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Innovations and Public Policies

Hubert Heinelt
p. 253-261


The term “innovation” is frequently used in both public and scientific debates. However, at first glance, its meaning is extremely fuzzy. This is true even for its use in political science in general and in policy analysis in particular. Nevertheless, if different meanings of innovation are examined, a particular concept behind the term “innovation” can be identified. At the same time, it becomes clear that, with few exceptions, the term is often used in a way that is surprisingly detached from the social context to which it refers. The main aim of this contribution to the forum section of the journal is to show that it is crucial to consider the social, and thus also the temporal, context in which innovations take place – and thereby to understand innovations from the perspective of the actors who consider them necessary and who implement them. This is done by using concrete examples from a recently finished research project.

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1There are numerous publications on innovation with overlapping meanings of what is considered to be an innovation. Therefore, the term seems to be elusive – especially with respect to public policies. This forum contribution is an attempt to remedy this by using John Rawls’s (1999, p. 5) distinction between “concept” and “conceptions”. According to Rawls, a concept contains the essential features of a term, whereas conceptions are thicker interpretations of these features, bound to a particular discursive context.

2In order to uncover the essential features of the term “innovations”, in the next section some “thicker interpretations” of this term will be examined. As it turns out, they all share the view that innovations are deliberative attempts to solve societal challenges or to improve policy interventions and their effects. These can be seen as the essential features of the term “innovations”. However, what remains unconsidered in most contributions to debates on, or conceptions of, innovation are the questions of what is perceived as a societal challenge and what is considered an improvement. It is the aim of this article to show, in its two last sections, that communicative interaction, or even “struggles over ideas” (Stone, 2012, p. 13), are crucial to this, as they seek to interpret challenges and identify improvements that are considered appropriate and feasible in a given context.

Particular conceptions and the concept of innovation

3To uncover essential features of the term “innovations” by looking at particular conceptions, i.e. “thicker interpretations” of the concept, very general reflections on policy innovations – which are primarily concerned with the reorganization of decision-making and implementation processes (process innovation; see, for instance, Bartlett, 2017; Arundel et al., 2019) – are not considered. For the same reason, public service innovations are not considered either; these usually have a general focus on changes in policy content or measures/instruments and thus on improvements in services (product innovation; see, for instance, Bianchi et al., 2018; Chen et al., 2019).

4Whereas publications on process and product innovations are quite general regarding the content of the considered innovations, this applies much less to publications on innovation policy. These are much more focused on particular policies and objectives to be achieved, as well as on conditions for achieving intended innovations (Edler & Fagerberg, 2017). Therefore, they represent particular conceptions of innovation from which essential features of the term can be extracted. The debate about innovation policy refers to various territorial levels, namely urban innovation (Hall, 1998; Dente & Coletti, 2011) and urban innovation systems (van Winden et al., 2014; Putra & van der Knaap, 2018), but also to national (Freeman, 1987) or regional innovation systems (Cooke, 1992; 2001; Norck, 2014; Asheim et al., 2019). In particular, studies of regional and urban innovation systems have highlighted a number of conditions conducive to their emergence, such as proximity, favorable infrastructure conditions, networks and trust between partners, and complementary or shared knowledge.

5However, the debate on national and regional innovation systems reveals a particular understanding of innovation that is limited to promoting economic growth and competitiveness. Although such an understanding of innovation can also be found in the literature on urban innovation systems, it is not a central theme there. For scholars and practitioners interested in urban innovation systems, it is not just a question of how to create “urban growth machines” (Molotch, 1976; Logan & Molotch, 1987). Instead, interest can also be focused on innovations for achieving and sustaining an “inclusive city” (for an overview of this debate, see, for example, The World Bank, n.d.). This applies particularly to research on social innovation which concentrates on how to achieve (better) social inclusion (see, for example, Moulaert et al., 2005). This research approach also represents a particular conception of innovation. In contrast to publications on innovation policy, it is normative in that it focuses on “first and foremost innovation in social relations based on values of solidarity, reciprocity and association” (Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019, p. 1; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, it is fundamental to this approach that it pays “attention to the historical, spatial, political, economic, social and ecological particularities of the sites in which [innovation] is realised” (Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019, p. 4).

