Wednesday, 7 October 2009

STEPS SYMPOSIUM: REDISTRIBUTING INNOVATION

By Julian Pineres Ramirez, PhD student, CENTRIM, Brighton University

"What opportunities are presented by the global redistribution of innovative activity?" was the title of Session 3. The questions of how knowledge can be spread around the world, and how less advantaged regions could capture part of its economic and social benefits, remain a concern for policy makers, academics and companies. Photo: Anabel Marin by Lance Bellers

There is still an assumption that regions or nations which produce knowledge systematically, and who therefore are able to create value through innovations, are wealthier than the ones which do not.

These days, it seems that most innovation, as well as the resultant benefits, is highly concentrated in MNCs (Multinational Corporations) and developed regions (the US, Japan and some European countries). This is perhaps explained by the fact that there is more competence in those markets, making the speed of technological change faster day by day. And organisations, MNCs or regions which have developed capabilities (eg infrastructure and skilled human resources) are more capable of responding to market opportunities. This creates a larger gap with those that stay behind.

Who is responsible, then, for creating the circumstances in which the opportunities arising from innovation can be appropriated, not just for the most competent bodies, but also for the ones who are left behind? On the one hand, MNCs prioritise their own economic interest over all else, and governments in developed regions need to keep their own development on track; on the other hand, governments in less developed regions have urgent priorities, fewer resources and institutional problems, and companies within those regions have to concentrate on surviving in the market. Under these conditions, promoting sustainable development and long term technological strategies seem to be low on the list of concerns of less developed regions.

This makes for a complex situation. What’s needed is an alignment and convergence of purposes, which doesn’t seem to have happened yet. We still need suitable mechanisms which would allow a balance between the economic and social interest produced by innovation activities.

But, more than the social situation described above, an understanding is needed of what “innovation” means within different contexts. Can innovative activities only be high-knowledge and scientific ones, or can they also be those that respond to local needs? In other words, there should be a recognition of indigenous knowledge, giving it the true value it deserves, especially in less developed regions.

So the distribution of innovation should not be understood just as a transfer process from highly developed regions to less developed ones; but as a process of mutual understanding and acknowledgment of difference and cultural constructions. Otherwise, the commercial model of distributing innovation will prevail: one where those with fewer resources are paying for innovation without receiving or producing any value themselves. This increases even more the levels of inequality, poverty and so on.

There are however some examples of where this situation has changed and some opportunities have been created for those countries who have taken the risk of making more systematic and sustainable political decisions. This is perhaps the case in China, India, and to some extent a few Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile), where the government encourages and supports indigenous innovation, and companies understand the opportunities available through networks and capacity building.

It follows that the Manifesto should include an accurate conception of what is meant by the distribution of innovation. Some ideas raised from the Symposium could be: first, that there should be a recognition and mutual understanding of indigenous knowledge within a globalised context; second, that responsibilities should be shared but come mostly from each country; and third, that in the long term, a sustainable development is only possible if innovative activities come from a systematic construction, over time, of local capabilities, where local actors are involved – rather than just the transfer of technology through conventional commercial activities or the allocation of multinational subsidiaries.

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