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  • Supporting grassroots innovation: Facts and Figures

Adrian Smith and colleagues explore grassroots innovations, their potential for development and challenges facing practitioners.

Turning ideas into new products, services or practices often requires systematic steps in a process of innovation. Conventional policies for promoting innovation link entrepreneurial firms, science institutes, investors and policymakers, and aim to keep up with advancements in promising technologies. But innovation also takes place below the radar of national and regional innovation systems.

Grassroots-level, alternative innovation activities recognize the ingenious solutions continually developed locally to improve livelihoods and promote sustainability. Rooting innovation in local problems, resources, capabilities and socioeconomic conditions makes it meaningful to communities, which maintain control over the processes and outcomes. Grassroots innovation requires adaptable, locally inclusive policies — quite different to the mainstream.

Development organisations, funders, governments and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) recently put grassroots innovation back on the agenda. But for practitioners, it never really went away. Many networks have supported it since the 1970s or earlier, when organisations like the Intermediate Technology Development Group (founded in 1966, now called Practical Action) and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation drew initial attention to grassroots innovation as part of an alternative to the high-technology and large-scale industrialisation dominating development theory and practice.

The challenge now is to bring the potential of grassroots innovation into debates about research, indicators, and pathways to sustainability at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and beyond.

Diversity and perspectives

The sheer diversity of grassroots innovation — in terms of technologies, people involved, organisations, purposes and contexts — makes it difficult to define. Overlapping terms such as user-led innovations, inclusive innovation, social innovation and hacking cultures can add to confusion. But there is one defining characteristic: grassroots innovation must emerge from, or be directed towards, local development.

Grassroots innovations develop through networks of activists, practitioners and organisations generating novel, bottom-up solutions for sustainable development — solutions that respond to the local situation and communities' knowledge, interests and values. Grassroots innovation can be viewed from three distinct perspectives, each focusing on a different part of the process.

Rickshaw driver

Local inventors have devised a more user-friendly gear system for rickshaws

Flickr/Dey

The local ingenuity perspective focuses on innovations from local groups or individual inventors. They might be farmers developing irrigation systems [1], or drivers developing gear trains for their cycle rickshaws [2]. The emphasis is on people innovating for themselves and their community, perhaps drawing upon traditional and indigenous knowledge, and occasionally turning it into social enterprise, sometimes with outside help.

Organisations such as the Honey Bee Network and complementary institutions (see Table 1) seek out and help innovators documenting and developing knowledge, ideas and products, such as a pedal-powered washing machine [3] and a compost aerator device. After devastating earthquakes in Alto Mayo in Perú in 1990, Practical Action worked with local communities to develop 'improved quincha' — timber and lattice frame homes with an earth infill, based on traditional local housing technologies. Thousands of households adopted these after they withstood subsequent earthquakes. Practical Action has also helped develop the zeer pot [5], a homemade refrigerator that extends produce storage from four to twenty days, reducing waste and improving nutrition.

A second perspective focuses on local empowerment resulting when communities and technology developers interact. Local groups may not be the innovators, but developers make sure they are fully included in adopting and benefiting from technology, which may even be mass-produced devices such as solar photovoltaic systems. In other cases, the technology is deliberately developed with community engagement in the design, manufacture, maintenance and operation.

The emphasis here is on the innovation process as a tool or catalyst for developing capabilities, relationships and organisational partnerships useful to wider development processes — such as generating revenues, improving security and livelihoods, and building organisational capacity. The Social Technologies Network in Brazil (See Table 1), for instance, claims that a more socially just relationship can be built between technologists and local communities if the community controls both the process of innovation and the distribution of outcomes.

The third perspective is more critical sometimes, dismissing support for small-scale initiatives and simple technology as romanticising 'second-class' development. Grassroots innovation programmes are seen as overly optimistic and failing to address the root political, economic and social causes of poverty, social exclusion and unsustainability — causes that cannot be changed by working at the local level. Grassroots innovation does little to address the distribution of power in trade and investment, or the knowledge economies that channel scientific activities towards the interests of the wealthy and those controlling capital. But supporters of grassroots innovation counter that bottom-up activity makes these sometimes unjust economic and social structures all the more visible, and itself serves as criticism of the exclusions associated with conventional innovation systems.

Regardless of one's perspective, grassroots innovators are generating valuable knowledge and experience. The challenge for scientific research institutions or conventional innovators is to learn how to engage with that diversity.