6The search for ways of reaching and securing social inclusion is often connected to interest in particular aspects of process innovation – namely democratic innovations (Smith, 2009; Newton & Geißel, 2012; Escobar & Elstub, 2019). These innovations – and the conception associated with them – are intended to broaden and deepen the process of public participation and, in this way, to improve the quality of democracy (Geissel, 2009) in general and the inclusiveness and responsiveness of policy-making in particular.

7Even though the meaning of the term differs among the considered conceptions of innovation, three features can be detected that are essential for the concept of innovation:

First, innovations are seen as something that has been put into practice. In this sense, innovations are viewed as “new ideas that work” (Mulgan et al., 2007, p. 8) – and not just as figments of imagination, fantasies, or pipe dreams.

Second, and more precisely, innovation is seen not just as a non-specific outcome of a political or policy change (Berry & Berry, 2007), but as “material or social artefacts which are being perceived by observers as both, as novel and as an improvement” (Braun-Thürmann, 2005, p. 6; translation from German; emphasis by the author). This basic understanding is crucial, because it is not just about non-specific outcomes of political or policy change. Rather, the new state of affairs brought about by a change must be perceived as an improvement. And, though the observers referred to in the above quote may be outsiders, it is crucial that those who perceive the changes (innovations) consider them an improvement which they initiated and which affect them. Therefore, innovations should be understood (by referring to Geißel, 2009, p. 53; see also Sorensen & Torfing, 2011, p. 849-850) as “consciously and purposefully introduced with the aim of [an improvement within a particular context], irrespective of whether the innovation in question has already been tried out in another [context].” This specification is important, for it makes it possible to seriously take different perceptions of actors in particular contexts into account, such as why they have consciously and purposefully introduced something with the aim of an improvement – whether or not this is also new in another context.

Third, what has been perceived as new and as an improvement is not the outcome of an incremental policy process but has been deliberately brought about by actors being affected by the improvement intended by them.

8Innovation – in whichever of the previously mentioned forms – is therefore not just a question of change, or of something new, but rather of a change, which by definition is something new, and which is also being perceived as an improvement by those who initiated it and are affected by it. But how does this perception come about? It is not possible to imagine the emergence of such a (dominant) perception without a communicative exchange of good reasons why something new is, or was, needed and also why it constitutes an improvement. Thus, understanding something as an innovation is related to communicative interactions and such interactions do not take place simply between anyone anywhere, but between actors who must interact in a particular context. Such a context may be a functionally defined one (e.g., a particular area of technology, or a policy field that is not always spatially distinct). However, most of the debates about innovation referred to earlier are about spatial contexts.

9But even debates that emphasize the importance of contextual conditions – such as those about innovation systems and social innovation – have a crucial shortcoming: They do not give enough thought to the communicative interactions between the actors involved and the mechanisms at work in these interactions. As mentioned above, contextual conditions are either limited to proximity, favorable infrastructural conditions, and networks and trust between partners, or they are only sketched out in terms of complementary or shared knowledge and not elaborated further. But how is this knowledge brought about and reproduced? Apparently, communicative processes play a role here.

Empirical illustration

10How something new, which is seen as an innovation, has been brought about in the different contexts of five German and five Greek cities was studied in a research project on “Conditions for Institutional and Cultural Innovation in German and Greek cities” (CICI), jointly funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (grant no. 01UI1801) and the Greek Ministry of Development and Investment (grant no. T2DGE-0584), as well as by the European Union. Empirically, the study was based on 173 interviews with local actors, 186 minutes of municipal councils, and about 1,760 articles from local newspapers, as well as about 950 policy documents (particularly master plans, urban development plans, and strategy papers), programs of local parties, and statements published by various local actors (see Egner et al. 2022, p 7-12).

11Because not only societal and political structures in general differ from city to city within Germany and Greece, as well as between the two countries, it was necessary not to define innovation in an abstract and general sense. Instead, the term was used in this research project to refer to what is understood by innovation in the cities studied (and possibly in the German or Greek context).

