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News / Symposium ’09: Session 2 – Grassroots/bottom up innovation – how to facilitate emergence and flourishing

The second session, chaired by Ian Scoones, took forward one of the focal points of the new manifesto, that innovation is already occurring across the world in forms that are not necessarily picked up by conventional metrics or policies.

Such ‘grassroots’ innovation can cater for needs that remain invisible to large private or public sector actors, and complement local practices and knowledge rather than displacing them. Bottom-up initiatives may drive innovation in directions that serve environmental goals within niches that may eventually displace less sustainable socio-technical regimes. At the same time, there is an urgent need to find ways to identify and exploit complementarities between these models and more formal, capital-intensive approaches.

This session asked if, and how, grassroots innovation and formal R&D-based initiatives can be arranged to work together. How can bottom-up initiatives be promoted without stifling innovativeness and creativity? And should bottom-up innovation be steered in certain (environmentally sustainable) directions, and if so, how?

– Prof Anil Gupta (Anil’s slides)
– Monique Salomon (Monique’s slides)
– Hiroyuki Kubota (Hiroyuki’s slides)
– Dr Adrian Smith (Adrian’s slides)
Speaker biographies

Anil Gupta started the session by putting forward a challenge to the STEPS Centre. In order for the new manifesto be received more widely throughout the world it would be worth remembering not only Western literature and history in science and technology policy but also that from elsewhere, for example from Indian writers like KM Munshi.

He also introduced an important ethical component to the day – arguing that those using knowledge which is given freely in their work should not get paid themselves and stressing the importance of crediting those whose knowledge is given. He argued that the Honeybee model works on the basis of ethics and faith… not on the basis of expensive consultancies, technical complexities or specifications. In addition he argued that even today most ethnobotanical studies do not give the names of those whose knowledge is being reported.

Anil pointed to the importance of grassroots innovation as performed by roadside vendors (still outlawed in South Africa), informal mechanical outfits and the ‘low-quality’ innovators – known in China as ‘shanzhai’. The work of these individuals is vital to continuing development in their countries and serves as a lesson to the West, where current design approaches could become much more sustainable through pro-active planning for re-use and repair rather than replacement. Anil suggested that the skills and knowledge, as well as manpower, of these local innovators need to be recognised through an approach which might be termed ‘labour first’ (as opposed to ‘farmer first’).

As well as promoting knowledge sharing at the grassroots using local languages and media, Anil argued that G to G (grassroots to global) transfer of local knowledge is already happening. In some cases, improved (environmental) standards are necessary to enable certain innovations to flourish and to create a market. In others, there is a need for micro venture capital and new financial mechanisms to facilitate the move from informal innovator to entrepreneur.

The message for the new manifesto, and its target audiences, was simple: the message for the UN is simply that they need to open their minds somewhat… and everything else will follow. Compassion, creativity and collaboration are the watchwords we need to access and utilise this grassroots knowledge. The new manifesto needs to have fewer pages, but be ‘a bold declaration on what restructuring of mind and thoughts we wish to have’.

Monique Salomon brought a story of experiences and challenges from Prolinnova – “Promoting local innovation and ecologically-oriented agriculture and natural resource management”, an international multi-stakeholder network formed in 1999 that tries to link ‘islands of success’. They focus not only of farmer-led innovations in terms of hardware (techniques) but also in terms of the software, for example through different kinds of social organisation supporting marketing and other reforms to mainstream and institutionalise participatory approaches that have been around since the 1970s.

Prolinnova promote farmer-farmer sharing and learning (through the oldest forms of learning) and also link different stakeholders in the chain – farmers, universities and R&D, civil society – formal and informal science (with users/farmers taking the lead) through publications and multimedia, as well as collaborative experimentation – forming a community of theory and practice. Participatory innovation and development training is facilitating attitudinal and behavioural change. A shift among researchers and extension staff is noticeable and important, but at the same time government and policy environments still often militate against grassroots and bottom-up innovation and a fundamental shift is still required.

Hiroyuki Kubota asked the question why, if technology originally has no borders, agricultural technologies can be seen to have had dramatically different impacts in different parts of the world. Hiroyuki compared the productivity increases seen in Asia with those seen in Africa and pointed to some of the reasons and challenges faced by practitioners in government aid agencies like himself.

He argued that knowledge and skills are only accumulated in individuals – not in documents, not in institutions or organisations. Japan has had problems identifying individuals – good counterparts and practical partners – in some parts of Africa. Many of the best partners, they find, are near the age of retirement. Some of the universities deliver good graduates but these do not have opportunities for field experience in designing and executing high quality field experimentation and research. As a result, ‘it is quite difficult to invest tax payers’ money into African soil for the agriculture sector simply based on data or statistics produced locally’. Hiroyuki stressed that investment in this individual human capacity should be an issue to be highlighted in the new manifesto.

Turning to his area of expertise (agriculture), Hiroyuki argued that the green revolution itself may not have benefited all producers, but in many areas at least benefited the urban poor. At a very over-simplified continental level (which was illustrated with figures on increases in rice yield), Africa benefited much less than Asia. Pointing towards the comparative abundance of investment in Asia as opposed to the much lower investment (but much higher ODA) in over the past 3 decades in Africa, he asked if a green revolution of the same kind was possible on the African continent. A new (and, Hiroyuki argued, inevitable) phenomenon, the African land-grab, represents a new wave of investment into the continent, however land tenure systems are still not properly formed, raising significant risks. He raised the question whether the land-grab also potentially represents an opportunity. How can we (including in the new manifesto) utilise it for sustainable agricultural development in Africa?

