Innovation Diplomacy: A New Concept for Ancient Practices?

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
Author: Pascal Griset1
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  • 1 Sirice/CRHI, Project InsSciDE, Sorbonne UniversitéParisFrance
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This essay questions the concept of innovation diplomacy to determine its true perimeter and its different dimensions. To this end, it quickly addresses the strong points of an argument that appeared in the second half of the 2000s and which establishes in a very general way a filiation, or even a succession, between science diplomacy and innovation diplomacy. A historical approach shows that what is called innovation diplomacy encompasses ancient practices at the crossroads of science, technology, economy and culture. It finds that innovation diplomacy can be understood only as a hybrid concept reflecting organisations and strategies rooted in older practices articulated to the challenges of the present time.


This essay questions the concept of innovation diplomacy to determine its true perimeter and its different dimensions. To this end, it quickly addresses the strong points of an argument that appeared in the second half of the 2000s and which establishes in a very general way a filiation, or even a succession, between science diplomacy and innovation diplomacy. A historical approach shows that what is called innovation diplomacy encompasses ancient practices at the crossroads of science, technology, economy and culture. It finds that innovation diplomacy can be understood only as a hybrid concept reflecting organisations and strategies rooted in older practices articulated to the challenges of the present time.

1 Introduction1

After economic diplomacy, the concept of science diplomacy has emerged as one of the major axes of reflection on new diplomatic practices over the past twenty years.2 This new occupation of the conceptual and semantic field generated fruitful conceptual initiatives. It also gave birth to confrontations that frequently combine epistemological questioning and institutional positioning that favour overly one-sided visions of what science and economics are all about. Science diplomacy is therefore often seen as a diplomatic channel for maintaining relations in times of tension. It can also be seen as a factor of peace that promotes bringing peoples closer together. This vision is connected to the ideal of ‘pure’ science elevated above the contingencies of the world. It has long since been deconstructed to implement a more realistic vision of what science and scientists are at the helm of society. This becomes quite clear when fields such as technology or economics intersect with those of science. The concept of ‘techno-sciences’ thus highlights the fact that whole areas of scientific activity are connected to technology. Technology is not a separate ‘application’ of science.3 In a similar way, science and economics can hardly be separated. Science generates economic activity just as it depends on economic activity to provide the means and, to a certain extent, which is debated, to bring to light the problems that will enable it to answer the right questions. Interactions between science, technology and economy constitute highly complex elements when analysing our societies or international affairs.4

The concept of innovation can be one of the keys to dynamically take these entangled links into account. As a category of action, innovation can be doubly connected to the world of knowledge and ideas, on the one hand, and to what Fernand Braudel named ‘Civilisation Matérielle’, on the other.5 It is therefore not surprising that, after economics and science, innovation appears as an element which can help to better define, or even characterise, specific diplomatic practices. Innovation concerns broad fields and can in many respects, including in the Schumpeterian view, be associated with many forms of creativity (organisational, commercial, political, cultural or even social).6 Nevertheless, the term innovation refers frequently, in current social debates, to technology.

Noting that the term innovation diplomacy has recently entered the discourse of diplomats and academics,7 this short essay mainly intends to contribute to the reflection on the notion of innovation diplomacy by being more attentive to the construction over time of the practices that have been grouped under this term for the past few years. This approach, however, is based on an initial characterisation of innovation diplomacy based on the most recent publications. A historicisation of innovation diplomacy then enables us to highlight deep, ancient and often neglected ties, with economic and technical diplomacy. Finally, the same approach allows us to insert innovation diplomacy into a broader grid to consider it as a very plastic category characterised by a hybridity resulting from the convergence of practices that initially belonged to diverse fields of diplomacy.

2 The Growing Importance of the Idea of Innovation during the 20th Century

Today, our societies’ relationship to innovation appears to be obvious. Through the figures of the ‘New Economy’ such as Steve Jobs, innovation has become a cardinal value within companies and, more generally, within many institutions. ‘Innovate or perish’8 has become the absolute rule in the business world. This injunction, which is stimulating but also questionable in many respects, is being applied more extensively to institutions in a much broader way. Change and modernity are thus major terms in political argumentation and have become ‘baselines’ for the arguments deployed by states or cities when it comes to promoting their action or enhancing their attractiveness. This seductive power of innovation is, however, a recent phenomenon in history.9 Innovation and technical excellence, totally tied in our systems of representation, were not connected until a relatively recent past. Economists have, therefore, only slowly or even reluctantly integrated the technological facts into their frameworks.

