Practice-Based Theorizing in Action: Early Insights from IIPP’s project with Peru’s Innovation Agency

By Rainer Kattel, Ryan Bellinson and Manuel Maldonado Acosta

How can academic institutions and researchers produce knowledge and insights that could effectively support policymakers and decision-makers to tackle massive challenges like the global climate crisis or ageing healthcare infrastructure?

Here, we look at IIPP’s practice-based theorising model, reflecting on our insights and learning gained during the work carried out by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) with Peru’s National Innovation Agency — ProInnovate.

Practice-based theorising at IIPP

The forms of knowledge, and the corresponding methods through which it is produced, determine what information policymakers use to shape their decisions. A theory that is developed without a strong connection to the process of implementation will likely overlook or misunderstand how change has actually happened, and therefore be missing essential elements of knowledge and insight. At the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), we endeavour to experiment with a research methodology, practice-based theorising, to produce knowledge that can be utilised by:

  • policymakers to understand and address grand challenges.
  • academics to develop theories that are sensitive to the real dynamics that play out in systems, organisations and between people.

Grand challenges — the kinds of problems IIPP aims to help policymakers address through its work — are most effectively tackled by leveraging all available forms of knowledge (tacit and explicit). Nevertheless, conventional social science research methods are usually not well suited to exposing and interrogating tacit knowledge, which is intangible, acquired through everyday practices, not easily transferable, and derived from experiences and reflection.

IIPP aims to experiment with practice-based theorising to conduct research and evaluate insights by bringing together codified knowledge, the typical result of traditional academic research, with tacit knowledge, sourced from real-world action to understand system dynamics and inform robust theory development. This is also informed by our believe that the best way to accelerate successful theory-building is hand-in-hand with practical, applied learning. Together with the application of our open innovation principles in public value creation, this allows the evolution of translating theory into practice together with leaders and senior practitioners around the world. As an academic department, we are uniquely positioned to instrumentally or practically utilise practice-based theorising throughout our work with the different governments and institutions we support.

The novel model of ‘practice-based theorising’ continues to be developed at IIPP. In its current iteration, practice-based theorising consists of a continuous feedback loop of information in which theory and practice combine, each informing each other, and involving regular exchanges between policy and academic actors. This approach allows us to deepen and refine our academic and policy research, capturing important nuances from real-world applications in different contexts.

Key building blocks of a practice-based theorising model:

  1. Grasp societal challenges and relevant theories to address them.
  2. Co-design and context-based research. Research teams are formed, in conjunction with practitioners, to research a real-world problem and co-design context-specific solutions.
  3. Test and experiment policies and tools. Solutions are tested in sandbox conditions, and learnings are documented and used to refine and iterate solutions.
  4. Theory building. New knowledge is brought back to the academic and policy realm, building on ongoing or new theoretical frameworks.

Cross-cutting blocks to the practice-based theorising model:

  • Learn: Practitioners learn about academic theories (including IIPP’s work) through formal and informal learning opportunities such as applied learning programme, convenings, case stories etc
  • Exchange: IIPP creates peer-to-peer exchange spaces between practitioners and academia. Our goal is for these spaces to evolve into self-sustaining communities of practice that continue discussions independently after our collaboration with partner organizations concludes.
  • Disseminate: Findings are continuously and widely disseminated through blogs, papers and convenings to crowd in external thinking on optimising the solution spaces
  • Capture: Learnings are formally captured and are fed back into the process of theorising in form of academic publications and teaching cases.
Figure: Practice-based theorising at IIPP

The case of ProInnovate (Peru’s innovation agency)

The National Program for Technological Development and Innovation (ProInnovate) is a pivotal force in Peru’s innovation ecosystem, operating under the national policy of Science, Technology, and Technological Innovation (CTI). ProInnovate fosters the growth and productivity of entrepreneurial stakeholders by ensuring that innovative solutions to critical challenges are identified, tested, and scaled for public benefit. The program aims to collaborate with private, public, and third-sector entities nationwide. In its upcoming funding round, ProInnovate will focus on bridging the gap between leading public sector practitioners and cutting-edge technological solutions emerging from the startup landscape. The goal is to shape and test how these technologies can be harnessed to address persistent issues effectively.

To this end, IIPP worked with ProInnovate to design a new public sector challenge-driven instrument aimed at fostering innovation towards the creation of public value in Peru. This was achieved through an innovative approach that mixed applied learning and a policy deep dive (co-design). This approach reflects our belief that the best way to accelerate successful theory-building through the practice-based theorising model is hand-in-hand with practical, applied learning. With us, technological leaders, policy practitioners, and academics work together to build the foundations and practical tools for systems transformation and policy innovation, focused on delivering an overarching Mission framework that transcends and works across not only policy areas but also sectors, boundaries, and silos.