Adrian Smith pulled together some of the examples from the previous presentations drawing on work that he has been doing on innovative green niches, especially linking the ideas and initiatives from the South with some of the alternative technology movement of the 1970s.

He described a recent visit to South America where he had spoken both with grassroots innovators and also academics studying these processes. He asked whether the presence of grassroots innovation is just a symptom of failure of mainstream innovation systems. Science and technology studies can help to uncover the reasons behind this, as well as the ways to support grassroots innovation. In addition, innovation studies can help us to understand why certain systems are locked in to providing certain services. While this has been shown in depth in Northern settings (e.g. in terms of fossil fuel lock-in), there are contributions that can be made in the South.

Putting forward the multi-level perspective introduced by Geels et al, Adrian pointed to his own interest in how to facilitate knowledge sharing between innovative green niches and dominant socio-technical regimes, suggesting that this might be a useful way to bring about more sustainable pathways.

Contributions from the floor responded to the speakers and also put forward opinions on the current manifesto draft. Sheila Jasanoff pointed to the radical disconnect between the US policy approach of sending science diplomats to the Middle East and the kinds of knowledge and innovation being presented in the session. Richard Jolly agreed, and pointed to Adrian Smith’s last slide (illustrating multi-level transitions), arguing that this kind of dynamic understanding, especially the role of such dominant imaginaries in preventing alternative forms of innovation from flourishing, was missing from the current draft of the manifesto and should be brought in, possibly using a diagram.

Gerry Bloom suggested that the presentations illustrate how innovation is happening all the time. Most innovation is happening at the grassroots. At the same time, not all innovations are good – in the health field, counterfeit (and sometimes dangerous) drugs are now commonplace in some parts of the world. Gerry suggested more emphasis on the regulation of innovation, but instead of criminalising in order to deliver protection against unsafe products, proposed a more positive approach focussing on social benefits.

Andrew Barnett highlighted the growing use of the term ‘innovation’ among international bodies like IFAD, and urged that the manifesto be clear about what is meant by “innovation”. In addition, he suggested that the draft built further on the political economy aspects of ‘empowering the demand side’ but put it in a simple way. Although covered in the draft new manifesto, it is not clear in the summary at the beginning – but it is vital that the control is put in the hands of the demand side, not necessarily those who focus on science and technology – scientists/ R&D/ private sector in the North. Lastly, the manifesto needs to be clearer in its message about what it wants DfID and the CGIAR to do differently. Utilising the innovation systems model as a framing diagnostic – including extension, intermediaries, risk-reducing VC, leverage – may be useful in this regard.

Geoff Oldham looked back to an IDRC programme that he had been involved in “modern-traditional technology project” and pointed to the challenge of developing indicators illustrating that these kinds of projects have been an effective use of public money.

Andrew Adwerah asked how to avoid grassroots innovation initiatives being captured by factions in national government systems. Ponge Awuor pointed to the need for a boost in agricultural investment in Africa but also presented a challenge: if the developed world is dumping obsolete technology in Africa, how is this aiding development? Engineers are being taught how to repair machines from the North rather than creating their own. How does this encourage innovation?

Hiroyuki Kubota responded that most development projects have been unable to unlock the value of traditional practice – through incremental improvement or combining with external technology – in many contexts. Technical experts from the North are not only passing on technology but also learning to improve themselves.

Monique Salomon responded that it was true that not all innovations are good. Innovations need to support “triple bottom line” outcomes, but political economy considerations are also important – powerful interests (e.g. in agriculture) are pushing against grassroots innovation, and this was one of the reasons to form an international network. In response to Geoff Oldham, she claimed that it was nowadays not the donors that they were struggling with, but the host governments – Ministries of Agriculture or of Science and Technology – who say “my extension worker is wasting their time”. To address this challenge, local innovation projects need to innovate as well in order to build outcomes that are recognised by policy-makers and scientists themselves (e.g. scientific papers) as well as those that are useful in the field (eg. farmer fairs).

Anil Gupta responded to Sheila by asking why the stimulus package continued to be channelled through elite institutions. He had previously argued that if just 10% of the stimulus fund could be invested in open innovation (not necessarily open source) it would bring about significant change across the world. The traditional non-inclusive model of growth instead creates marginalised communities that become potential terrorist recruits or criminals. The honey bee model is as relevant in the USA and UK as in India.

In regards to the negative sides of innovation, he pointed to dynamite fishing and other cases. There is nothing innately good about innovation. Noble human values are the only things that drive innovation towards positive rather than negative goals, and he argued that by and large grassroots innovations are more ethical, more green and more sustainable – these are by and large the values that we see at that level.

Adrian Smith concluded that there was indeed no shortage of ferment or ingenuity in the grassroots but that the political context needed to be put back into our understanding of transitions, including the diagram.

>> Full Symposium Report (PDF, 310KB)

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