Nikolaï Kondratiev10 drew attention to the key role of technology in economics without, however, making a deep and global impact on theory. It was the ‘seizures’ of the capitalist system that prompted the theorists to take into account what can, in a desperate situation, revive the machine. The Depression of the 1930s consequently allowed Joseph Schumpeter to put forward his analyses and placed innovation at the heart of the economy, presenting it as the driving force of growth. His Theory of Economic Development, although published in German in 1912, was not translated into English until 1934 and into French the following year.11 As the economic crisis of 1929 favoured the dissemination of Schumpeter’s work, that of 1974 revived research on the role of technical innovation in economic activity. Gerhard Mensh, in 1979, analysed innovation as the key factor in overcoming depressions.12 The turnaround of the 1990s and the advent of the so-called New Economy gave greater credibility to this thesis of a technical origin of the major economic cycles. The concrete emergence of an innovation diplomacy thus predates the 1950s, which seems to be an impassable horizon for many current analyses wishing to take a historical ‘step back’ in their argumentation.

3 Innovation and Diplomacy: An Explicit Convergence at the Turn of the Century

It was only at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries that the term innovation diplomacy emerged. With the idea of innovation having become commonplace in public debate and asserting itself as a cardinal value of modern society, it could not but be claimed by nations as a crucial element of their policies. Diplomacy is therefore quite logically grasping this marker of the modern state. Like many other subcategories of diplomacy, innovation diplomacy has recently emerged as a concept based on an observation of practices. It is also a discourse on these practices and a way of valuing what is considered as an adaptation of diplomacy to the challenges of the present time. The literature and also the claims of diplomats themselves make it possible to identify a few strong lines of action directly related to it. First of all, it is an element of communication allowing a state, a region or even a city to assert itself on the international scene in front of its rivals and alongside its partners. It can therefore be linked to a form of soft power which relies on the positive public image carried by the word ‘innovation’. It is indeed easily associated with words that generate sympathy. To innovate is to be young, reactive, modern; it is the assertion of an imaginative ability to adapt to future challenges. Innovation diplomacy is also identified as a tool for promoting trade. It enables partnerships to be set up and bridges to be built between research and business, thereby supporting the dynamism of the economy internationally. It reinforces the appeal of a space to attract investment and talent. In the context of ‘major challenges’, it can make it possible to build the alliances necessary to transcend antagonisms or cultural differences to deal globally with issues such as the environment, health or migration.

4 A New Wording More than a Theory

The ‘concept’ of innovation diplomacy seems to be mainly the result of empirical approaches rather than the product of theoretical reflection. This intellectual trajectory emphasises modes of analysis based on functional logic and professionals’ perceptions and favours a vision presenting it as a mutation directly deriving from science diplomacy. This is the angle adopted by Kirsten Bound: ‘At first blush, these efforts at Innovation Diplomacy look merely like a continuation of science diplomacy into a somewhat more commercial arena,’ she explains. To refine this vision and to avoid the risks that a simplifying approach would imply in a rapidly expanding field, she is considering ‘a more sophisticated approach to assessing the risks and opportunities found at every stage of the innovation value chain’. On this basis, it is nevertheless proposed to describe ‘the shift from science diplomacy to Innovation Diplomacy’,13 therefore considering the latter as a particular form of the former, which may be called on to replace it. Jos Leitjen is in the same groove. He attests to this with three indicators about the importance of this ‘new’ field: the growth in the number of publications and official reports devoted to innovation diplomacy, the increase in the number of courses and training opportunities devoted to this specialty and, finally, the number of civil servants directly attached to the field in the diplomatic services. To affirm the reality of this trajectory, he notes, ‘In the case of the Netherlands the name of the “Science attachés” in embassies changed in the 1990’s to “Science and technology attachés” and now they are called “Innovation attachés”’.14 This pragmatic approach is based, to a large extent, on the observation of the actions and discourse of the actors engaged at the present time.15 The actors and stakeholders involved in diplomacy publish numerous analyses and opinions that contribute to a form of co-construction of concepts with the academic world. It thereby makes it possible to capture in a fairly precise manner the specificities of innovation diplomacy, whereas there is still no ‘official’ definition of it at present. This openness, which has the merit of being directly linked to the actors and stakeholders, is, however, not exempt from biases linked to the fact that some observers have a strong interest in the recognition of the new field that they have personally identified and ‘coined’. Historicising this emergence of an innovation diplomacy, as is the case for all diplomatic practices, makes it possible, without denying the concrete force of certain observations, to go beyond their immediacy and to better identify the components of a potential ‘genealogical tree’ of innovation diplomacy.

