notion of co-invention.

54There are other examples, ranging from the involvement of patient associations in health research (Rabeharisoa & Callon, 2004), participatory plant-breeding research experiments, exchange of experiences in “peasant networks” in France (Bonneuil et al., 2006), and bottom-up innovations in low-input agriculture (Wiskerke & Van der Ploeg, 2004).

55Taking these examples together, one can assume the emergence of an alternative regime, the regime of “collective experimentation”. This brings to mind John Dewey’s conception of policy as collective experimentation (Dewey 1927), but the experimentation is now at the technological level as well. Situations emerge or are created in which things can be tried out and learned from, i.e. experimentation. Here, however, the experimentation does not derive from promoting a particular technological promise, but from goals constructed around matters of concern and that may be achieved at the collective level.

56The regime of collective experimentation, with its own division of labour in terms of participation of a variety of actors, is recognized as being productive. It depends on the efforts of those actors who are willing to engage in innovation processes because they are concerned about a specific issue.

57However, there is also some room for opportunistic behaviour. This is very clear in Open Source Software: on the one hand, people contribute because they share the concerns and perhaps the ideology behind it, but on the other hand, many users wait for others to develop new software so that they can benefit from it. There are ambivalences in other areas as well, as when patient associations function as testing grounds, and in that sense as subsidiaries of pharmaceutical companies, rather than as innovative actors in their own right. The space for collective experimentation has to be structured so that the innovation processes are sustainable.

58The regime of collective experimentation faces challenges because such embedded innovation is laborious, typically loosely-coordinated and slow; and so it should be, because users and other stakeholders have their own contexts and logics to consider. Inspired by the ‘slow food’ movement, one can now proclaim a ‘slow innovation’ programme, with its advantages and disadvantages.

59There is also the problem of whether actors will invest in collective experimentation rather than waiting for others to take the risks of such experiments. And if such investments are made, it is uncertain in this type of distributed regime whether learning and its exploitation for the next steps will actually occur or not. A further problem is that collective experimentation is often associated with, and reduced to, participation by civil society, e.g. upstream public engagement. This may be in line with democratic values, but will often not lead to productive experimentation.

60A key feature of the collective experimentation regime is that new approaches to intellectual property rights have to be created to ensure its viability. For Open Source Software, the General Public Licence (GPL or copyleft) specifies such rights. In the “peasants’ networks”, there are attempts to reinvent the commons.

61The social experiments with electric vehicles were driven by public authorities, but further investments from the private sector will require tax incentives as well as some protection of innovative approaches.

62In the regime of collective experimentation new forms of interaction between scientists and other actors have to be “invented”, because the traditional authority of laboratory-based science is not sufficient. Moreover, it is not the direct involvement of “the public” (or “society”) that is at stake, but the selective engagement of concerned groups. “Collective” means that many independent disconnected and variable collaborative investigations between “established” professionals and concerned people could take place simultaneously, and may make spontaneous interconnections as they develop. They become collective issues only under certain political conditions.

63To conclude, there are two general issues. First, distributed innovation includes diversity, not just of actors but also of new options that are opened up for exploration. That is one recurrent element of innovation policies, whether focused on technological promises or on collective experimentation. It should be combined, however, with the selection of some of the new options and their preparation for exploitation. When and how to go for reducing flexibility is a difficult question, for the management of technology in and across organizations.


64Our identification of alternative regimes takes stock of the debate between constructivists and structuralists about ways to study technological change. Langdon Winner has argued that although social constructivists opened the black box of innovation, they found it desperately empty. The description of processes has gained in depth and complexity, but overall, social scientists have lost the ability to analyse social consequences of technological choices (Winner, 1993).

65Because it articulates ways to innovate in the production and control of futures, the approach proposed contributes to bridging this gap. It remains constructivist and can be considered as introducing promises (as well as visions, imaginaries, and expectations) as a key element of the analytical frame. It articulates this approach with the construction of social and political order. Any single process of innovation may be located in the space defined by both regimes, and this has key implications for the distribution of agency and power.

66Many points require further research. In this text, different technologies are used to epitomize both regimes: nano and bio on the one hand, OSS and some medical innovations on the other. As it stands, the approach appears to be locked in technological essentialism. Close attention should be paid to this relationship between technologies and regimes, and one obvious way of doing so is through international comparisons.

67Overall, both regimes nevertheless have contrasting relations to the construction of collective futures, and they have profound political implications. For each of the regimes, many questions deserve further research in order to obtain a full analytical picture and hopefully to draw some policy implications.



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1 The idea of the economics of techno-scientific promises (ETP) was first developed when we prepared scientific advice on the local governance of nanotechnologies for the City of Grenoble (Joly et al., 2005). Michel Callon and Marie-Angèle Hermitte contributed substantially to this first step. I then worked again on ETP in the expert group on “Science and Governance” for the European Commission. We interacted closely with Michel Callon and Arie Rip while preparing the chapter “Re-inventing innovation” (Felt, Wynne et al., 2007). I wrote this text while I was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Kennedy School where I benefited from frequent discussions with Sheila Jasanoff. Although the usual caveat applies, I am far more indebted to my colleagues than they probably think.

2 See also the papers published in the special issue of Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, Vol. 18, No 3-4, 2006.

3 As claimed by Pardandian et al. (2010) this dual dynamics of promises may lead to waiting games when credibility is too low at the lower level. This may hinder the realization of benefits of the promises.

4 The relation between foresight and ETP regimes deserves close attention. As some scholars argue, foresight should be tailored to adapt specific fields. In some cases such as GMOs, it should be aimed at the “exploration of multiple GM futures in the broader context of agricultural systems and secondly, the localisation and diversification of the GM research agenda” (Schoen et al., 2009). Examining the ability of foresight to explore multiple futures raises questions related not only to the tools for building futures but also to the institutional setting in which they are used.

5 On this case, see the activists’ report available at: (accessed 1 October 2009).

6 This section is adapted from the Chapter “Reinventing innovation” co-authored with Michel Callon and Arie Rip for the European Commission Report Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously (Felt, Wynne et al., 2007).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: The hype/hope cycle
Légende Source: Gartner’s 2009 Hype Cycle Special Report – Press Release
Fichier image/jpeg, 49k

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