SOL for Professionals – COVID-19: an opportunity for transformative learning among innovation professionals?


The possibility to learn from pandemics gives a different sense to the global crisis. As an example, Scholten, Huijskens, and Dörr (2020) explored how the SARS and A/H1N1 pandemics influenced organizational learning in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They found that the SARS outbreak contributed to learning in CIHR as shown by the revision of funding mechanisms and workshops to develop network linkages.  Similarly, the A/H1N1 outbreak triggered the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, vaccine development programs and high-level pandemic exercises after 2009.

However, what Scholten et al (2020) didn’t explore is how pandemic contributed to individual learning and, more precisely, to transformative learning or second-order learning (SOL): a change in “fundamental assumptions, values and identities” (Grin, Rotmans and Schot, 2010: 280; Argyris and Schön, 1996:3-4;  Mezirow, 1997).

For the purposes of this analysis, we are assuming that sustainability transitions require this specific type of learning and that diving into other literature may help us understand it better. Jack Mezirow (1997:7) has a detailed explanation of how an event such as the pandemic, a disorienting dilemma, generates “transformative learning”, a change in the frame of reference through which experiences are understood. These individual transformations occur through “critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based”.

Similarly, in the frames proposed for Transformative Innovation Policy, “deep learning” occurs when “actors question their underlying assumptions” (Schöt and Steinmueller, 2018: 1563). Moreover, to fully assess whether learning is relevant for transformation, the main issue is if this learning pushes forward a more transformative innovation: an innovation with a clear directionality, that is inclusive and reflexive, aiming for social and environmental objectives, having an impact on socio-technical systems and opening up spaces for public debate, deliberation and negotiation (Schöt and Steinmueller, 2018).

Our case study

To explore how COVID-19 contributed to transformative learning at a personal level, we invited a group of 15 innovation professionals related to the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) from eight different countries and institutions. They were interviewed twice between May 2020 and February 2021. The first interview addressed the impact of COVID-19 on individual, organizational, community, national and global levels, followed by the reflections on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). The second interview helped update the situation after more months while focusing more on the learning aspects. Most participants attended two virtual workshops to reflect on individual and organizational experiences on July 7, 2020, and on February 16, 2021.


Individual perspectives were very open to the research project, although it became evident that STI professionals usually reflect on many issues before their situation. Even though several interviewees reported that their lives “had not changed that much” (interviews hereafter int. 5,12,15), all their daily routines were altered since the pandemic started: family interaction increased, all work shifted to online work, physical contact with other people diminished dramatically. A couple of members reported paying more attention to food and food supply chains. By the end of 2020, people already considered that the new normality had slowly become part of their lives (int. 2,4,5,8,9,13). Specific mentions of being tired of the pandemic came about as the lack of social contact with friends and colleagues persists.

Several aspects of the new normal were appreciated by the interview subjects. These aspects included: a slower pace, the ability to concentrate more on less activities, better work-life balance, engaging in more efficient virtual meetings, having more time without travel, healthy habits and being closer to nature (int. 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12,13,14,15,16). A very different reality was experienced by innovators with children, who reported being very busy between care activities as “they need to be supervised all the time” (int.1,8,10,16).

Uncertainty, anxiety and insomnia were present in different moments as people worried about getting sick themselves or their families, about the economic situation and future in general (int.1,6,9,10, 11,14,16). Several participants commented on being under pressure to stay well and productive, deliver relevant products, and take responsibilities for teams’ “life, health and well-being”. Communication challenges were present due to the new processes, and some people felt overwhelmed (int. 1,4,6,9,14). Traditional leadership are no longer enough as well-being and flexibility become more important in all organizations (int. 1,5,8,9,12).

Financial resource allocation was a topic of concern for many interviewees as health becomes the central preoccupation for many governments (int. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 12, 16). STI agencies are usually not leading the pandemic response but involved in presenting evidence and solutions against the COVID-19 threat. Usual collaboration spaces have gained relevance: “the pandemic has provoked an acceleration of all university processes and a need to interact closely with a wide variety of social and political actors within the region” (int. 2,3,16).

Innovation professionals agreed that the pandemic came with more attention to STI but not necessarily with a deeper reflection on the type of STI needed (int. 4,5,8,9,10,12,13,14, 15,16). Questions emerged: “is science policy now going to shift more to the normative aspects of the grand challenges? Is it getting closer to adopting something like frame three? “. Concerns about traditional evaluation and indicators were also part of the conversation, together with the worry about the remaining distance between science and society (int.2,3,4,5,7,9,10,12,13,14,15,16). The relevance of a more profound discussion in STI that is not yet seen was mentioned at the beginning of the pandemic and in the second round of interviews and workshop.

As “inequality in access to knowledge, resources and solutions limit what is possible to do with innovation”, several participants voiced their unease about unequal access to technological infrastructure and equipment to cope with the new reality (int. 2,9,11,13,14,15). Different measures were mentioned as solutions so that teams, professors and students could connect and have good broadband available for work. The possibility of interacting virtually became especially valued for the project workshops as people recognized that it was interesting and helpful to connect from various locations around the world.

Participants were especially sensitive to previous social and environmental challenges that seemed to have become more visible during the pandemic, especially in the Global South (int. 9,11,13,14, 15,16). Different participants mentioned the possibility that top-down decisions are imposed during national emergencies. General scepticism about how countries are dealing with the pandemic was consistent across different latitudes: “the whole response to the pandemic is something that the governments are still trying to grapple, in some cases [they] have the hang of it, but in some cases, they are still acting quite immaturely” (int.1,2,5,7,16).

New opportunities stemming from the dire context were mentioned throughout including: specific online learning events, collective community actions, virtual experiments to assess transformation, new data digitalization, across-discipline efforts and many others. “There’s a lot more creativity, a lot more new approaches and a lot more space to speak more into the policy space” (int. 1,2,3,9).

During the second interview and the second workshop, considerable discussion was dedicated to learning, and many participants shared insights into how they believe it may work (int. 1,3,4,5,8,10,11). As the conversations became more profound, the number of related questions also increased and doubts about the learning process itself, together with the type of learning needed for transformation, came about. Several attempts to distinguish first-order learning and second-order learning were promoted to enhance the deliberation.


At the beginning of the pandemic, not enough people had extra time to think about what the pandemic meant. This changed from the first set of interviews to the second as time passed.  Evidence from the two rounds of interviews and two virtual workshops points out that learning from the pandemic happened throughout 2020. Transformative learning seems to have resulted from experiencing the pandemic and the creation of multiple conversation spaces where the meaning and implications of the crisis were comprehensively explored. Voluntary sharing of perspectives, experiences, and reflections helped create a reflexive space relevant for change.

The magnitude of COVID-19 as a landscape shock is yet to be assessed. This research project allows a first interpretation about learning from the pandemic as experienced by innovation professionals. Behaviours changed radically as everybody had to adapt to different levels of confinement. Points of view about what is truly important in life (including health), what innovation work means, and the future will also change. Previous beliefs about transformative innovation were maintained, reflecting how current conversations about STI are not transformative enough. Curiously, for this group of innovators, “not much had changed” even though everything is different, perhaps due to a professional bias of what a significant change means.

As learning definitely has occurred, the precise adjective of the type of learning present is still debatable. Whether second-order, deep or transformative learning is the most adequate term depends more on the purpose of the conversation than on the experience itself. In any case, the usual conditions leading to a more significant learning were present and built up through time.


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