5 Techno-diplomacy and Internationalisation of Large Technical Systems

The establishment of large international networks became a major feature of international life from the 1860s onwards.16 The first international institutions were set up in Europe in the mid-19th century to manage these new networks. They were the first arenas of technical diplomacy in which innovation, although not explicitly named at the time, played a key role.

It is, indeed, conjointly the management of technical change and the potential transformations of international balance of power that it may entail which are at stake. In 1850, the creation of the Austro-German Telegraphic Union initiated a movement gradually involving the majority of the powers concerned. A convention between Belgium, France and Prussia in 1852, and conferences in Berlin (1855) and Brussels (1858) — all these initiatives led to the signing in Paris on 17 May 1865 of the first International Telegraph Convention creating the International Telegraph Union.17 The structuring force of technical innovation, which to some extent compelled states to reach agreement, was underlined by the fact that the Universal Postal Union, which nonetheless managed a much older activity, was not created until nine years later. Three conferences, Vienna (1868), Rome (1871) and Saint Petersburg (1875), established the common procedures, standards and tariff regulations that provided an indispensable framework for the growth of international telegraph links.18 Engineers are at the heart of this system. Although closely linked to scientific research through the knowledge it mobilised, this dynamic was, however, institutionally distinct from the processes of scientific co-operation, which were just as powerful in the second half of the 19th century. A population of experts was gradually building up into a community of technical diplomats who defended the interests of their countries but also de facto managed, for what they believed to be the common good, an international innovation policy. Railways and electricity are also major fields for an innovation diplomacy which does not say its name but which takes a major place in the structuring of the European spaces.19 Negotiations on tariffs, on standards, on procedures — the delegations confront each other, agree and decide on the basis of national sovereignty. This community of experts is not in fact confined to an ‘advisory’ role, but is in fact responsible and in charge of a diplomatic role. ‘It is the reflection of a system that is conquering the world geographically, diversifying and becoming more complex technically, and whose strategic character is asserting itself politically’.20 From the 1920s onwards, mainly at the instigation of the United States, this system, until then based on state-to-state negotiations, opened up to an increasingly strong presence of private companies. This shift became a new standard for a mix of states, companies and various organisations with the creation of the World Wide Web consortium, which confirmed in 1994 the key importance of defining standards while at the same time largely changing the modalities of their international governance.21

To broaden perspectives and bring us closer to the present time, the establishment of the European patent system is, in this respect, a remarkable example of the reflexivity of relations between innovation and diplomacy. The Munich Convention signed in 1973 created the European Patent Office and demonstrates the strength of an ambitious diplomacy addressing economics and technology in the process of European construction.22

6 Economic Diplomacy: A Base for Innovation Diplomacy

Commercial diplomacy has for a long time been the essential part of economic diplomacy. While the practices may be identified as early as the Middle Ages (Republic of Venice, for example), their characterisation through explicit policies and analyses became apparent only in late nineteenth century. In the context of a ‘first globalisation’ but also of an economic depression that hit European countries between the 1870s and 1890s, the state appeared best able to bring political security to commercial and financial transactions, to collect and disseminate essential information about foreign markets, and to ensure the promotion of national products in distant markets. Industrialists, distributors, and traders sought information to enable them to do business abroad.23 The chambers of commerce highlight the co-construction of a ‘mechanism’, connected to the institutions and networks of classical diplomacy but directly involving economic circles. A Belgian chamber of commerce came to New York in 1867, an Austrian one to Constantinople in 1872, a British one to Paris in 1872 and an Italian one to Alexandria in 1874. These as well as other creations of this time — for example, the ‘commercial museums’ — integrated technical excellence in their discourse through the presentation of products and innovations. After a certain eclipse during the 30-year boom period following the Second World War, economic diplomacy regains its rightful place in the context of policies designed to overcome the stagflation of the 1980s. As used by the political leaders of the 1990s the term economic diplomacy refers to mobilising the nation state and its paradiplomatic networks to defend economic interests.24 ‘It arises from a combination of patriotism and bilateral relationships and can move from economic competition to economic warfare’.25 It also includes the participation by the state in international economic and financial bodies and multilateral negotiations involving a co-operative approach to international relations.26 Thus, its meaning is: ‘ambivalent, suggesting both economic competition and economic cooperation’.27 Just as much as a practice, at the convergence of science and economics,28 innovation diplomacy is a discourse that proposes technical innovation as an anchor for communication addressing much broader aims. In other words, the ‘innovation’ argument crystallises over time to support a range of more specific statements, thereby building an argument of excellence applied to the nation.

