Thursday, 8 October 2009

GRASSROOTS INNOVATION

By Adrian Smith

It is imperative, in my view, that grassroots innovation does not become ghettoised into ‘technologies for the poor’.

Last week I enjoyed a fascinating trip to Argentina, where I talked about grassroots innovation.

The trip was made possible by the Argentine government’s Institute for Industrial Technology (INTI), whose new Quality of Life Programme is just beginning to develop support for grassroots innovations that address problems of poverty and social inclusion in the country. I learnt that ‘social technology’, as they called it, was also of interest in Brazil, where a much larger programme to support social technologies is helped by finance from Bank of Brasil and PetroBras.

But the invitation also came about because my own research on grassroots innovation today and the history of the alternative technology movement in the 1970s and 1980s intrigued STS researchers at the University of Quilmes in Buenos Aires. The team, led by Hernán Thomas, are involved in an IDRC funded research project on ‘social technologies’ in a variety of South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Perú, and Chile). The Quilmes team were hosting a conference for regional STS scholars on the topic of Technologies for Integration and Development in Latin America, and at which I spoke.

So in the same week, I found myself talking to grassroots innovation activists from across Argentina, and with South American academics debating whether and how social technology could directly address social inclusion and poverty.

On the academic side, there was a lot of debate about concepts and core fundamentals:

- what we meant by social technologies,
- what political economic contexts were required to make them flourish,
- whether current initiatives were palliatives that failed to address the real problem, which was the capitalist order
- or whether social technology programmes provided the necessary, finer grained details and capabilities for the shifts in economic power underway or aspired for by governments like those in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Much of this felt a long way from the UK context. In the UK, grassroots innovation is also about social transformation, but about transformation away from patterns of over-consumption, to put it crudely, and social inclusion is concerned with making sure this move nevertheless improves the lot of our hardest-pressed communities. The instrumental aims of public programmes of support can be limited to nurturing social legitimacy for larger-scale sustainable technologies and economic change.

Obviously, the starker inequalities in Latin America provide grassroots innovation for social transformation with a totally different meaning and purpose. And the current politics in some of the countries, as well as histories of colonialism and experiences with neo-liberalism, meant some pretty core fundamentals were being aired in ways different to policy circles in a UK context.

But at the same time, there were similarities and familiarity. One similarity was a historical resonance. The debates about whether progressive technologies were possible in non-progressive settings reminded me of the debates around Appropriate and Alternative Technology in the 1970s. Taking care not to be anachronistic in the historians’ sense, it nevertheless seemed to me that revisiting and updating those debates, whilst reflecting on the experience of attempts back then, might inform our thinking about grassroots innovation today. In my view, this would result in a more sober consideration of the real possibilities for grassroots innovation, and how its great potential nevertheless needs to be considered as one strand in a broader political programme for democratising technologies of both grassroots and high science varieties.

Another resonance with my experience in the UK was that, whilst some people (mostly academics) were debating all this at the high conceptual level in the conference in Buenos Aires, there was a growing network of people in Argentina just getting on with it, and trying as best they could to grasp some control over the development of technologies and (more accurately) socio-technical practices that they thought might help them improve their immediate situations.

It was great talking with activists at the workshop organised by INTI. These smart people were aware of their limitations, but had an impatient hopefulness and irrepressible urge just to get on with developing socio-technical practices that would address their currently unmet needs. They were busy setting up low-cost housing, local organic food networks for supplying Buenos Aires, co-operatives for developing agricultural technologies for family farms, improving worker safety at wood mills, experimenting with low cost techniques for stripping arsenic from naturally contaminated water supplies, mobilising for better cycling infrastructures, and so on.

There was lots of sharing of ideas at this event. The recurring message was that everybody needed more resources (tinged in some cases with unease about some forms of market-based resource provision). But discussion of broader innovation processes that might help develop these ideas, and the institutional designs that might redistribute resources to those processes, and which could help diffuse, scale-up and translate activity into mass forms, was much less developed. Databases describing the specific ideas, activities, socio-technical practices will not help here (though they are useful).

Databases, case studies, exemplars etc do not indicate what the grassroots and community-based analogues should be to all the institutions that facilitate more conventional, firm-based technological innovation. What programmes are needed to provide the grassroots with the Innovation Centres, Technology Parks, Technical Assistance Services, Innovator Clubs, Scientific Support Services, Education Programmes, and National Innovation Systems? Here I think analysis and some of the reflection coming from the academic conference could help. But those fundamental academic debates need to be mediated and made practical at an intermediate, programmatic and political level.

Programmatically, the challenge is to learn how to support, diffuse, scale up and translate grassroots activities and the inspiring ideas they have. Personally, I think niche theory from the socio-technical transitions literature (combined with social movement theory) is promising; which is why I continue working in that area (when funding permits!). I think it might be able to mediate between the activists and the political economists. The challenge is to flesh out the political processes that will give programmes for grassroots innovation greater legitimacy, resources, and weight in economic development than currently is the case.

I talked about this in my presentation at the STEPS symposium last month.

Some people are way of ahead of me in this kind of thinking. My trip to Argentina, engaged me with people who have some fascinatingly potent ideas. But I do think it is at the intermediate programmatic level - between enthusiastic projects and favourable high-level changes in political economy - that we need to be working.

It is imperative, in my view, that grassroots innovation does not become ghettoised into ‘technologies for the poor’. Grassroots innovation is one strategy in a portfolio of programmes aimed at democratizing technology and directing innovation for greater social equality. In my view, this means that intermediate programmes for grassroots innovations cannot be limited to supporting specific projects and networks. It needs also to articulate the grassroots innovation experience into more dominant and conventional innovation policy programmes. What I call translation processes are important here: Grassroots innovations might provide ideas for how to democratise high-science innovation, e.g. articulating demand for different end-uses, alternative kinds of expert-practitioner-citizen-politician relationship. So, our analysis cannot restrict its focus on a single (grassroots) pathway for STI, but rather seek to understand how empowered grassroots pathways might enable their more symmetrical role in national and international innovation agendas.

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