GLOBELICS’11: Innovation for social inclusion and sustainable development

By Adrian Smith, STEPS Centre and SPRU

During the session Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development, we heard a rich set of perspectives from different regions around the world. I was particularly struck by the way the challenges of social inclusion and sustainable development both ask searching questions about what we know about innovation and how policy supports it. This is the point I wanted to develop in my remarks to the session participants, by arguing that concerns about inclusion means our economics of innovation has to be complemented even more by work on the politics of innovation. In combination, both can help recast innovation to the purposes of sustainable development and social inclusion. (Photo: Adrian Smith)

Sustainable development has both environmental integrity and social justice dimensions. The World Commission on Environment and Development famously defined sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without jeopardising the needs of future generations’.

In the following sentence they elaborate two key concepts, which I quote: “The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” I’ll come back to the idea of limits . The relevant point here is that sustainable development has at its core two principles of social justice: one regarding redistribution towards the overriding priorities of the poor; and the other towards future generations and ensuring their options are kept open.

Social inclusion involves affirmative action to reduce exclusion from society. This means giving marginalised groups equal access to the rights, opportunities and resources enjoyed by others in society. Without these capabilities the excluded cannot participate fully in social, economic, political and cultural life. Again, redistribution is important, but so too are principles of procedural justice and cognitive: the ability to be recognised, heard and to participate in social development, and to have ones world view and knowledge of the world respected.

Understood in this way, then the question about ex ante identification of inclusive and sustainable innovation is a question of social justice. It suggests innovation trajectories will no longer be the result of science push and market pull, if they ever were, but that innovation systems need to be opened more explicitly to politics and activism.

Note in passing that in addressing questions of innovation for inclusion, we must not overlook how we might stop and prevent innovation that exacerbates social exclusion and contributes to unsustainable development. Nor should we ignore how unsustainable innovations can crowd out and hinder more progressive innovations. Regulating excluding, unsustainable innovation is just as important, but this other side of the coin is left for another discussion.

The vast majority of what we know about innovation has been attained through the study of rent-seeking firms operating in market settings. As researchers, we have followed how firms develop new technologies, products, processes, services and organisational forms. We have analysed their relations with scientific and knowledge institutions. And we have tried to evaluate how different policies and business strategies help and hinder these kinds of innovation process.

Consulted by practitioners, innovation scholars have even advised how to do this kind of innovation better. Various metrics have been developed to help us keep track of the performance of innovation systems: aggregate research funding levels, numbers of scientists and engineers, publications, patents, sales, etc. The ultimate driver of innovation policy is profit and GDP growth – particular economic indicators that set important contexts for innovation.

How much of this knowledge about innovation for market growth is appropriate to innovation for inclusive, sustainable development? Undoubtedly, the economics of innovation has contributed to the rise and spread of industries, including modern agriculture, around the world, and all the benefits that brings. But persistent concerns about livelihoods, job creation, inequalities, and dangerous environmental degradation suggest not all is well. If social justice appears anywhere in this mainstream innovation work, then it is largely implicit, and limited to questions of distribution and redistribution of innovation benefits, e.g. jobs and material wealth. Critical studies point out how issues of intergenerational, procedural, and cognitive justice are largely absent.

We heard in this session how innovation for inclusive, sustainable development has to attend to questions of direction, distribution and diversity: the 3-D agenda. It is an agenda that is addressing situations where effective market demand is usually weak, innovation goals and social demands are contested, relevant knowledge is plural and includes informal forms, and where civil society is often the source of change and, arguably, innovation (with states and markets catching-up later).

In my view, it would be foolish to rush into these situations with economic perspectives on innovation developed in completely different settings. Rather, we need to analyse what 3-D innovation systems might look like around the world. And, even more importantly, we need to learn how to transform existing systems and build innovation systems for more inclusive and sustainable forms development.

Researchers like those in the Sustainability Transitions Research Network are finding that any focus on transformation means bringing the different contexts of innovation into the centre of analysis and considering how those structuring contexts need to be changed too.

We have seen how the 3-D agenda has Areas for Action in agenda setting, funding, capacity-building, organising, and monitoring, evaluation and accountability. What is interesting is how these recommendations seek social inclusion and sustainability in the innovation processes themselves. It seems it is unlikely that any old innovation will generate inclusive, sustainable outcomes. Social inclusion and sustainable development are also about procedural justice, which means innovation itself has to become inclusive and sustainable.

