Friday, 15 July 2011


At last month's seminar on Innovation, Sustainability and Development at NISTADS, participants reflected on the state of innovation in various fields - in food and agriculture, health, ICTs, low carbon technology, and at grassroots level. This is an invitation to talk more about the issues.

For those who couldn't make it to the seminar, or need a reminder of what was said, here's a link to the programme with videos of all the presentations.

Leave a comment below with your views.
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Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Batman and Robin: fighting crime

How does a single word affect the way we deal with a problem? Last night's edition of All In The Mind on BBC Radio 4 offered a striking example. Researchers at the University of Stanford worked with two groups of people, asking them how they would respond to rising crime in a city. Both groups were given the same facts and figures about the crime: the only difference was that for the first group, the crime was described as a “virus”; for the second group, the crime was talked about as a “beast”. In one of the experiments, only a single word (virus/beast) was changed - all the other information given was identical.

On the programme, Prof Lera Boroditsky, one of the authors of the research, explained that the results were as predicted: each group chose strikingly different policies, influenced by the wording. Group A went for diagnosis and prevention, aiming to analyse the causes of crime and “inoculate” the community with social reforms to stop it happening. Group B, who were encouraged to see crime as a beast, chose policies that tended more towards “hunting down” crime and criminals, impose harsher sentences, etc. The use of one word radically altered the way each group went about solving the problem.

This is fascinating enough, but it gets better. How did the groups explain their policies? At this point, they weren't in on the secret. Interestingly, each group claimed their policies were based on the facts and figures given to them about the crime. Neither brought up the wording used. The metaphors of virus and beast had slipped into people's thought processes unnoticed, and were all the more powerful for it.

The virus/beast research is only one more example of how words can have a hidden effect on the shaping of policy - from "floods" of immigrants, to "perfect storms" of food shortages and droughts in poor countries, to disease "emergencies" and "crises". Of course, as Boroditsky points out, it's virtually impossible NOT to use metaphor when talking about complex problems. Even where facts and figures are used, and even if they're accurate and wisely selected, the images and words we use often push or pull us in certain directions, reinforced again and again over weeks, months and years. True, these metaphors can be helpful – but what's even more helpful is to examine them, bring them out into the open, and reflect on their influence. We need to know whether it's a virus or a beast we're facing, or something altogether different.

>> Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782
>> All in the Mind (5 July 2011): BBC Radio 4

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Tuesday, 5 July 2011


by Adrian Ely, Manifesto project convenor

Last week, STEPS participated in a 3-day seminar on "Innovation, Sustainability and Development" in Delhi, India. It was hosted by the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) in partnership with the Centre for Development Studies-Trivandrum and the STEPS Centre. A full programme with links to video from of each speaker is on the Manifesto website.

Video: Anil Gupta, creator of the Honey Bee network, giving his keynote address

Emerging from three days of discussions around innovation, sustainability and development, I was struck by the depth and diversity of knowledge and experience that had gathered together at NISTADS. It has been a true pleasure – both in terms of academic stimulation and practical inspiration - to see the rich history of alternative thinking around science, technology and innovation in India. As young Indian scholars work to turn innovation towards the goals of sustainability and equitable development, they will indeed be standing on the shoulders of giants.

The discussions were hugely broad and wide-ranging, taking in the fields of food and agriculture, health, information and communication technologies, low-carbon innovations, grassroots innovations and indigenous knowledge. Only the field of water and sanitation was notably and regrettably absent (as remarked by Manish Anand from TERI in the final discussion).

As well as interventions on theoretical frameworks, research methodologies and empirical findings, the programme was filled with seasoned activists illustrating many of these ideas through concrete action. Policy makers discussed the role of government as a facilitator and supporter of these efforts - in many cases embracing ideas that had originated within civil society, as illustrated by the example of the National Innovation Foundation and the widespread adoption of non-pesticide management in Andhra Pradesh.

Many of the projects, initiatives and movements discussed over the three days echo the calls of the revised version of the ‘Knowledge Swaraj’ manifesto, presented by Shambu Prasad (video) on Day 1, by reflecting principles of sustainability, justice and plurality. Others illustrate perfectly some of the messages in ‘Innovation, Sustainability Development: A New Manifesto’, and will be written up as examples of how the ‘3D’ agenda has already been implemented by groups across India.

Working with NISTADS and other networks of partners, the STEPS Centre is keen to translate some of the momentum generated by the Manifesto project (and its other research initiatives) into practical policy engagement and impact in different places and at varying levels. As Navjyoti Singh said in his presentation (video) on Day 3, the transition from projects to a movement is always an ambitious programme. The individuals and institutions discussed at this three day meeting give us hope that it is possible.

>> Programme: Seminar on innovation, sustainability and development, Delhi (with links to video)
>> YouTube playlist: Videos from the seminar

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