Giving flesh to the science and innovation we need to see

by Ben Ramalingam, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

Science, technology and innovation have been integral in successful development and poverty-reduction efforts, whether in Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa. But time and time again, the real lessons of how this contribution actually worked — the genuine pathways of development change — have been lost or ignored. Whether the SDGs are a genuine opportunity for change in this regard — or will be revealed as the latest in a long series of development mirages — will depend on how well the international-development community heeds these lessons.

The history of science and technology for development is one of misguided attempts to cut-and-paste new ideas into contexts with little attention to how well they fit in them. The language and principles of science and innovation policies illustrate all too clearly the established way of thinking: enhancing technology “transfer,” developing better dissemination strategies, strengthening “absorption capacity,” and so on.

Such attempts limit the potential impact of science and innovation, and seldom lead to any kind of sustainable change. They also ignore the politics of development innovation: questions of who gains, and who loses, and how these differences will be navigated dissolve away in the friction-free technocratic vision of development.

If that wasn’t enough, these conventions have influenced who gets to lead science and innovation efforts in development, and how they do it. In the rush toward exporting high-tech inventions, there has not been nearly enough emphasis on actors in developing countries: on local communities, civil society, national private sectors, government bodies, universities and research institutes. Almost 70 years after President Truman’s inaugural speech announced that we now had all the technology and knowledge needed to eradicate poverty, and ushered in the era of development, the overriding mentality is still that developing countries are vessels to be filled with knowledge and ideas.

This is not just damaging, but it also goes against the real lessons of successful science and innovations from the past six decades. Put simply: the closer innovation processes are to development challenges, the more sensitive they are to local political and cultural contexts, and the more they involve developing country communities, organizations and governments not as targets but as equal participants, the more likely they are to be successful and transformative. Science, technology and innovation actually work in development when international partnership fuses with national ownership, when there is a mentality of mutual learning between and within countries, and when there is space for experimentation and learning that is grounded in developing country experiences, contexts and realities.

These are lessons that transcend era, geography, and culture. In an ongoing project I have been leading for Nesta on development innovations that will report later this year, we have found that these lessons are not just a “nice to have.” Rather, they are fundamental to successful development innovations. From the use of mobile technologies for financial management, such as Mpesa in Kenya, to innovative new products for treating malnutrition, from cash transfers to poor people to the development of low-cost vaccines, the lessons are clear to see. And it is precisely these efforts that have been the source of most positive, transformative change in the lives and livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people.

And yet this message is consistently lost in policy debates and ambitions for science, technology and innovation in development. The “transfer” mentality has proved remarkably resilient. Each era of development thinking seems to find ways of killing it off, only to find it resurrected in unexpected fashion. The space for learning around technology and innovation may look like it may be established and maintained in a particular policy document or framework, but then the orthodoxy re-establishes itself, and we are back to mechanical ways of thinking about science, technology and innovation being developed in rich countries and being adopted by poor ones. The resilience may simply be because of the elegance and simplicity of the idea. But in reality, there are also entrenched institutional, political, intellectual and cultural interests that maintain the status quo.

Which brings me to the Sustainable Development Goals. No matter what one might say about their approach and development, it is clear that they present the international community with a significant opportunity. Moreover, in many ways, and in many different areas, they signal an ambition to break with tradition, and find new ways of thinking and working. By taking the opportunity to embed the best of our learning into Goal 9 on industry, technology and innovation, we can help to re-frame not just of what will be achieved, but also how it will be done.

Intelligently formulated targets would include a major focus on facilitating and enabling innovation efforts in developing countries. This is not to say that products and processes in developed countries cannot be used for development purposes. But the mentality and approach should be one of creating mutual-learning partnerships, enabled by an international-development system that uses its influence in a more open and locally sensitive fashion. The targets should delineate and give flesh to the more democratic science and innovation system we so urgently need to see in the future.

The evidence shows that, when they are done right, science, technology and innovation lie at the very heart of development. The Sustainable Development goals are an opportunity to ensure that the next 15 years of science and technology for innovation is, in fact, done right. Let’s hope we have the collective courage to take this opportunity to build genuine and meaningful approaches to sustainable innovation — and not let old ways of thinking and outmoded orthodoxies to shape the future.


This article is part of a series on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ben Ramalingam is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and leads the institute’s work on the implications of digital technology for development. This article first appeared on the Huffington Post and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.