Innovation networks

Given the frequent informality of grassroots innovation, data are patchy. Table 1, by no means exhaustive, lists networks and programmes that provide funds, visibility, guidance, training, services, dissemination, workshops, and advocacy for grassroots innovation.

Table 1: Grassroots Innovation Networks
Network/Institution

Description

 

Activities and geographical focus

Example Innovations

Prolinnova (Promoting Local Innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and Natural Resource Management)

Promotes local innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and natural-resource management. It recognises indigenous knowledge and informal experimentation among farmers, forest dwellers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk. The intention is to develop methods, build capacity and scale up experience.

International: 16 country platforms in Africa and Asia, and a regional Andes platform

Farmer-led documentation using participatory video in Ghana; participatory innovation development for climate change [913kB] adaptation in Nepal; linking innovation in agriculture and management of HIV/AIDS in Malawi; innovation in livestock-keeping by women [1.65MB] in South Africa

International Network on Appropriate Technology; and Annual International Conference on Appropriate Technology

Developed to continue the work of annual conferences on appropriate technology.

Africa, Global South and USA

Five annual conferences since 2004

Earth construction to meet urban housing needs in Africa; ICTs for crop improvement and access to markets

Asia-Pacific National Innovation Systems Online Resource Centre

 

Provides access to resources and information amassed through projects that promote national innovation policy and practice in Asia-Pacific countries. Includes the Directory on Green Grassroots Innovation and Traditional Knowledge, which encourages policymakers in academia and research and development (R&D) institutions to focus on grassroots innovation.

 

Asia-Pacific

Field visits and six workshops held 2007–2008 in China, Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India

Linked with Honey Bee Network (see below)

 

Brings together individuals and institutions collecting, documenting, and disseminating innovations and practices at the grassroots level. 

The network receives institutional support from the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF)

 

Asia – India

It has documented over 100,000 ideas, local innovations and traditional knowledge practices. Members can join the twice-annual Shodh Yatra journey, visiting rural communities to identify and document unrecognised ingenuity.

Techniques for cultivating locally adapted traditional rice and fruit trees; labour/cost-saving machines e.g. for weaving sari cloth into low-cost sanitary napkins and processing bamboo; irrigation systems suited to local crops; gear trains for cycle rickshaws

Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN)

A technology and business incubator of grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge, linked to the Honey Bee Network and the NIF.

Asia – India; six regions and many state-level incubators

GIAN has set up incubation centres across India to bring innovations to market.

Camel bus; film projector; groundnut digger; trench digger

Traditional Knowledge
Digital Library (TKDL)

Bridges the gap between traditional knowledge information in local languages and international patent examiners.

Asia – India

Over 150 books on traditional medicine have been transcribed so far

Traditional Knowledge in Indian Systems of Medicine including Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Yoga

Centre of Science for Villages (CSV)

Links research scientists and rural communities through training and other initiatives.

Asia – India

Over 100 staff and volunteers at three demonstration campuses

Rainwater harvesting; plant-based pesticides; honey bee apiary

China Innovation Network (CHIN) Tianjin University

A twin centre to SRISTI. Plans to establish an innovation scholarship and an international grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge registry.

Asia – China; involves 54 universities from 30 provinces of China

Scouted about 6000 innovations

Cycle-based hoe; simple lift to bring agricultural produce to a rooftop for drying  

The National Grassroots Innovation Databank – Malaysia

Provides institutional support in identifying, sustaining and scaling up Malaysia's grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge

 

Asia-Pacific – Malaysia

228 innovations listed

Preventing mosquito breeding in roof gutters; bioethanol produced from starch extracted from cassava

 

Uses technology to challenge poverty, working with communities on energy, agriculture, urban infrastructure, new technologies, and waste management

 

International; UK head office; offices in Bangladesh, East Africa, Latin America, Nepal, South Asia, Southern Africa and Sudan

Nanotechnology for water filtration; gravity ropeways for transporting produce to market in mountainous areas; cost-effective housing reconstruction post-tsunami

Social Technologies Network – Brazil (Red de Tecnologias Sociales)

 

Supports products and techniques developed cooperatively with communities. It has inspired other networks, such as Red TISA (see below).

900 member organisations from Latin America

Annual Social Technology Prize builds a database of entrants and projects.

