Soft innovation? Towards new narratives on regional capabilities and policies

When it comes to innovation, most scholars and policymakers associate it rather exclusively with new technological inventions. Hence innovation hubs tend to coincide with places where organisations show strong technological capabilities. Yet, innovation is more than invention and also includes ‘soft’ elements that go beyond technology. These elements, like design, marketing and business models, are crucial for developing actual innovations that consumers and users are willing to adopt. Moreover, some places can specialise in soft innovation and thrive even without strong capabilities in new technology development.

The overall aim of this project is to investigate how the inclusion of soft innovation in theoretical, empirical and policy work at the regional level can help creating new narratives on regional innovation capabilities. By ‘soft innovation’, project leader Carolina Castaldi means all forms of innovation that are not purely technological or functional (in the spirit of Paul Stoneman’s seminal book). 

The starting point of the project is the acknowledgement that when it comes to regional innovation the dominant narrative tends to center around technological capabilities and assume an underlying R&D-driven model of economic growth. Yet, there is increasing awareness that other forms of capabilities and that sectors where formal R&D is not the main source of innovation might also act as drivers of regional resilience. 

The recent book by Dan Breznitz on Innovation in Real Places talks about the dangers of ‘techno-fetishism’ as the tendency of (regional) policymakers to focus on the shiny and exciting initial phases of innovation processes. The same policymakers seem to disregard or rank as inferior, those other innovation activities where local firms can specialise in, for instance, design and second-generation, incremental, innovation. Similarly, policymakers and investors in different places tend to be attracted by the same high-tech (manufacturing) sectors, with the result that innovation in other sectors remains hidden and is not further leveraged as the source of jobs and prosperity  which it really is (see for instance the work by Mercedes Delgado and Karen Hills on the supply chain economy). 

In this project Castaldi takes the stance that soft innovation, despite the negative connotation that some may attach to the term, is real and that soft innovation should be taken as innovation that does matter.

Project objectives

Theoretically, the project aims at making space for a broader set of innovation capabilities in regional studies by investigating how existing frameworks can be adapted and/or overturned.

Empirically, the project aims at developing original metrics of regional capabilities, complementing patent data with data on trademarks and design rights.

Finally, the project aims at translating the results from theory and empirics into insights for policymakers to embrace new narratives on regional capabilities.

Project funding

This project is supported by one of the MeRSA grants of the Regional Studies Association. See the official project description here.


If you would like to receive updates on this project, feel free to email Carolina Castaldi.

Please cite this page as:

Castaldi, C. (2021), Soft innovation? Towards new narratives on regional capabilities and policies, Utrecht University.