Influencing the Rio+20 outcome document

By Melissa Leach

The STEPS Centre submitted a position paper to the Rio+20 zero draft preparation process, in which we argued that science, technology and innovation have essential roles to play in sustainability. But science is not enough: A radical new approach to innovation is urgently needed giving far greater recognition and power to poorer people’s own innovations and priorities.

We proposed that a set of underlying principles need to guide innovation for sustainability and poverty reduction, addressing: (a) The specific Direction of change. This means being clear on the particular goals and principles driving policy and innovation, not leaving these open, undiscussed or driven by general imperatives of growth or progress, but actively steering these towards the kinds of transformation needed to meet integrated sustainable development/poverty reduction aims; (b) Diversity: Nurturing more diverse approaches and forms of innovation (social as well as technological) helps respond to the very varied ecological, social and economic contexts in which poorer people live, as well as to cope with uncertainty and surprise, and (c) Distribution: asking about who gains and who loses from particular innovations. Grassroots innovations offer particular value, helping to favour and prioritise more fairly the interests of the most marginal groups.

We argued that Rio+20 should provide a global framework supporting different forms of innovation that address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels. Beyond setting targets, this should be about enabling the grassroots and enhancing innovation capabilities for the longer term. We submitted a set of recommendations covering five areas for action: agenda setting; funding; capacity building; organising; and monitoring, evaluation and accountability. Our recommendations included: UNEP/ the proposed new specialized agency on environment adopting the assessment, promotion and co-ordination of innovation for sustainable development as part of its mandate; Transparent corporate reporting on R&D investments which focuses on poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability.

These remain our ‘wish list’ for Rio+20. new paper by the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Tellus Institute on ‘Transforming Innovation for Sustainability’, which we will be showcasing at an event in Rio, connects these arguments firmly with the science of ‘planetary boundaries’ and the urgent need to steer societies within a ‘safe operating space’. New approaches to innovation are vital to meet this challenge.

Looking at the Draft Outcome document of 2nd June, it is disappointing how little, if any, of this new thinking on innovation is represented. On the positive side, there are a number of mentions of the importance of diversity (e.g. para 35 “We acknowledge the natural and cultural diversity of the world and recognize that all cultures and civilizations can contribute to sustainable development”) and of the need for inclusive approaches to sustainable development that recognise the roles of grassroots and community efforts (e.g. para 36 “We further acknowledge efforts and progress made at the local and sub-national levels, and recognize the important role that such authorities and communities can play in implementing sustainable development, including by engaging citizens and stakeholders…”).

There are valuable emphases on broad public participation (e.g. para 37 ‘Sustainable development requires the meaningful involvement and active participation of all Major Groups – women, children and youth, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, local authorities, workers and trade unions’ – as well as business and industry and the scientific community. …we agree to work more closely with Major Groups and other stakeholders and encourage their active participation, as appropriate, in processes that contribute to decision making, planning and implementation of policies and programmes for sustainable development at all levels including through the contribution of their specific views, knowledge and practical know-how’.)

However, these emphases are nowhere linked specifically to innovation. Instead, recommendations around innovation – largely in the section on ‘green economy’ – largely follow old-style views of one-way ‘technology transfer’

Indeed the term ‘innovation’ is hardly used, let alone attention to its social as well as technical dimensions, or the need for diverse approaches: e.g. para 65. ‘We recognize the critical role of technology as well as the importance of promoting innovation [[in particular/ also – Switzerland] in developing countries – G77; EU reserve]. We invite governments, as appropriate, to create enabling frameworks that foster environmentally sound technology, R&D and innovation [to support green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication – G77 delete; RoK, EU, Switzerland retain pending clean-up of text]. [In this regard, we acknowledge the importance of international sustainability standards, predictable regulation and sustainable procurement. – EU; G77 delete; US, Japan, Mexico, RoK reserve] – Japan supports Chair’s text [We emphasize the importance of technology transfer to developing countries. – Japan, G77; EU, US reserve] We reaffirm the objective to promote, facilitate, and finance as appropriate, the access to and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies and corresponding know-how, in particular to developing countries, on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms [, as mutually agreed, taking into account the need to protect the IPRs as well as the special needs of developing countries for implementation’.

In specific sections (e.g. on food) there is some acknowledgement of the potential contributions of local technical knowledge: e.g. ‘We also recognize the importance of traditional agricultural practices, including seed supply systems, for many indigenous peoples and local communities’.

However there is no commitment evident to the kind of global framework, or approaches to agenda-setting that link grassroots innovation with national and international goals, that we advocated. There are recommendations for global partnerships (e.g. para 49. ‘We commit ourselves to re-invigorating the global partnership for sustainable development that we launched in Rio in 1992. We recognize the need to impart new momentum to our cooperative pursuit of sustainable development, and commit to work together with Major Groups and other stakeholders in addressing implementation gaps’, and there are recommendations to strengthen ECOSOC. But any consideration of innovation is absent from these paragraphs.

In sum then, what I see is a missed opportunity – at this point – to integrate broader thinking about inclusive participation and partnerships for sustainable development (which is present in the document, at least to some extent) with thinking about innovation. The latter – to the extent that it figures at all – is largely driven by outdates notions of one-way technology trasfer.

Can our interventions at Rio help to turn this around? One can but hope.

More on the STEPS Centre’s activities at Rio