Innovation politics post-Rio+20: hybrid pathways to sustainability?

Journal Article

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 focused on creating economic and regulatory incentives to drive more sustainable industrial development patterns within and between nation-states—resulting most notably in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 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 locally.

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 in a hybrid politics of innovation for sustainability that links 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 contribute to global transitions to sustainability. Drawing on this analysis, we will also reflect on Rio+20, including the extent to which hybrid innovation 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.