After an era of generic support for economic development and innovation, narrowly targeted transformation policy is back on the table. Recent advances in the fields of new industrial policy and transition thinking converge on the idea that achieving structural change requires governments to take an active role in overcoming inertia. Rather than just leveraging R&D investments and setting framework conditions, policy makers are urged to participate in the development of socio-economic systems around particular technologies. Associated policy support typically involves a diverse portfolio of system-specific interventions.
The emergence of transformative policy, in this paper characterized by being selective, process-oriented and multi-instrumental, poses severe challenges to rising standards of public accountability. Evaluation methods for calculating the ‘bang for the buck’ of R&D-leveraging measures are ill-suited when policy mixes are supposed to enact economic transformation. We argue that, in order to see if aptly chosen policy design is bringing about actual change, assessments should gauge policy contributions to building up technological innovation systems (TIS). The TIS-literature provides a concrete but untapped basis for tracking how policy efforts affect conditions favoring the creation and diffusion of new economic activities. This premise leads us to introduce a scheme for structuring analyses concerned with (the links between) the organization, orientation and aggregate impact of transformative policy. We test it in a tentative assessment of the Dutch ‘Topsector approach’.
Besides facilitating continuous policy learning, our assessment scheme also serves to strengthen policy maker’s ability to legitimize the adoption of heterodox economic approaches.