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  • We must nurture a new innovation politics


Adrian Ely and Kevin Urama call for a new politics of innovation built around diversity, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

Reducing global poverty while promoting environmental sustainability is the moral imperative of our age. 

Groups across the world are recognising that science, technology and innovation have a role to play in meeting this challenge, but it is increasingly clear that the current politics of innovation are not up to the job. 

Top-down, 'one-size-fits-all' approaches are doing little to narrow the gap between rich and poor, de-couple economic growth from carbon emissions and the use of finite resources, or halt biodiversity loss and industrial pollution. We will likely fall short of many of the 2015 targets set by the Millennium Development Goals.

To truly harness the potential of science, technology and innovation for development, we need a new politics of innovation that promotes a diverse range of strategies, built from the bottom up.

From the grassroots up

Including civil society and the users of technology in systems of innovation — by ensuring that they help to set research agendas and allocate resources — is critical to guarantee that the results of research are understood, used and built upon in diverse contexts.

In our experience, new kinds of organisations are already emerging to nurture and support such grassroots innovation.

The Honey Bee Network in India, for example, openly shares information between a broad, informal group of grassroots entrepreneurs. This ranges from exchanging knowledge during village-to-village 'Shodh Yatra' journeys to highlighting local innovations through multilingual publications and an online database. The network allows people across India — and indeed the world — to gain access to, and build on, product development and marketing support (see How local knowledge can boost scientific studies).

Several efforts are also emerging in Africa, including the Youth Innovation Challenge and the Women Innovation Challenge programmes run by the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) Network.

The programmes are helping African youths and women build a culture of innovation through networking, training and 'innovation incubation initiatives', where successful applicants work with the private sector to develop their ideas into tangible products.

Governments must do more to support such inspirational initiatives. They should provide strong leadership that champions grassroots innovation, even if this means challenging more powerful interests, and create dedicated, long-term institutions to coordinate and link all the actors in innovation systems, from policymakers and researchers to private companies and local communities.

This is one of the messages to emerge from a new 'manifesto' on innovation published tomorrow (15 June) by the United Kingdom's STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability).

And an independent manifesto from the Kenya-based ATPS emphasises the need for African efforts to be owned and led by Africans.

An assortment of answers

Both documents recognise diversity as the key to creating robust innovation systems.

There are many examples of grassroots innovations that have spread across nations or regions and been modified to fit local contexts and cultures along the way. Mobile phones, for example, have been used for pro-poor banking schemes such as microcredit provision from the Grameen Bank in India and the M-PESA (Kiswahili for 'Mobile Money') project in Sub-Saharan Africa that allows person-to-person payments, transfers and pre-paid purchases without a bank account.

But in many cases, a diversity of innovation pathways, rather than a single approach 'rolled out' or 'scaled up' from an established innovation centre, is vital to cope with varied ecological contexts and disparate cultural settings.

For example, in community-led approaches to 'total sanitation', locally-driven innovations (primarily changes in behaviour) can replace a focus on the subsidised provision of standard latrines. These approaches have contributed to a shift away from open defecation, improving sanitation and hygiene.

Ensuring cultural and technological diversity is also crucial to foster resilience against our uncertain future and provide a broader foundation for adaptation and innovation.

A vigorous new politics

Both the STEPS and ATPS manifestos represent the result of more than a year's research, network-building and political debate.

They have already stimulated other groups to put forward their own manifestos for science and technology. 

We hope that they can further catalyse a vigorous new politics of innovation at national, regional and global levels that fosters a more vibrant and creative diversity of innovation pathways — scientific, technological, organisational and social. It is only in such ways that human ingenuity may truly meet the imperatives of poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Adrian Ely is a member of the STEPS Centre and the convenor of the project Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto.

Kevin Chika Urama is the executive director of the African Technology Policy Studies Network.

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