Potable water storage (cisternas); bio-digesters using cattle dung for home energy; seed fair for exchange of traditional varieties in rural Argentina and Paraguay

Network on Technologies for Social Inclusion – Argentina (Red de Tecnologías para la Inclusion Social de Argentina  Red TISA)

Helps create and exchange community and techno-scientific knowledge, and shares learning for inclusive and sustainable development.

Latin America – Argentina

90 institutions and projects

Social Technologies Bank – Brazil (Fundacao Banco Tecnologias Sociais)
 

This database includes social technologies certified by the Social Technology Prize of the Bank of Brazil Foundation.

Latin America Brazil

Over 600 certified entries

Dryland horticulture and processing of cashew nuts and fruits into pulp; urban agroecology projects; water conservation and recycling

Uruguayan Center for Appropriate Technology

A non-profit organisation working closely with the Latin American Social Ecology Centre on energy, agroecology and medicinal plants.

 

Latin America – Uruguay

 

Low-cost sustainable energy production; knowledge maps of local and traditional medicinal plant uses

 

Provides research-based insights into grassroots innovation processes.

UK; expanding to other countries

Has documented grassroots innovations in energy, food, housing and complementary currencies.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Grassroots Invention Group (GIG)

Develops low-cost personal computation and production technologies

 

USA

20 active projects

Prometheus, a Learning Independence Network being developed in Costa Rica; new approaches to teaching computer programming

 
 

Promotes appropriate, low-cost technologies for international development.

USA and International

Portable solar cooker; ceramic water filter; low cost, pedal-powered rickshaw lighting

 

Pioneered the term 'social entrepreneurs' for people solving pressing social needs, and changing society. The Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurship, with over 2000 fellows, supports networking and learning to achieve social goals.

International; programmes in over 60 countries; 25 regional offices in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe the Middle East and North Africa.

Home-based nurse training in South Africa; youth involvement in community forest management in Peru; digital inclusion in Brazil

Contributing to sustainability

The grassroots approach is only one of many ways to promote more inclusive innovation, and just one of many approaches to sustainable development. That said, new initiatives looking to the grassroots should learn from established appropriate technology centres and science shops (organisations that respond directly to the needs of citizens and local groups for scientific research) [6]. Research has identified three enduring dilemmas characteristic of grassroots innovation. [7]

Biogas generator, Vietnam

Local innovations such as biogas generators need to be affordable

Flickr/elFrank70

One is the dilemma of how to focus on local problems whilst simultaneously seeking wide‐scale diffusion and influence. Funders and support programmes often ask for ways to scale-up or replicate innovations across regions and markets, and this can undermine the goal of tailoring for local settings. For example, it takes more effort to expand the practice of building housing from local materials and through local capabilities than to expand the sale of standard housing.

The second dilemma is that locally appropriate innovations often conform to the social and economic imbalances they ultimately seek to transform. If the goal is local empowerment, grassroots innovations need to promote sustainable and socially just development, not perpetuate prevailing conditions. For example, biogas generators developed to provide energy access for India's poor produced technology products that only wealthier villagers can afford. [8] In effect, grassroots innovations need to be unsuitable in the short-term, and accompanied by processes that can induce changes that make them work in a more just future.

The biggest dilemma is how to work at finding project‐based solutions to problems that require changing the balance of social and economic power. Grassroots projects seek to incorporate sustainability and social justice without really addressing the wider social structures that cause unsustainability and injustice. Grassroots innovators tend not to have access to R&D institutions, struggle with insufficient resources and infrastructures, and lack the full range of capabilities that would help their activity flourish. And an earlier generation of science shops shows how activities can be misrepresented and marginalised by inappropriately conventional measures of scientific knowledge, such as peer-reviewed journal publications.

There are signs that grassroots innovators are learning to overcome these dilemmas (See Box 1). But without strategies for addressing broader structural problems, grassroots innovations will struggle.

Box 1. Learning to overcome enduring dilemmas in grassroots innovation

In Kenya, experience with developing decentralised solar photovoltaic electricity [9] suggests it is possible to both transform and conform to the local environment. But it also indicates the long-term challenges involved: the process of developing technological systems and business models, training installers, and countering indifference from policymakers took years, but helped change the socioeconomic environment in ways favourable to the solar home system design that was developed.

In India, the People's Science Movement [10] developed an approach that addresses the social relationships required to make technologies work. Innovators found that implementing a cleaner and safer process for tanning animal hides required parallel innovations to organisational processes. This included re-designing relationships between collectors of animal hides and tannery processing centres, and developing a cooperative business structure for the leather goods industry in the region.

