Wednesday, 9 February 2011


By Adrian Smith, STEPS Centre member

This post is also available in Spanish at the Tecnologias Sociales blog.

Observing national innovation policies around the world, one is struck by some recurring technological themes. Again and again, governments (and partners in business) seek innovation systems capable of exploiting information and communication technologies, bio-technologies, and nano-technologies. Diverse countries persist in either keeping up with, or catching up with, an apparently universal techno-economic frontier. These dominant technologies constitute the means to economic growth. Each signifies the rise of powerful, apparently autonomous, knowledge bases, around which national institutions of innovation policy, including firms, research organisations, entrepreneurs, and citizens, must forge linkages in order to realise promising competitive capabilities.

Peering beyond the mainstream, however, the careful observer will notice an enduringly awkward demand in the political undercurrents of innovation policy. It is a demand that furnishes its own set of themes for technology. Appropriate technology, peoples’ technology, and social technology signify a different hope for knowledge production and its material application. In contrast to an approach adapting national policy circumstances to specialised fields of technology, these alternative technology approaches call for innovation policies rooted in the particular experiences and needs of local communities, as articulated by those communities. Institutions should forge links with knowledges relevant to the local situation, and empower people to have control over whatever technology development is helpful to them (wherever that technical knowledge comes from).

Of course, proponents of mainstream innovation policy rightly point to the employment and wealth creating benefits of their new technologies. But as emerging economies grow, and advocates seek in ICT-, bio- and nano- the technologies that will upgrade accumulation in their industries, so calls also go out for appropriate technologies that address the people left behind. Instead of waiting for growth to either trickle down or float people upwards, appropriate technology activists advocate innovations that help the marginalised more directly and more immediately. The consequences of distinctions between the innovation mainstream and the appropriate technology undercurrent also binds them together. It is no coincidence that the economic rise of India and Brazil, both of whom are committed to mainstream innovation policies, has been accompanied by social movements (and social programmes) for Peoples’ Technologies and Social Technologies respectively.

Both movements share family resemblances with the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what makes this new generation so interesting, and perhaps less likely to repeat earlier mistakes, is the way they try to put socio-economic organisation and community empowerment at the heart of their projects. Peoples’ Technology Initiatives seek to organise the innovation of production and consumption systems across large numbers of villages, in contrast to the classic AT focus on village level technologies. The idea is that this larger scale can create niche spaces that hold the political economic pressures of global capital at bay, and can facilitate appropriate innovations for those village communities within their niches.

In Brazil, a social technologies network has expanded rapidly since its inception in 2005. It includes over 200 organisations, mostly in Brazil, but also in other Latin American countries and some in Africa (with support from the Brazilian government and corporate social responsibility funds of national banks and businesses). According to the Social Technologies Network (, the most important aspect to social technology is the community development process that carries the project. It is this social process that is at the heart of social technology: thereby avoiding earlier appropriate technology fixations on finding the right gadget whilst forgetting the process. On pragmatic grounds, the Social Technologies Network has developed databases and case studies of social technology artefacts, formed in part to demonstrate the extent of activity to funders and potential supporters. These are reminiscent of appropriate technology handbooks of old. But the real purpose behind social technologies is to nurture local innovation and empowerment processes from project to project, and from community to community.
The social technology goal is to empower people and seed wider social transformation through the capabilities acquired during a particular project, and that then drive initiative in subsequent projects in the locality. The partnerships that are formed are not only about making sure immediate solutions are locally appropriate. Additionally, learning to work with neighbours, university researchers, civil society organisations, funders, technology suppliers, politicians, and so on, is also intended to improve the ability of the community to organise and solve further problems, develop and exploit economic opportunities, and create the capacity to mobilise resources from others. Grassroots innovation capabilities are seen as requiring political and economic capabilities whose capacity increases through successions and networks of projects. Social technologies are neither artefacts nor standard products. Each project needs innovations to adapt to local contexts, and hence builds innovative capabilities. However, even this description misses the point made in the paragraphs above, which relates to the social technology deliberately requiring local innovative effort, since it is through this that solidarity will be built and communities empowered. As such, social technologies aspire to be a catalyst for social development in a broader and more mobilising sense than some learning-based approaches to project development (which were, in their turn, informed by appropriate technology critiques of an earlier generation of blueprint approaches to project development).

