Mind your (innovation) language


by Adrian Smith and Saurabh Arora, SPRU

At the STEPS Centre, we recently organised a couple of workshops looking at the topic of alternative innovation and its proliferation of innovation prefixes, such as social, inclusive, frugal, and sustainable.

Our workshops were prompted by the observation that a variety of interacting cultural, social, economic, and technological changes around the world are opening up new configurations for innovation and development, sometimes in quite unconventional settings. Innovation is associated with new or overlooked actors, sites, networks, processes and purposes. And increasingly, innovation is sought that delivers socially just and environmentally sustainable developments.

Beyond the realms of conventional innovation systems and policy, which link rent-seeking firms with science institutions in the search for marketable products, there appears to be a dispersal of innovative activity into new alternative spaces and forms.

Whether it is the crowd-funding of commons-based peer-production, collaborative design initiatives across cities, new farmer first networks, the complex tangle of grassroots innovation initiatives, the blending of high-tech digital fabrication with traditional crafts and artisans, innovation in social and solidarity economies, or even populist policies rejecting IPR and reclaiming a ‘knowledge commons’, and distributed freely over social media, and so on and so on… it seems that something different is going on.

Our workshops convened colleagues from STEPS and SPRU. We all brought some examples of ‘alternative innovations’ and organized a few exercises for exploring social changes that are generative of the phenomena, as well as identifying the new agencies being created; and that might further contribute to those changes, whilst also revealing the limitations to alternative innovation. Examples of ‘innovations’ that people brought to the discussion included open source activities in seed breeding, housing, and hardware; new collaborative and sharing activities; re-localized production; participatory design and adaption of technologies; repurposing and fashioning objects, including for acts of resistance unintended in their design; and new platforms for social observation, reflection, and accountability.

But, like all good social scientists, participants also questioned the premise of the workshop. And it is that idea of ‘alternative innovation’ that we wish to reflect upon here.

‘Alternative’ innovation or ‘hybrids’?

Despite the rise of the phenomena noted above, and of what appear to be new forms of doing innovation, there is in fact a long history of initiatives positioned as alternatives to conventional innovation trajectories. Indeed, some of the examples in our workshop were, more accurately, rediscoveries of longstanding, forgotten or overlooked practices given a new saliency and meaning by changed situations. These ‘alternatives’ are often conceptualized by prefixing innovation with a term to denote a form that counters more conventional types of innovation. A shifting lexicon of prefixes have been proposed to denote innovations aligned to a re-ordered field of social values and relations: whether with terms like appropriate, radical, or liberatory technology in the 1970s, or terms like inclusive, frugal, social, or sustainable innovation today.

While important for prompting policy support for channeling innovative activity in overlooked directions, prefixing innovations with a term also raises some issues, two of which cropped up in the STEPS workshops.

First, the prefixing encourages research to delineate the distinguishing characteristics of a specific form of alternative innovation, such as frugal or sustainable, and identify and validate them in actual innovative activity. But these prefix-labels may actually end up preventing a more nuanced understanding of innovations as hybrids, and perhaps even discourage more diverse innovative activity.

In other words, a tendency to delineate alternative forms of innovation runs the risk of overlooking the proliferation of important intersections and hybrids between many varied forms of innovation. In creating a language that tries to introduce discretion into the discussion about innovation, the terminology actually risks compartmentalizing activity and obscuring the more complex and dynamic hybrids that come together and arise in innovative activities.

For example, many grassroots innovative activities make use of technologies developed in industrial innovation systems and sold by global, high-tech corporations; whilst global firms appropriate ideas and practices developed originally by alternative technologists and activists. Corporations now make use of ideas about open innovation pioneered amongst hackers in free software and free culture movements; whilst hackerspaces creatively appropriate laser cutters and other digital fabrication tools developed originally by industrial capital seeking to deskill labour and automate production. It is these flows and interdependencies that challenge any well-defined categorisations of innovations, which are important to note and understand, rather than the categorisations in and of themselves.

The point is that as soon as one sets up a prefix for an innovative activity, then a dichotomy is created between the preferred pre-fixed innovation and another form of innovation.

 Can labels reinforce power?