And in Brazil, 'social technology incubators' are being developed through partnerships between universities, cooperatives, and fair trade schemes as a strategy for making the grassroots more central to research and development.

Connecting with the grassroots

From community food and energy initiatives to local (re-)manufacturing, community sanitation and water projects, there is a ferment of innovative grassroots activity for sustainable development. Local innovative capabilities generate 'user-led' ideas for sustainable development that stop communities becoming locked into development unsuitable to changing circumstances.

But taking grassroots innovation seriously will entail addressing relations with science and technology institutions, and this includes rethinking conventional innovation systems.[11]

Policies can play a part, by rewarding researchers who work with local communities, and recognising how this work complements more standard scientific outputs such as publications and patents. But discussions for the Rio+20 process and beyond, about research networks and indicators for sustainability, have yet to address how grassroots innovation can be factored into knowledge production processes.

Intellectual property is another thorny issue. Whilst some believe that grassroots innovation should be open and freely disseminated, others believe that innovators should benefit from their invention. Even open source enthusiasts recognise a need to 'protect' innovations from the patenting activities of more predatory firms. The Honey Bee Network is trying to do just that, through a partnership with the National Innovation Foundation, though there are many challenges.

Re-balanced innovation policies that take the grassroots seriously would provide genuine spaces and resources for ongoing engagement between local communities and research. Engagement needs to be a two-way process that ensures the grassroots informs future research agendas and funding priorities. A participatory planning process in Ecuador, consisting of roundtable meetings and discussions, is unusual in the way it is trying to incorporate grassroots and indigenous knowledge into a National Plan for Science, Technology, Innovation and Ancestral Knowledge. [12]

Using mobile phones

High technologies like mobile phones can help grassroots innovations to succeed

Flickr/Kiwanja

Yet distinctions between conventional and grassroots innovation systems are not clear-cut. Many people network through newsletters, face-to-face visits or events. But mobile phones and radios are also used to transfer cash, share market information, and disseminate novel practices in sectors such as agriculture and construction. So successful grassroots innovations partly depend on technologies produced in conventional innovation systems, just as domestication of high technologies for local use requires grassroots innovation to adapt to local needs.

Wealthier societies also contain many grassroots innovators and networks [13], representing a movement for sustainable innovation that differs from the mainstream of clean technology and green economy debates that have featured in the run up to the Rio+20 summit.

High-level events like Rio+20 open the way for the international community to connect much more effectively and equitably with the wealth of bottom-up activities. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio tried to do this with Local Agenda 21. Renewed interest in grassroots innovation provides an opportunity to address enduring challenges and create the conditions needed for all countries to benefit from the resourcefulness of their communities.

Adrian Smith is a senior research fellow, and Elisa Arond is a research officer, both at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and the STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) of the University of Sussex, UK.

Mariano Fressoli is a researcher, and Hernán Thomas is professor of science, technology and society, both working at the Instituto de Estudios sobre la Ciencia y la Tecnología at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina.

Dinesh Abrol is a chief scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, India.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Supporting grassroots innovation.

References

[1] Annasaheb Udagavi. Washing Away Whiteflies with a Rain Gun: Saga of a Sprinkler Designer. Honey Bee 8, 5-6 (1997)
[2] Vinoo Kaley. Pedalling Uphill: An Innovation on the Roadside. Honey Bee 7, 5-6 (1996)
[3] Pedal-powered washing machine (National Innovation Foundation, India)
[4] 'Quincha' earthquake-resistant housing (Practical Action)
[5] Zeer pot fridge (Practical Action)
[6] Science shops (Living Knowledge, The International Science Shop Network)
[7] Grassroots innovation – historical and comparative perspectives (STEPS Centre)
[8] Henny Romijna, et al. Biomass energy experiments in rural India: Insights from learning-based development approaches and lessons for Strategic Niche Management. Environmental Science and Policy 13, 326–338(2010)
[9] Lighting Africa: Catalyzing Markets for Modern Lighting
[10] People's Science Movement of Kerala, India (2008)
[11] Trace, S. An era of innovation for the poor? (Practical Action, 2012)
[12] UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in Latin America and the Caribbean. National Science, Technology and Innovation Systems in Latin America and the Caribbean [12.6MB] (UNESCO 2010)

[13] Grassroots Innovations: About GIs (Grassroots Innovations)