How can we shape the transformation process to a bioeconomy?

March 05, 2020

Protecting the climate and the environment, ensuring food security and more sustainability in the economy and society: many of the challenges we are currently facing could benefit greatly from a future bio-based economy. However, it remains unclear what such a bioeconomy could look like and how to shape the transition towards it. Fraunhofer ISI's recently completed project “Transformation Bio”, which was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research, addresses these issues and researches what government should do to support the transformation to a bioeconomy.

The public are becoming increasingly aware of the necessity for a transformation towards a bio-based economy with its beneficial impacts on sustainability and society – this is emphasized by initiatives such as the recently introduced “National Bioeconomy Strategy”, which is guiding German policy towards a sustainable, circular and innovative economy, or the fact that bioeconomy is the topic of this year's annual “Year of Science”. Both underline the social and political desire for transformation and the high priority assigned to a future bioeconomy.

In this context, Fraunhofer ISI's “Transformation-Bio” project used literature analysis and interviews with various bioeconomy stakeholders to explore how the transformation process has been evolving so far. In addition, four bioeconomy scenarios were developed for the year 2040 based on several expert workshops and the segments of bio-based plastics, biofuels for aviation and road traffic and bio-lubricants. Aspects and options for coordinating and shaping the transformation process were derived from all the findings and insights, and recommendations were made.

Which aspects will influence the transformation to a bioeconomy?

Dr. Sven Wydra, who coordinated the “Transformation-Bio” project, explains what needs to be considered in future with regard to the transformation to a bio-based economy: “The project showed that there is not just one single pathway to a bioeconomy, but rather a wide range of transformation patterns that result from interactions between the different bioeconomy segments. These are closely interconnected, for instance, by technological synergies. As a result, political decisions directed at one segment have substantial impacts on the other segments and thus on the overall development of the bioeconomy.” According to Wydra, actors' decisions and overlapping transformation processes in the energy and mobility sector as well as in materials and production management will also have major repercussions on the demand for bioeconomic products and the development of the corresponding bioeconomy segments. Since the demand for biomass will increase according to many of the scenarios developed, it is especially important to produce more biomass sustainably, and to optimize its use – for example by reducing food waste.

Another finding of the research project is that government as a “driver of transformation” and the political measures it launches to realize the bioeconomy will play a pivotal role. An important political task, for example, is to anticipate and manage the conflicts and opposition encountered en-route to the bioeconomy, because ultimately a transformation of such magnitude must be supported by society as a whole.

What should politics do to bring about the transformation to a bioeconomy?

The study's authors recommend that the bioeconomy policy pursued so far be further developed into a transformative policy. This should be based on so-called ‘reflexive governance’, which means that the transformation process should be influenced to a greater extent from a fundamental decision taken about the preferred direction of the transformation. This strategic decision about direction is accompanied by a systematic foresight process that considers different future developments of a bioeconomy. Transformative politics also means, however, that the political design of the transformation is continuously reviewed with regard to the set objectives, lessons are learned from this and that policy can evolve. The bioeconomy policy should also be strategically dovetailed with other policy fields, such as the circular economy or raw material supply, and should not just focus on promoting research and innovation, but be more be demand-oriented in terms of sustainability. Dialogue, communication and a high level of information help to identify future options and conflicting goals and to initiate processes of change across the whole of society. It is important that the bioeconomy policy is reliable in the long term, but not written in stone and is also open to experimentation.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.