One example is the ‘cisterna’ initiative in Brazil, which is a rainwater harvesting system. It was developed by a building worker with help from university researchers. The university input was advice over materials and how to ensure the water was collected in ways that kept it in good quality. One might imagine a standard system design could easily be diffused as an affordable product; but it is the self-build aspect that constructs links in the community and initiates the social processes. This not only allows appropriate adaptation, but seeks to empower people too. The water subsequently ‘belongs’ to the self-builders, not to the utilities, nor is it dependent upon the patronage of a local politician. Perhaps it can inspire attempts to build further community resilience through future projects. That at least, is the claim: bringing experimentation and empowerment together. Of course, some people may not wish to engage in this way, and would prefer alternative development processes that provide access to ready-made water systems. Of course, the jobs and (redistributed) wealth arising in mainstream innovation policies might provide the resources for such top-down provision of (even better) water systems; which means a social technology approach has to prove its worth amongst diverse development pathways.

It can be difficult to persuade mainstream innovation policy that social technologies are a serious source of innovation and development for the country. Conventional innovation catch up measures prevail. Even though the science and technology minister sits on the 15 member board of the Social technologies Network, some within the social technology movement are saying it is difficult to open up mainstream innovation policy to allow more space for social technologies. Other ministries are more supportive, since the outcomes of social technologies meet their goals, but this limits social technologies to a social programme, rather than democratising science and technology by building up and building upon grassroots innovation capability.

What might a democratised innovation policy involve? It could begin to re-orientate some of the incentives that constrain scientific engagement and activity in social technology processes. Innovation policy for social technologies could work on a number of fronts. This would include training (action) researchers to realise the complementary value (and satisfaction) in working with local communities, rather than exclusively targeting research efforts towards publications, patents and other international criteria for scientific esteem. Innovation policy support might also convince commercial companies that social technology initiatives can inform their core business strategies in product and service development (such as marketable rainwater systems for other sectors in society). This means going well beyond an add-on corporate social responsibility programme. Innovation policy might also provide institutional support for intellectual property issues with social technologies. The whole ethos of social technologies is to make knowledge about the processes, techniques and products of social technologies freely available, but which nevertheless might need ‘protecting’ from enclosure by more predatory firms and their patenting activities. The Honey Bee Network for grassroots innovation in India is trying to do precisely these things, through a sometimes difficult involvement of activists in the National Innovation Foundation. Firmer innovation policy commitment to social technologies might even extend to feeding lessons back to higher-tech manufacturers, who develop designs more adaptable to social technology processes and enable poorer communities to have greater involvement in the development process. The challenge is for grassroots innovation niches to develop into a power base that could drive a larger proportion of the agendas, resources and institutions of mainstream science and technology. Networks, identities and interests are crucial here.

Such an encounter between grassroots innovation and mainstream innovation policy presents challenges to both sides. In order to win some of the mainstream over to the approaches of social technology, advocates will have to prove their worth on conventional terms of innovation policy; when ideally they wish to change those terms. The development of a broader power base for social technology could mean re-defining it in ways that lose sight of its more radical roots, and the radical routes to democratising technology. The experimentation and innovative results of social technologies need to impress more commercially-minded interests as well as community development advocates. Mainstream innovation policy actors meanwhile will have to let go of certain agendas and resources, in order to open up directions of experimentation to the needs of others. Meaningful dialogue requires the identification of common ground. It is unclear just how broad is this space currently for re-directing mainstream innovative efforts towards more direct sustainability and poverty reducing goals. Opening this space will prove unsettling for the current political economy of science and technology, and as such is very challenging.

Were the grassroots empowerment of social technology policies to lead to the shaping of much more plural and equitable science and technology agendas, then some of the aims for democratising technology that inspired early advocates of appropriate technology in the last century might eventually be fulfilled in this century. But it seems to me, at least, that new approaches to long-standing concerns reveal that some of the fundamentals remain the same.

1 comment:

Yogesh Lokhande said...

You have put the case for grassroots innovations quite well. This resonates quite well with what Prof Anil Gupta of Honeybee Network says that scale should not become the enemy of sustainability. I loved reading your post.