12That such an approach makes sense has been shown, in particular, by innovations in the provision of social services by civil society groups. Such innovations have emerged in Greece since the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis at the end of the 2000s, but have been common in German cities for decades. Examples are associations that have been known in Germany since the 1980s under the name Bürgerhilfe (or, in the academic debate, as Tauschringe or Kooperationsringe; see Offe & Heinze, 1992). In these associations, help for others is “credited” in hours, which can be redeemed for help from other members of the association if necessary. In Greece, similar structures of mutual assistance have developed in a number of cities since the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis. These go under the name of time banking (trapezes chronou) which is considered an innovation there (for this example and the following ones, see Egner et al., 2022, p. 34-160). What makes these examples interesting in terms of the contextualization of the meaning of innovation, however, is not only the difference in the time when they were put into practice. Even more interesting is the discursive context, that is to say the debate about why they were deemed necessary and why they ought to be put into practice. In Greece, it was the sheer material need of many residents not only in large cities (such as Athens and Thessaloniki), but also in smaller towns. In Germany, by contrast, the issue was the organization of the provision of services in a “third sector,” meaning beyond the state, the market, and the private household (as shown by Offe & Heinze, 1992).

13Other examples worth mentioning are a local recycling centre established in the Greek city of Elefsina in 2005 and a waste management system introduced in the Greek city of Chania as recently as 2013. Both cases were, and are, regarded as innovations in these cities, as well as in Greece, although both would be considered quite common in most places in Western countries. It is also interesting to note why these novelties were introduced in these two Greek cities. Whereas, in Elefina, the aim was to overcome the reputation of being one of the dirtiest (former) industrial cities in the country, in Chania the innovation was implemented in order to gain the reputation of being a clean city and thus to make itself more attractive for tourism.

14Often, innovations involve more than just individual measures, such as those just mentioned. Rather, individual innovative measures or projects are components of a broader development strategy, frequently reflected in a local master plan. However, more than this, master plans are also usually an expression of a broad debate about local problems and how they can be overcome through something new that can lead to an improvement in the economic and social situation of a city.

15Offenbach, one of the cities studied by the CICI project, is a case in point. This city, located in the otherwise prosperous Frankfurt/Rhine-Main metropolitan region, is characterized not only by dramatic deindustrialization in recent decades and by its economic and social consequences; Offenbach also exhibits the highest proportion of residents with a migration background in Germany. In total, about 60 percent of Offenbach’s population has migrated to Germany, or has parents who migrated to Germany. With the development and implementation of a master plan, Offenbach has not only pointed out the economic development potential of brownfield sites in the city, but it has also taken advantage of it. However, the master plan was only one part of the innovations observed in Offenbach and of the debates that underlie them. The city has also successfully managed to present itself as an “arrival city” (Saunders, 2011). This refers not only to acting as a gateway to the prosperous Frankfurt/Rhine-Main region, but also, above all, to the multicultural character of a city in which it is interesting to live and work – not least because of the favorable rents compared with Frankfurt and other places in the surrounding area, and also because of a developing cultural infrastructure and scene.

16Thessaloniki, another city studied by the CICI project, is a further example of an approach in which it is not merely individual innovations that matter, but their interplay and, above all, their emergence from an overarching local discourse on intended changes and improvements to a situation seen as problematic. Thessaloniki did not even have a written development strategy in the form of a master plan. However, there was a struggle over ideas concerning the causes of the city’s development, perceived as being in decline, and how to tackle it most effectively and appropriately. As a result, while a number of innovative individual measures emerged (from business incubators and technology centres to tourism promotion measures), these were all driven by a conviction that arose from this struggle over ideas – namely, that a better future for the city could and should be based on a rediscovery of its multicultural heritage. In practical terms, this has meant that the city’s multicultural heritage has been used to build new and, above all, better relations with Greece’s neighbouring countries. As a former important city in the Ottoman Empire (where Kemal Atatürk was born), tourist links with Turkey, in particular, were established. The same applies to countries of the southern Balkans. And, as a former centre of Jewish life, the city has managed to attract not only tourists but also investors from Israel.

Communicative exchange of good reasons for innovations in particular local contexts – and the relevance of a specific narrative pattern

17The examples outlined in the previous section show not only that the communicative exchange of good reasons for something new that is perceived as an improvement is key to innovation; they also show that the particular local context of the communicative exchange plays a crucial role in giving meaning to the innovations achieved. As shown by the cases studied by the CICI project, this means that it is not only a particular discursive setting that has to be considered, but also the existing narrative that is, or has become, dominant in a local context. Therefore, when studying innovations, emphasis should be placed on narratives – and, eventually, on their changes.

18These narratives – “either in oral or written form” (Fischer & Gottweis, 2012, p. 12) – are based on “causal stories” (Stone 1989) “that indicate specific views of the world and of the relationship between cause and effect” (Barbehön et al., 2016, p.241) because, through “causal stories”, different events, experiences or observations are placed in relation to one another. Narrative – like any use of language – does not depict the world neutrally, but rather constitutes it in a particular way, and thus creates possibilities for action and interpretation and, by doing this, for change. Ultimately, what counts is a storyline that is convincing in a given context as a result of being seen as causally correct and normatively appropriate.