  1. Grasp societal challenges and relevant theories
Figure: Practice-based theorising at IIPP

The IIPP team led by Professor Kattel with active participation of ProInnovate conducted a discovery process formed by interviews to key stakeholders and desktop research to gather insights on the context of the Peruvian innovation ecosystem and specific challenges at play in the country. As the result, we identified a set of relevant theories to address the present challenges: emerging theories and new approaches in relation to innovation policy, moving between theorical and practical examples; challenge-oriented and mission-oriented policies; organisational design and, in particular, the evolving role of innovation agencies, innovation bureaucracies and dynamic capabilities; and finally design approaches used to design missions and how this affected the capacities and capabilities of the innovation agency.

2. Co-design and context-based research

Figure: Practice-based theorising at IIPP

From the insights gathered, we designed a series of touchpoints for ProInnovate and its stakeholders to build capacity and address their challenges. These included:

  • A three-day ‘sprint’ course in Lima, Peru, aimed at deepening the understanding of ProInnovate’s challenges, familiarizing participants with emerging paradigms in innovation policies, and designing prototypes for the new instrument.
  • Five online lectures with seminars to expand the participants’ horizons on the new generation of innovation policies and deepen their commitment to innovative approaches in policy design and implementation. These sessions culminated in an online session dedicated to finalizing an alpha version of the new instrument. The lectures were delivered by distinguished experts including IIPP Founding Director Prof. Mariana Mazzucato, IIPP Honorary Prof. Carlota Perez, Dan Hill, Director at Melbourne School of Design, and Prof. Rainer Kattel.
  • A series of technical assistance sessions with a multidisciplinary team from ProInnovate, co-creating elements of the new policy instrument. These sessions focused on aspects such as eligibility requirements and applicant profiles, selection criteria and evaluation guides, application questionnaires, execution activities, and expected outcomes.

The sessions integrated lectures with group work, contextualizing concepts and supporting participants in building the skills and capacities to apply their learnings in practice. During the in-person workshop in Lima, group work centered on creating prototypes for the new instrument, culminating in a final group presentation. The goal was to actively build the next steps towards the new grant design, filter the work through overarching concept sessions to provoke innovative thinking, and end with prototypes to test in their work environment after completing the collaboration with IIPP.

3. Test and experiment policies and tools.

Figure: Practice-based theorising at IIPP

The outcome of our co-design and contextual research process was a mid-stage prototype of the challenge-based instrument for the Peruvian innovation ecosystem. Since then, ProInnovate has advanced this initiative and developed a final instrument, which is expected to be launched in the second half of the year. This instrument recognizes its novelty and the unique characteristics of the Peruvian public sector and innovation ecosystem, as reflected in the following features:

  • Stage approach: The instrument is divided into two main stages. The first stage focuses on selecting the challenges that public organizations want to address. The second stage, with support from the innovation ecosystem, aims to develop solutions for these challenges.
  • Funnel approach: The process begins with an open call for all public organizations to present their challenges. Through various stages and phases, the scope narrows, ultimately selecting four challenges to focus on.
  • Focus on capabilities: Selected public organizations will receive training on how to better frame their challenges, including the necessary information, capabilities, and collaborations required to tackle these challenges.

Our aim is to continue supporting the work of this agency, thereby continuously building and sharing knowledge. Our hope is that from this experience we will continue to inform IIPP’s practice-based theorising model as the organizations that we work with implement their policies and new instruments.

4. Theory building

Figure: Practice-based theorising at IIPP

As discussed at the beginning of this blog, conventional social science research methods are usually not well suited to exposing and interrogating tacit knowledge. Therefore, our efforts on theory building are to codify both tacit and explicit knowledge. In the case of our work with Peru’s National Innovation Agency — ProInnovate, we progressed our knowledge around Innovation Agencies and challenge-based instruments. Part of this knowledge, has been captured and disseminated via a recent blog that presents the initial version of a framework that seeks to help policymakers when thinking about designing a new generation of challenge-oriented instruments. Our expectation is to keep building on the strand of knowledge and we can better support the work of the organisations willing to work with a different approach to public policy.

Figure: Early version of the framework for challenge-based approach as a process

Practice-based theorizing is a new model that requires continuous development through knowledge building and experimentation. As discussed, this model has proved valuable in navigating the work of ProInnovate. At IIPP, we recognize that there is no single way to bridge the gap between theory and practice. However, our expectation is that practice-based theorizing will become a useful tool that helps academics and policymakers work together to tackle the grand challenges we are facing.

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose
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Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato