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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Nurturing local innovations and technologies — and empowering the creativity of local people — could play a far greater role in helping the world achieve sustainable development, a forum has heard.

There is a pressing need to shift from the dominant top-down approach to technology transfer, Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS centre, told the Fair Ideas event, hosted by the International Institute of Environment and Development last week (16–17 June).

Instead, fostering local technologies and innovations is increasingly important, she said.  

"It is good to have global meetings like Rio+20 [the UN Conference on Sustainable Development], but there is greater need to realise that there is no single answer to human problems," she told the meeting, held to discuss ideas for sustainable development before the Rio+20 summit this week (20–22 June).

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

Processes for achieving sustainable development must connect to local innovations, she said. "We need to empower the creativity of poor people to contribute to social, economic and ecological systems."

Leach cited the case of East Africa, where decade-long efforts to improve food security — through a top-down approach involving sophisticated plant-breeding and high level biotechnology for drought-resistant maize — have not succeeded.

Many small-scale farmers are still trapped in poverty, and the food insecurity witnessed in the Horn of Africa in 2011 has become recurrent problem.

But local people would be in an even worse situation, Leach claimed, without home-grown technologies. These include the results of farmer-participatory research — in which farmers conduct experiments in their fields — and efforts by local institutions to manage natural resources.

Kevin Urama, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Technology Policy Studies Network, said the challenge was that people still believed innovation and technologies must be transferred from north to south, rather than potentially being developed indigenously.

"We must go beyond looking for technological development and infusion from the West, to socio-technological solutions where the people who need it are part of the process," he said after the meeting.

He gave the example of people living in arid and semi-arid conditions being aware of which crops would thrive in their local area. Such knowledge had to be researched to improve home-grown innovations and solutions, Urama said.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20. Read more in our live blog.