7 Innovation Diplomacy and Culture

An internationally oriented discourse based specifically on innovation, or at least on the explicit integration of this concept into a more global discourse, is rooted in a long 19th century. The idea was originally integrated into a different perception of economic evolution, based on Industrial Revolution outcomes. It also crosses, but not without some confusion, the notion of ‘progress’ that marks the century with the development of sciences and methodologies related to it. The Universal Exhibition in London in 1851 appears in this respect as a major turning point.29 Highlighted by economic and technical historians as a crucial landmark, this event can also be interpreted as a nation’s first recourse to a global discourse highlighting its capacity to innovate not against, but in concert with, other nations. Situated as a hinge between the first and second Industrial Revolutions, it marks England’s definitive break with the cult of secrecy that prevailed between the 1760s and 1810s. At the Crystal Palace, Queen Victoria proclaimed the power of the Empire but also transmitted more specific messages. The essential was centred on a free trade vision of the economy directly linked to the technical superiority of the British. From then on, innovations conceived in Great Britain would be available to those who wished to use them. Symmetrically, the British would welcome those who wished to invest in innovation in Britain and expand their businesses. This new openness would quickly become a reality — obviously, with the signing of the free trade treaty with France in 1860, but also with the hitherto unknown international flow of knowledge and expertise. The most notable example would be the diffusion of the Bessemer ‘Converter’ which, from the second half of the 1850s, transformed steel manufacturing. The creation in London of a submarine cable manufacturing company by the Siemens family in 1858 also underlines the fact that the ability to attract innovators became an element of a state’s economic power. From that time on, a real convergence appeared between the logic of adaptation of a pioneer country, intended to maintain its dynamism, and the development of a discourse anchored in innovation and based on a diplomacy of influence, borrowing in certain respects the means that would later be defined under the term public diplomacy. World exhibitions would continue this initial momentum.

8 New Actors: Diversification and Increasing Complexity of the Discourse on Innovation

Until 1914, world exhibitions were a privileged place for exchanges and the preparation of agreements such as the Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. They structured, outside the traditional diplomatic channels, a real innovation diplomacy in an open and prosperous Europe. Their evolution after the First World War demonstrates their retained strength but also a redistribution of the roles of the parties involved. Private companies thus took an increasing place in the definition of themes, ‘fed’ the exhibitions and were much more involved in the construction of the message and the mobilisation of means than in the past. The change was particularly marked between 1937 (Paris) and 1939 (New York):

The two exhibition themes — ‘Arts and Technology in Modern Life’ and ‘The World of Tomorrow’ — and their architectural translation bear witness to the different geographical, political, economic and cultural contexts of the exhibitions. On the one hand, one of the last great European exhibitions to inherit the 19th century, on the other, a ‘world of tomorrow’ that is organized less around national prestige than around the new ‘global players’, the big international firms: in Paris the overall plan culminates in a monumental face-to-face between fascist and communist ideologies, while in New York the corporate pavilions dominate in size and position.30

The subsequent evolution, up to the Shanghai exhibitions, and the future Dubai exhibition would confirm this evolution and the less dominant, but still significant, place of world exhibitions. From the 1970s onwards, while the place of innovation and modernity remained significant, the ‘cultural’ dimension of the exhibitions, already present earlier, became stronger. It also incorporated the values of novelty and creativity, demonstrating that innovation diplomacy cannot be limited to the promotion of technology alone but also encompasses a set of messages and values that form part of a global discourse to promote national excellence.

