Narratives of innovation: the case of UK infrastructure

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Const & Proj Management


This research project seeks to explore the interaction between innovation narratives at at industrial policy and organisational levels in the context of UK infrastructure sector. It is based on two fundamental research questions: 1) How do innovation narratives at industrial policy and firm levels interact in the context of UK infrastructure? and 2) What are the implications of this interaction for people and firms? The UK infrastructure sector faces a challenge in delivering targets of reducing costs of investment in infrastructure assets and improving their quality through innovation. The interaction between industry- and firm-levels innovation narratives have direct implications for the innovative capabilities of firms across the sector (Bartel and Garud, 2009; Denning, 2008). By improving innovative capabilities of the infrastructure firms, the project will help to solve a 'productivity puzzle' - a long-term slowdown in UK productivity growth.
The current literature is largely silent on the ways in which narratives of innovation at industry and organisational levels interact. This is the gap in knowledge that the proposed research project will aim to fulfil. There is undoubtedly increasing interest amongst scholars of innovation in the importance of narratives, although there remains little consistency in terms of theoretical approach and scarce empirical investigation (Beckman and Marry, 2009). This 'narrative turn' in innovation studies focuses on understanding how the meaning of innovation is socially constructed through the use of narratives (Vaara et al., 2016). In this project, narratives are seen as unique discursive construction that embodies unity of purpose, a degree of coherence together with connotations of performative intent. Although rarely fixed or completely monolithic, narratives are nevertheless often repeated in organisations (Dailey and Browning, 2014). Narratives are often spoken, but there are other forms of performed narratives such as written and symbolic/visual. These are often reproduced on policies and reports, corporate websites, or in other externally-facing marketing material. Narratives hence may carry important messages at the level of the firm and at a sectoral level, and have important implications for developing strategies. Senior managers play an active role in the construction of such narratives, as they are responsible for formulating and disseminating an organisational vision and strategies (Sims, 2003; Sonenshein, 2010). Narratives of innovation also play an important role in constructing individual and collective identities (Vaara et al., 2016). For example, firms become recognised as innovative through the narratives they adopt.
Innovation narratives will be examined based on the textual and visual data publicly available from innovation policies, government and industry innovation reports and strategies; and narrative interviews with established industry collaborators, including but not limited to Costain, Anglian Water, Galliford Try, Thames Tideway Tunnel, High Speed Two, as stated in the letters of support. Narrative interviews are likely to encourage interviewees to talk about innovations with the reference to organisational values and the vision of the industry to move forward (Soderberg, 2006).
The three-year research programme will result in new scholarly knowledge on innovation narratives in UK infrastructure. The new investigator (PI) will be based at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, University College London, working with Prof Andrew Davies as a mentor along with other leading researchers in the area of innovation and narrative research. ESRC New Investigator Grant will support the advancement of the investigator's and employed researcher's research and leadership skills. It will expand international collaboration network that would potentially lead to joint 4* publications and application for a larger ESRC grant proposal.

Planned Impact

This research project is likely to have societal, economic and academic impact at policy, business, voluntary and public engagement levels. Long-term collaborations with infrastructure project-based organisations are going to become opportunities for changing their identities from the traditional, not innovative and slow in changing practices to value-driven, innovative driven by leadership organisations. This project has a potential to increase innovation activities of UK infrastructure organisations, achieve greater alignment of innovation narratives with the innovation agenda of the industry, and consequently solve a 'productivity puzzle', a long-term slowdown in UK productivity growth. This research project will develop a mobile application that infrastructure companies will be able to use in order to evaluate their innovativeness and learn from best practices. This will enable infrastructure organisations to become more innovative by creating new innovation manager roles, recognise and reward innovation champions, develop innovation strategies and programmes.
This project will advance knowledge about narratives of innovation, as currently there is a lack of theoretical and methodological consistency in their understanding. There is an increasing interest and recognition of a 'narrative turn' in organisation and innovation studies, but little is known about the role, nature of innovation narratives and their interaction between industry an organisational level. This project will contribute to the existing knowledge of innovation narratives in project-based firms. It will open up a new way of understanding the ways meanings of innovation is constructed through narratives. This project will help scholars to use findings and apply ideas from narrative theory and methodology to understanding different concepts. It will open up a new theoretical and empirical framing that can potentially be used to understand narratives about different organisational phenomena.
This project will likely foster partnerships with business and industry in the form of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Industrial Case Studentships to achieve economic and societal impact. In the field of the Built Environment, these types of partnerships between academia, businesses and professional institutions are important for the knowledge exchange and impact that occurs from the movement of people from research into industry and vice versa. This will result in new employments of new researchers and PhD students at the UCL Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management under the applicant's supervision.
Knowledge exchange activities will be at the core of this research project. Collaboration with colleagues, narrative theorists overseas, industry partners will result in better understanding of innovation narratives in infrastructure. It will result in building new professional and personal relationships, joint publications and follow-up research activities. Dissemination of the research findings will be in the form of journal publications, short summary reports, via social media and the Bartlett newsletter. A public lecture will be offered to UCL by the PI and RA to share the research findings to general public. This project will engage with young generations to attract them to work in UK infrastructure industry by sharing personal experiences, telling stories about the research projects. This will be achieved by participation in the university open days, sharing the stories via social media (LinkedIn, Twitter).
ESRC New Investigator Grant will support the applicant in becoming a more independent researcher through gaining experience of leading the research project and supervising a Research Associate employed on the Grant. It will support the development and advancement of their research and leadership skill, and will have an impact on career progression and academic promotions.


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