Inclusive innovation: learning to listen to the excluded

Last week I spent a fascinating couple of days at the OECD Symposium on Innovation and Inclusive Growth, where discussion kept returning to the challenge of scaling-up inclusive innovation.

Unsurprisingly, given the venue, and with most of the participants coming from economics and business schools, talk has tended to focus on getting the incentives right, and developing appropriate business models that would get innovations to scale. Inclusive innovations were identified in health, ICT, transport, energy and other sectors, and the imperative appeared to be to roll out these solutions to other communities.

Particularly fascinating for me were reactions to the persistent puzzle of how promising business models for innovations that worked at smaller-scale (in a city or even a region) kept failing to reach wider scales such as national markets, or other localities. How, for example, might mobile health diagnostic services be rolled out beyond the pioneering region? Why isn’t the market for affordable electrical battery charging being adopted everywhere? How to build on the success of M-PESA cash transfer to provide other innovative services?

An evaluation from the World Bank, for example, noted the kaleidoscope of programmes to boost inclusive innovations that appeared to overlap, reproduce, and build in redundancy, as they came and went over time, and which struggled to scale-up again and again. There was a note of frustration: from this mess, it was rare for a coherent set of institutional designs to emerge that could incentivise inclusive innovations at scale.

3 kinds of exclusion

But is this really so surprising? If we pause to think about inclusive innovation from a slightly different angle, and think about the conditions of exclusion that these innovations are supposed to overcome, then the difficulties of going to scale might appear less surprising. Exclusions are not solely economic, important as that is. Exclusion emerges and reproduces through social and cultural processes too. All three forms of exclusion – economic, social and cultural – manifest in quite particular combinations in localities. Indeed, since multiple exclusions often interact, then these other forms of exclusion may complicate even market-oriented inclusion strategies.

So, for example, one can fix incentives for introducing electricity to poorer households where infrastructure is currently lacking. But the actual use of the possibilities opened up by electricity within the home will depend upon a much more complicated picture of gender, generational, and other cultural, and social relations. Such relations operate not only within the household, but also within the communities where these new possibilities are introduced.

Issues like the best design of, say, a solar PV battery recharging service, or questions about which villagers might become the entrepreneurs implementing the model, and whether the ‘marketing’ should be directed for customers wanting lighting or wanting to recharge their mobile phones, can all be very specific to localities. For similar reasons, enabling some groups to access particular forms of energy service through electricity provision may require thinking about access away from households where social and cultural relations may prevent those groups getting access.

Invisible problems?

But there is more to it than that. The actual problems experienced by marginalised people in their communities can be invisible to us, precisely because they are excluded and lack the voice to exercise demand-driven innovation. What looks like an inclusive innovation in one setting, may not actually solve the problems experienced in another locality. The excluded need to set the problem agenda before we even begin to think about innovative solutions.

However, while exclusions manifest locally, not all of them are generated locally. Some might derive from much deeper and wider economic and political forces, for example, and that shape access to say, investment, institutions and infrastructures, but also cultural resources and social recognition of issues. These might only really be altered by broad-based activity at that wider scale, and beyond the reach of inclusive innovation programmes.

So the message I take home from this Symposium is that programmes for innovations that overcome exclusions in development have to be complicated, nuanced, and messy. They need to be robust enough to reach out and engage structural forces and enabling contexts, at the same time as being empathetic and nimble enough to listen to and understand local development problems.

In doing this, programmes need to include anthropological, geographic, political, and sociological considerations. Then programmes can begin to listen to people as cultural and social beings, whose relationships cut across the responses anticipated to incentives and problems for people conceived as economic beings.

Adrian Smith convenes the STEPS Centre’s Grassroots innovation: historical and comparative perspectives project.