Put grassroots innovation on the agenda

Foot-operated water pumps help farmers and households access water Copyright: Flickr/waterdotorg

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Current models of innovation ignore small-scale technology — institutions must ensure it’s a key part of the agenda, says Tony Marjoram.

The application of grassroots knowledge and technological innovation is vital in meeting development goals. Smaller-scale technology is being used extensively — and with enough support, could underpin the provision of basic needs and improve quality of life.

Grassroots technological innovation needs continuous development and diffusion in areas such as water security, food production, housing and energy. For example, foot-operated and solar water pumps reduce the burden of water carrying and so benefit households and small-scale farmers.

Despite this, technology and innovation are often overlooked by development policymakers, planners and decision-makers. Both need to be promoted as key components of the development agenda.

Delivering ‘appropriate’ technology

Innovation takes place at all levels, from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ tech, across income groups and countries. It is as important in smaller developing communities as in richer consumer societies.

Smaller-scale affordable, durable and sustainable ‘appropriate’ technology was at the forefront of development thinking in the 1960s and 1970s. It fell out of favour in the 1980s for various reasons including exaggerated claims of success, increasing emphasis on modernisation, transfer of technologies into developing countries, and cuts in aid funding.

But interest returned in the 1990s, along with a renewed focus on poverty reduction reflected in the Millennium Summit and the Millennium Development Goals. Now, while many smaller-scale technologies are available around the world, the main challenge is how to put them in the hands of people and communities who may not know they exist.

Achieving this is about knowledge and information, technology transfer, and the local adaptation and development of technology — all considerable challenges set against a background where the innovation focus over the past 20 years has been on higher tech in developed countries.

Ignoring the grassroots

That current thinking ignores the grassroots was reflected in the proceedings of an international workshop hosted by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UNESCO in 2009, which highlighted the need for better models and indicators of science, engineering and innovation in developing countries. [1]

For example, it is clear that the ‘linear model’ of innovation, where innovation is regarded as an outcome of scientific research and funding, is misleading but continues to persist. Also, the ‘innovation systems’ model, linking innovation to research, industry and government, is of little value in lower income and small developing countries with limited research and industry infrastructures.

Indicators of research and personnel aggregate science and engineering, but these disciplines have different roles in innovation. Engineering is particularly important, but neglected. And innovation is often measured by intellectual property (IP) such as patents, copyright and papers published — which mainly apply to high tech and don’t necessarily lead to innovation.

Most grassroots and many other innovations exist outside the IP domain, especially in the developing world, and  there should be more awareness of this. But at the same time, IP rights can be important for innovators once they have ideas to protect, or technology to access — and this is where advice and guidelines on how to deal with IP issues can be useful.

Involving institutions

The work of organisations such as Practical Action, Appropedia and the Honey Bee Network provide information and models that help local communities transfer, adapt and develop technologies. The Internet can help facilitate the exchange of information and expertise; it also helps to stimulate wider interest and activity in the development and innovation of technology.

But governments, business, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), international development agencies and the UN also need to encourage and support such initiatives in development plans and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. More funding and better policies are required to address local issues with grassroots knowledge and innovation.

Technology is advertised and purchased on thegrounds of conferring status — technologies are the main status symbol in most societies. This is also important at the grassroots, where innovations need to be promoted by opinion leaders as well as advertised in the media.

Local universities, and engineering and science organisations, should also take an interest in and support grassroots innovation. Universities, for example, should reward staff for applied research, development and innovation activities in local communities as well as publications. Activities such as the Daimler-UNESCO Mondialogo Engineering Award and groups such as Engineers Without Borders encourage innovation for development goals by supporting cooperation between young engineers around the world.

We also need better mechanisms of transferring technology to the grassroots. Local development NGOs and research institutions have weak linkages with grassroots communities who could benefit from improved technology and contact with such organisations.

Technology business incubators and advisory centres can provide support and training on business (for technology people) and technology (for business people). Microfinance is also key: many small business loans are for technology, and financial institutions with greater awareness of technology transfer, acquisition and operation could facilitate innovation through this mechanism.

Once an innovation has reached the local market, the challenge is scaling up or ‘scaling out’ (diffusion) to a wider market. This requires that the technology remains appropriate to local resources and conditions, and the original innovator is prepared to expand, network or sub-contract.

To better apply grassroots knowledge to development problems we first need to get innovation on the development agenda. We then need to understand how innovation takes place, how it can best be measured, how it contributes to development and how it can be encouraged.

Tony Marjoram is former head of engineering at UNESCO’s Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences. He is based in Australia and can be reached at t_marjoram@yahoo.com.

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