19To be convincing in communicative interactions, however, these interactions must have what can be called a coherent narrative pattern (“Erzählmuster”; Barbehön et al., 2015). This pattern is about “the construction of narratives to tell a plausible story about a problem, the development of coalitions of support and the deployment of institutional resources to ensure a response” (Jacobs et al., 2004, p. 5). Narrative patterns provide “basic communicative infrastructures that enable specific narratives or lines of argumentation in the sense of concrete articulations and make others appear inappropriate or implausible” (Barbehön et al., 2015, p.38; translation by the author). What is more, it is only through such structuredness that narratives convey the impression of clarity, stability, and order (Gottweis, 2006, p. 468). The communicative construction of challenges or problems can thus be understood as a central component of any narrative pattern, as the construction of a problem also indicates the need for action – usually understood as an innovation – because to label something as a problem implies an expectation or demand for something new that will be better. Furthermore, consideration of appropriate problem-solving perspectives does not come without an interpretation of the causes of the problems.

20Based on the study by Barbehön et al. (2015; 2016), it seems reasonable that narrative patterns are formed by the following elements:

21To tell a plausible story about opportunities for innovation, the cause of the challenge to be addressed by the intended innovation has to be constructed. For instance, the outlined case of Offenbach shows that the former problem-centered issue of migration had become an issue requiring innovation. Adopting the hip label of an “arrival city” was crucial in addressing perceived challenges and bringing about change through innovations driven by a new image of the city that was shared by more and more people.

22A plausible story of innovation usually implies that past, present, and future (the challenge, the current activities addressing it by means of innovations, and the improvement envisaged) are convincingly related. The change in Offenbach was possible because past, present, and future were related discursively in a particular way. It was argued that Offenbach had always been a city of migration since opening up to Huguenot refugees in the 18th century. The image of being a “workers’ city” continued this tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries, since most of the people who worked in Offenbach during this period came to the city from elsewhere, and the new role as an “arrival city” represented a positive approach to the fact that it acted as a gateway city for migration in the greater Frankfurt/Rhine-Main region.

23Knowing the cause of the challenge also means that either structural conditions or actors can be identified as the source of challenges. Or, to quote Stone (2012, p. 206), “we look for causes not only to understand how the world works but to assign responsibility for problems”. At the same time, when the responsibility for a problem and the resulting challenge have been identified, the capacity and willingness to address it must be assessed. As far as local innovation is concerned, it is important that local actors believe that they have, or can develop, the capacity to meet a challenge successfully – even in the face of unfavorable structural conditions. This has become empirically manifest in all cities studied by the CICI project.

24Attributing the responsibility for a challenge to certain actors and identifying the ability to meet the challenge through innovation may imply a distinction between “we” and “they” (the others) – or it may imply the opposite: “Let’s stand together and work together!” As can be observed, the distinction between “we” and “they” often refers to a delineation between the local community and upper levels of government, or to proponents and opponents of the innovations in question within a city.

25These four narrative elements are mixed according to a particular context to yield a certain narrative pattern.

26These elements are similar to the “generalized narrative elements” or “elements comprising the form of a narrative” elaborated by proponents of the narrative policy framework (see Jones et al., 2014b, p. 4-7; McBeth et al., 2014, p. 228; Jones & Radaelli, 2015, p. 341; Shanahan et al., 2017, p. 175-176). However, in the study of the outlined case, not all the “generalized narrative elements” that are central to the narrative policy framework could be clearly and empirically identified. More importantly, based on the study of the innovations outlined and the narratives underlying them in the different cities, it is also not possible to confirm empirically the assumption of the narrative policy framework that generalized statements can be made about the content of narratives. The content of the narratives was too varied, indeed too case-specific, for generalized statements to be made about them.

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Bibliographical reference

Hubert Heinelt, Innovations and Public PoliciesInternational Review of Public Policy, 4:2 | 2022, 253-261.

Electronic reference

Hubert Heinelt, Innovations and Public PoliciesInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 4:2 | 2022, Online since 01 November 2022, connection on 15 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Hubert Heinelt

Darmstadt University of Technology, Institute of Political Science, Germany

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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