Using visuals to reframe the narrative

According to dominant discourse, the great economic transitions of modern times — the first industrial revolution; the age of steam and railways; the age of steel, electricity and heavy engineering; the age of oil, automobile and mass production; and now the age of digital transformation — have been caused by leaps in technological innovation. These normative narratives suggest that it was the leveraging of new technologies that opened the way for the subsequent reshaping of our economies, and our societies.

But if we look more closely at the major ‘ages of transition’, it is clear that they didn’t just follow on from purely technological innovation. As Carlotta Perez (2017) argues, transitions require not only a technology-focused stimulus, but also institutional enablers that create the impetus for demand. Analysing historical shifts, Perez identifies that there have always been simultaneous and interrelated technological, economic and institutional innovations that have enabled transformative transitions.

The figure below uses two ‘ages’ as examples to illustrate how each transition has involved mutually reinforcing factors and innovations that both contributed to, and were contributory drivers of, social and economic change. And it is these reinforcing loops that have resulted in each of these ‘ages’ being recorded in history as transformative. Without these reinforcing loops of social, public, and civic innovation the technological innovations, and the subsequent ‘transformation’, would not have been possible.

We think this kind of visual reminder of the complex interactions and interdependencies involved in large-scale social and economic transformations is a useful tool for those interested in reframing the dominant narrative that the next ‘golden age’ will be driven by technology alone.

First and Second Industrial Revolutions with social drivers and enablers
First and Second Industrial Revolutions with social drivers and enablers

For example, if we go to the last epochal transition — the ‘age of oil, automobile and mass production’ — and apply a multi-faceted innovation lens it can also be framed as the ‘age of welfare’, with great leaps being made in health, education and the development of various forms of ‘welfare state’ around the world. From this perspective the role of social innovations (such as the development of the welfare state), civic innovations (such as the opening of consumer credit systems and the establishment of Unions) and public innovations (such as the public regulation of labour laws) is central. These combinations of innovations brought, at least in some contexts, minimum standards of protection and access around foundational social determinants of health — such as income, health, housing, education and social services.

Social, public and civic innovations also underpinned the enablement of mass consumption, which in turn led to significant growth of prosperity in many (although not all) parts of the world, which in turn enabled the take up of a wide range of technological innovations. However, through the dominant discourse, technological innovations — such as the advances in petrochemical and materials technologies, and the transportation and energy innovations of the time — capture attention as the enablers of transitions.

As shown in the figure below, each of the ‘transformational ages’ has resulted from complex combinations of innovations. And though Perez does not herself identify other forms of innovators, those driving social, public or civic innovations, she does suggest that the outputs of these forms is critical to enabling transitions. So, as Thomas Piketty reminds us:

“The technology-capitalist illusion assumes that social and economic progress follows mechanically from technological change and market forces, but this is not so. Historically, social and economic progress has come together with the reduction of inequality and the rise of more equal societies, particularly in the area of education and health”

Directional policy structures
Directional Policy Structures
Focusing on the full range of innovations needed to transition to the ‘sustainable golden age’

Of course, it can’t be ignored that today we are grappling with diverse forms of ‘fall-out’ resulting from the externalizing of the true cost of many of the 20th Century’s technological innovations. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, economists like Carlotta Perez and Mariana Mazzucato argue we are now at the cusp of another transition, towards a potential ‘sustainable golden age’ in which global ‘smart, green and fair growth’ could prevail.

If this potential is to be realised, attention must be directed toward fostering, enabling, and sustaining the web of interdependent innovations — civic, social, public, technological — that history shows is required to catalyse truly transformative transitions. In addition, a clear integration with considerations of ecological ceilings and social foundations — as so eloquently captured by Kate Raworth (2017) in her ‘Doughnut Economics’ depiction of interdependencies — will also be central to achieving the balance between ‘green’ and ‘fair’ aspirations.

However, once again the discourse is dominated by a ‘technology as driving force’ narrative. So — how do we move beyond this kind of technological determinism to a focus on the full range of innovations needed to affect the scale of transition required? Many of these innovations can already be found around the world, but lack the kinds of incentivizing stimulants directed at technological innovations. How do we improve our understandings of what it takes for a diversity of innovations to establish and thrive? And how do we reposition critical 20th Century innovations, like the welfare state, to better meet 21st Century needs and contexts?

In this addition to our Visualising Change blog series, we aim to contribute to reframing the technologically-dominated discourse and to start to draw out what practical innovations across the different domains could look like. To this end, in the figure below, we combine Perez’s mutually reinforcing domains of innovation with Raworth’s Doughnut, and add some initial thinking around the institutional territories where the establishment of directional goals designed to foster, establish and sustain multi-faceted innovations would contribute to generating the enabling conditions for a ‘sustainable golden age’.

Ecological Ceiling
Ecological Ceiling

First published in Y Impact a blog from The Yunus Centre at Griffith University exists to equip people with the know-how to navigate change and create positive societal impact.


Professor Ingrid Burkett

Professor Ingrid Burkett is a social designer, designing processes, products and knowledge that deepen social impact and facilitate social innovation. She has contributed to the design of policy and processes in a diversity of fields, including community development, local economic development, disability, procurement and social investment.

Ingrid is Co-Director of The Yunus Centre at Griffith University

Follow Ingrid on Twitter

Dr Joanne McNeil

Since 2000, Associate Professor Joanne McNeill has worked within and through large institutional actors to design and implement different kinds of change programs focused on improving real-world impact. Her key expertise is working at the boundaries or interfaces between actors, with a particular focus on capability building and enabling ecosystems to support social innovation and alternative economic organising activity. For almost a decade, she has been performing this work primarily through action research initiatives, across a diverse range of impact economy settings. Joanne is also a Founding Director of the Community Economies Institute and a Churchill Fellow (2008).

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

You might also like