So, how might innovation for social inclusion and sustainable development actually operate? Here, I think the economics of innovation might benefit from a dialogue with political science. All forms of innovation are political in some form or other, but when we start working towards 3-D innovations then the politics becomes much more apparent. Questions like whose innovation; what for; towards which goals; who gains and loses; on what basis can this innovation be justified; and so on, are very political.

I think political science can help with the principles and practice of social justice. There is a rich literature on distributive justice, procedural justice, and cognitive justice that we can draw upon when puzzling over forms of inclusive and sustainable innovation.

But there are other Areas for Action where political science might help. Questions of accountability and authority in innovation can be informed by studies of accountability systems and unaccountable behaviours in political science. Work on governance networks and relations between different political coalitions beyond conventional government and party political systems suggest lines of accountability and authority become much less clear-cut, in similarly complex ways to those implied by the 3-D agenda. Here, work on different theories of democracy, whether representative, participatory, deliberative or radical can help us map the terrain for public participation in inclusive and sustainable innovation.

There is also a fantastic wealth of lessons from work on social movements that could inform 3-D concerns for engaging civil society within innovation systems. Whilst the study of social movements is often in relation to their sociological consequences and demands upon political systems, I have found in my own research that some themes are pertinent to the roles played by civil society in innovation systems too.

Finally, political science is the discipline where power is centre stage – indeed it is often seen as constituting the stage. The areas for action in 3-D innovation challenge many vested interests, established institutions, and powerful agendas. As such, power needs to become a greater and more explicit part of our analyses. The different forms of power theorised in political science can help us grapple with the complexities of power relations.

Now, I am aware that this suggestion could appear to contradict my point about the current economics of innovation. Having said earlier that we need to take care over how appropriate our current theories and policies for innovation are for the 3-D agenda, I then suggest bringing in perspectives from areas of political science that have had nothing to do with innovation at all! But this would be to misconstrue my argument. Just as with the economics of innovation, we need to adapt insights from political science carefully to the new forms, purposes and contexts of inclusive, sustainable innovation. The bodies of knowledge of potential help to a 3-D agenda were developed through the study of governmental systems and political systems; not innovation systems. So there is a need for very precise contextualisation, translation across different intellectual histories, and retaining throughout a clear view of purposes.

I do not think any of our disciplines has complete answers for the profound challenges of innovation for social inclusion and sustainable development. Each provides helpful clues and areas for future work. But it is work that must be done in a problem-focused interdisciplinary way.

Furthermore, it should arise through trans-disciplinary engagement with practitioners and citizens in the wider social world. In many respects, the field of innovation studies has a good track record on interdisciplinarity, and so my argument here is pushing against an open door. But given the mixed and uneven successes of many innovations, our thinking and practice on innovation has to continue to develop and challenge. Perhaps we need a reinvigorated effort at redirecting our interdisciplinarity to address the politics of 3-D innovation?

None of this was news to people here at this Globelics event. It is quite apt that this session takes place in Argentina. Forty years ago the Fundación Bariloche produced its report Catastrophe or New Society in response to the Limits to Growth report. In contrast to the Club of Rome’s extrapolation of consumption and population trends in existing, industrial societies, the Bariloche team tried to model a more participatory and egalitarian society, and by putting developing countries centre-stage. They used their model to explore the biophysical viability of such societies. Unlike the Club of Rome emphasis on bio-physical limits, and unlike the WCED’s view on limits as organisational and technological, the Bariloche team recognised that the real limits initially are socio-political. What was needed was a political analysis of the power and ideology behind different development pathways, and a focus on how social justice could be brought into development much more centrally.

Another interesting feature to the Bariloche report was that it was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. IDRC are about to launch a new funding programme for research into innovation for inclusive development, and are organising a workshop with GRIDD right after this conference, here in Buenos Aires. As people embark on a new round of research, I think it is interesting to learn from attempts in the past and elsewhere. Whilst the contexts are very different, careful interpretation can nevertheless generate some very instructive lessons for us now. This is precisely what Hernán Thomas at UNQ and Dinesh Abrol at NISTADS are doing with the STEPS Centre, with a new project looking at grassroots innovation movements in historical and comparative perspective.

Clearly, there is plenty of exciting and important work that has been done and is being done. Strands that help us address the politics of innovation for inclusion will be helpful for our work the future too.