With decolonisation and changing international power relations, a larger group of nations have appropriated the discourse of innovation as part of their diplomacy. This was the case for Japan, which for a long time had considered, quite unequivocally, innovation as a tool for commercial conquest. This approach evolved at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Japan concluded 24 agreements on scientific and technological co-operation with 34 countries by 2000. In 2008, the concept of science and technology diplomacy became public with the Council for Science and Technology Policy (CSTP) report ‘Toward the Reinforcement of Science and Technology Diplomacy’. The report defined science and technology diplomacy as any steps taken ‘to link S&T [science and technology] with foreign policy so as to achieve their mutual development’ and ‘to utilize diplomacy for the further development of S&T and promote efforts to utilize S&T for diplomatic purpose’.31 On 19 August 2011, the fourth Science and Technology Basic Plan, a five-year national strategy on science, technology and innovation, became the first to designate S&T diplomacy as an issue of national importance. In 2013, Japan signed agreements with 46 countries and the European Commission.32 Japan, however, does not yet place the term innovation at the frontispiece of its diplomacy. Brazil, on the other hand, has done so even more recently, with the launch of the Innovation Diplomacy Program by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2016. The actions carried out by this program ‘seek to break down stereotypes surrounding the image of Brazil abroad and to show a country that produces knowledge, goods and services in sectors of the scientific frontier’.33 Activities, from those with the United States to France and China to South Africa, aim ‘at increasing Brazil’s profile in foreign innovation ecosystems, so as to identify partnerships and to attract investments, to foster the internationalisation of startups, to promote the mobilisation of the Brazilian scientific diaspora abroad and to promote collaboration between Brazilian and foreign technological parks’.34 So, it is indeed a global image, largely integrating cultural, technological, scientific and economic elements that Brazil intends to promote through this innovation diplomacy.

9 Conclusion

Considering that innovation diplomacy has been built up over more than two centuries, without being specifically named, allows us to characterise the concrete emergence of diplomatic practices based on the valorisation of innovation. As an hybrid category, innovation diplomacy is built at the level of discourse as well as at the level of action whenever the organisation of international co-operation or the setting up of new forms of international governance prove necessary. Innovation diplomacy must therefore be considered as an element of political communication, as a governance tool for the major international technical systems, as a lever for economic performance and as a specific vector of co-operation. It is thus a composite mechanism, where diplomacy of and through technology (built since the 19th century), economic diplomacy (just as old but more explicitly structured during the 20th century) and science diplomacy intertwine. The richness of the imaginations35 that it mobilises is, in fact, also a component of a modern cultural diplomacy that would integrate material culture as an intricate part of a country’s identity and, consequently, of its diplomatic practices. This observation is a source of hope for a Europe whose cultural diversity can be an asset in this new century. Open innovation is, in this respect, an opportunity but also a risk.36 Setting up innovation diplomacy is a real challenge for the European Union37 which has been facing three major challenges since the beginning of the 21st century: competition with the United States and with China and the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) as global economic players; the accelerating digitalisation of world economies enhancing globalisation of research and innovation; and the disruptive innovation addressing societal challenges and global markets.38 This examination of the European dimension of innovation diplomacy, through the methods and prism of history, will be developed in a new book collection launched in 2020.39 The series will offer a key element for designing comprehensive analyses that will benefit from a truly global framework for addressing the issues at stake.


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Pascal Griset

is Professor of Modern History at Sorbonne Université. Since 2018, he has been the Coordinator and Principal Investigator of the Horizon 2020 European Union Project ‘InsSciDE: Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe’. He currently chairs the Scientific Committee for the history of the Institut national de la santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM). His recent publications include Communicating Europe: Technologies, Information, Events (1850-2000) (with Andreas Fickers) in 2019. He will publish Face aux risques — De la sureté alimentaire à la sécurité environnementale (with Jean-Pierre Williot and Yves Bouvier) in the fall of 2020.


Acknowledgements — This publication has received financial support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research program InsSciDE (Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe) under grant agreement No. 770523.


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Schumpeter 1934, 1939.


Mensh 1979.


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Leijten 2017, 1.


Gluckman et al. 2017.


Hughes 1993.


Fickers and Balbi forthcoming 2020.


Fickers and Griset 2019.


van Bergeijk 2009; Bouvier and Laborie 2016.


Laborie 2008, 92 (author’s translation to English from French).


Schueler, Fickers and Hommels 2008.


Griset 2013.


Badel 2018b.


About science, see Ruffini 2018.


Badel 2018a, 1.


Arapostathis and Laborie 2020.


Badel 2018a, 2.


Flink and Schreiterer 2010.


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Fickers 2008, 168 (author’s translation to English from French).


Sunami, Hamachi and Kitaba 2013.


Sunami, Hamachi and Kitaba 2013.


Ministerioe das Relaçoes Exteriores (Brasil) 2020.


Ministerioe das Relaçoes Exteriores (Brasil) 2020.


Pavie 2018.


Carayannis and Campbell 2011.


Leijten 2019.


Reiss et al. 2016, 7.


Innovation and Diplomacy in Modern Europe Series, De Gruyter,

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