Rio+20 must make inclusive innovation stepping stone to a sustainable future

Forty years ago, the world’s leaders met to discuss our perilous dependency on a stressed global environment. In Stockholm then, as in Rio now, innovation was key. But at Rio+20, negotiators need to look a lot harder at the nature, depth and scope of inclusion in innovation if they are to map out a more equitable, socially just and sustainable future.

Progress on innovation for development has not gone far enough: in the 1980s, serious efforts by industry and governments began to be devoted to developing cleaner technologies, products and services. And the Local Agenda 21 action plan developed at Rio in 1992 recognised the need for smaller-scale innovation, with communities making efforts to shape their own sustainable development.

Despite these efforts, however, relative improvements in environmental performance fail to keep pace with absolute increases in consumption; as a result, economic activity shows little sign of decoupling from environmental degradation.

At the same time, persistent forms of social exclusion and increasing inequality – beyond the growing, high-consuming middle-classes – indicate that the social justice dimensions of sustainable development are proving just as elusive as environmental goals. Partly as a result, the European Commission’s 2020 growth strategy and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s innovation strategy recognise that the fruits of innovation need to be much more inclusive as well as environmentally sustainable.

But what is meant by inclusive innovation? Reading through the swathe of policy documents published in the runup to Rio+20, innovation is mainly considered inclusive in terms of its outputs: the distribution of goods and services. This describes a kind of lower-down-the-pyramid consumption of innovation – cheaper forms of stuff marketed to the poor. But what about innovation that is inclusive in its process, as well as the outputs? What about opening up innovation processes to involve people in prioritising sustainability problems, making design choices, decisions on evaluative criteria, and undertaking production processes and other aspects of innovation?

While marketing redeveloped technologies to the poor might appear inclusive to the innovator, it can appear quite desultory to the recipients. Being asked which seed should be prioritised for drought-resistant genetic engineering, at uncertain cost, simply is not as inclusive for farmers as being involved, first and foremost, in the more rounded development of locally driven innovations in agricultural systems, and with wider development benefits in the frame. We need to think about the forms of inclusion in innovation for sustainability. 

The depth of inclusion is also important. Are people merely consulted on a given innovation developed by others, or are local communities involved in initiating the whole development, with experts and resources brought in as necessary? There is a wealth of experience on participatory techniques for inclusion to draw upon here, from the use of citizens’ juries, to action research to empower community-level planning and participatory product development – used in the seed sector, for example, to incorporate farmer preferences into improved varieties.

These considerations tap into debate around citizens’ science and democratising expertise, and how to involve people in shaping the science and technology agendas of governments, research institutes, universities and corporations (where the majority of technological innovation takes place). Alongside its strides forward in biotechnology and information and communication technologies for development (ICTs), India is also beginning to take these kinds of local innovations more seriously, for example through the activities of the National Innovation Foundation.

An additional consideration is the scope of inclusion. Does inclusive innovation have higher aspirations than merely developing goods and services, extending to goals such as building organisational and even political capabilities, say? The vision of the social technologies movement in South America is to use inclusive innovation as a focusing device for purposeful social transformation. The design and self-build process for rainwater harvesting devices, for example, are not the sole ends of the innovative activity. Rather, the innovation is a means towards organising communities and empowering them to reclaim their rights and control over other local resources beyond rainwater.

Alongside considerations of form, depth and scope, we need to recognise that the spaces for inclusion in innovation remain relatively few. One promising space is what is beginning to be referred to as grassroots innovation. In community food and energy initiatives, local (re-)manufacturing and tool swapping, complementary currencies, community sanitation and water projects, housing co-operatives, and so on, there appears to be a ferment of grassroots innovative activity globally.

These activities are being supported through networks of activists and organisations generating novel, bottom–up solutions for sustainable development that respond to both the local situation and the knowledge, interests and values of the communities involved. Grassroots innovation is not a panacea: it is admittedly compromised, necessarily pragmatic, and undeniably partial. But there is much to be learnt from it. Rio+20 should be judged on the extent to which it takes these initiatives seriously and learns from them.

But the Rio process needs to empower more than the established grassroots innovators themselves. It needs to open further spaces for inclusion, such as in the setting of scientific research agendas, the governance of emerging technologies, and the priorities for training, skills and capabilities in design and engineering.

At Stockholm in 1972, activists set up an exhibition outside the main conference, where they displayed alternative technologies appropriate for a more inclusive, democratic and sustainable future. Some of the technologies on display, such as wind turbines, are now established as multi-billion dollar industries. They have become part of the vanguard for a green economy; but one that appears to have lost sight of the social justice dimensions of sustainable development. The activists in Stockholm understood that responses to environmental and economic crisis have to include attention to the democratisation of science and technology – to empower social control over innovation as well as include. That political requirement persists – at Rio+20 and beyond.


Article originally appeared in The Guardian


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