Standards and standardisation policy are underrated tools of economic policy. They are not ‘sexy’ and therefore rarely in the focus of the public eye and policy makers. In fact, most standards are developed by stakeholders from (mainly) industry and (partly) society without any policy intervention. Still, standards are an important ingredient of regulatory policy and the innovation policy mix. When standardisation works well and when societal groups are adequately involved, it can contribute significantly to innovation and growth – and green growth in particular.

The importance of standards

What are standards? ‘Standards’ can merely mean a common set of practices agreed on between different actors: the Gregorian calendar, music notes or football game rules. Agreements of this kind account for the vast majority of ‘standards’. For STI policy-making, a special kind of standard is primarily important: so-called de jure standards, developed in the formal standardisation system – at the European level by institutions like CEN, CENELEC or ETSI, at the international level by ISO, IEC and ITU. In quantitative terms, these standards might only be the tip of the iceberg – but it is these formal standards that often have the greatest impact and the widest recognition in a global society. Both businesses and public bodies use them as tools for managing vital issues: trade policy, health and safety regulation, energy efficiency, environmental impact or the interoperability of new technologies from smartphones to smart factories. A review of a number of studies looking at the impacts of standards by Blind et al1 suggests that de jure standards are responsible for between 0.2 and 0.9% of economic growth in Western developed economies, mainly due to knowledge diffusion effects. And these numbers do not even include wider socio-economic impacts such as environmental benefits which are becoming more important as environmental challenges grow.

Challenges in an evolving standardisation system

The current standardisation system, however, faces several issues: the speed with which standards are developed, process transparency of standard-setting, costs of standards, to name a few. Maybe the most important challenge is to ensure stronger inclusiveness of the standardisation system, i.e. the extent to which all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented in the process. That system has evolved essentially to handle industrial standards. But as policies extend from focusing on industrial growth to addressing the ‘societal challenges’ such as climate change, coping with the ageing of the population and so on, the standardisation system is failing to evolve. It generally addresses these new questions through the perspective of industry, not sufficiently taking on board other societal interests that have to be involved in tackling the societal challenges. We need to find mechanisms to strengthen these other interests as a ‘countervailing force’ to industry if we are to have a standardisation system that properly connects the societal challenges to the industrial clout needed to address them effectively.

More inclusive standardisation processes are needed to address societal challenges

There are many reasons for greater inclusiveness. One of them is that standards can contribute to one of the most pressing societal challenges today, namely to combine economic growth with sustainability. To reach ‘greener’ standards, environmental groups and experts are involved in standardisation and the European Commission supports institutions like the CEN Environmental Helpdesk or the Strategic Advisory Body on Environment (SABE). By doing so they follow the treaties of the European Union which postulate that ‘environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Community policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development’.

A key challenge is how to rectify the wider asymmetries of power and information between industry and environmental stakeholders in the standardisation system. In (too) many standardisation bodies, especially regarding product standards, environmental players are outnumbered by industry actors. Environmental stakeholders need to be more strongly supported to be able to effectively participate in standard development processes. This way, the potential of standardisation for sustainable innovation can be better leveraged to create not only economic growth but also wider environmental effects.

1 – Blind, Jungmittag, Mangelsdorf: The Economic Benefits of Standardization, An update of the study carried out by DIN in 2000, 2011.

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