This brings us to the second issue. In presenting a form of innovation as inclusive or sustainable, the pre-fixing risks reinforcing the power of conventional forms of innovation. The nascent form of alternative innovation is contrasted with the established, institutionalized regime for supporting and appropriating innovative activity, with the latter often serving as the centre against which the importance of the peripheral alternatives is assessed (e.g. in terms of market share, patents, jobs, or number of users). Attributing an alternative prefix connotes a subaltern or marginal status that does not question, and unwittingly (and inaccurately) reinforces, the assumed hegemony of conventional innovation systems.

eggsWhen supermarkets in the UK started taking interest in organic food, which was around thirty years after its initial emergence as a self-identified alternative form of agriculture, they wanted organic products in quantities and to schedules and with appearances that organic growers were unaccustomed to. Here was a powerful market player that could boost the reach of organic food. But it was a player whose profit interest took the organic prefix to mean a synthetic chemical-free ingredient to be used in products for a high-value niche market. Supermarkets weren’t interested in transforming their food systems into the kind of holistic, whole food, mixed farm, localized form of food economy envisaged by the early organic food promoters. Indeed when Tesco began marketing organic frozen ready meals, it already was time for the organic movement to move on and re-direct its efforts to developing new marketing forms, such as local vegetable boxes and community supported agriculture, and usher in a new alternative vision for the ‘organic’ prefix.

Similar dynamics appear in grassroots digital fabrication. Commons-based peer-production ideals in free software, free hardware and hacking, are already being appropriated into business models that effectively source design and marketing labour freely, but where access to capital determines who profits from the subsequent development of the prototypes. Yet at the same time, these tools for prototyping are being recalibrated to defend the commons. One example is an initiative to reclaim public squares from the encroachment of café terraces through the free sharing of designs to laser cut and 3D print street future such as public benches and community barbeques. Groups can make their own street furniture for sitting and debating the publicness of squares and other spaces. The key resource here is not so much capital, as the degree of political will and action in a neighbourhood to make use of these appropriated tools to re-appropriate public space.

New forms, different values

What we observe then in these cases is the will and action to diverge and create innovation alternatives rather than attempts to simply counter conventional forms of innovative activity. The expression, realization, and development of an innovation alternative involves much more than countering an existing ‘conventional’ form of innovative activity. It requires building, imagining and sustaining a new creative practice associated with its own (emancipatory) values and social relations.

While the alternatives no doubt involve prefixes, such as ‘organic’ or ‘free’, these do not denote activities that can be formalized and bounded by academic (or policy) definition of what it means to be alternative and the creativity that entails. Instead innovation alternatives often diverge, creating new bifurcated pathways, in order to sustain their distinctive values in their dynamic social contexts and avoid co-optation by more powerful interests.

Power however does not only impress on these alternatives from the outside, any process of creating these diverse innovation alternatives is not devoid of power asymmetries within. Quite simply, the process of creating, borrowing, blending and bricolage does not occur amongst equals. The forms of knowledge privileged in societies, the terms of access to capital, the availability of infrastructure for prototyping, the ability to influence the forces that shape markets, the channels forming aesthetic sensibilities, and so forth, all present a highly uneven terrain that is simultaneously cultural, organizational, economic, political and technological, and in which some innovating actors find themselves better positioned than others. Setting the terms for innovation processes is simply easier for some than others.

In addition, we need to take note of the power relations at play when aspects or elements of innovation arising amongst a group of actors seeking particular social values and relations are taken into and taken up by other groups operating to contrasting social values and involved in different social relations.

Obviously, the terrain for innovation is not totalizing. If there were not the spaces for doing things differently, innovation alternatives would have no history at all. Indeed, some of the terrain can and does favour new varieties of innovation (i.e. operating to new values, norms and relations). Nevertheless, it remains important to be aware of asymmetries associated with the settings in which the innovation alternatives arise and disperse. We need to be alive to the material and social power relations that generate the asymmetric hybrids of innovation alternatives. To the extent that the language of innovation alternatives reminds us about a plurality of values and relations (including those of power) and avoids collapsing innovation into a world of amorphous hybrids, then it is a language that has value.

Why language matters

The point here is to remain clear about what alternative futures people are hoping to realise with an innovative activity. Such clarity provides an important anchor for understanding the deals, compromises, alliances, co-options, successes, and set-backs that constitute complex, power-laden, asymmetric hybrids. And so the language of innovation alternatives remains useful not so much in terms of questions about alternative to what, and why, but rather in the focus on the social values and relations people are expressing and seeking to realise and retain in and through innovative activity, and that necessarily involves struggles for power to act and struggles against power that stifles creative divergence.

So, in our view, whilst pre-fixes like ‘social’ and ‘inclusive’ generate helpful debate about the forms and purposes of innovation activity, it is important to think about dynamics that cut across or go beyond definitional boundaries, as well as antagonisms that keep the boundaries in place. Hybrids are not always possible, whilst those that arise do so asymmetrically. So whilst situations arise to try and box-up innovation alternatives with pre-fixes and channel innovation dynamics accordingly, it is important to recognize that innovation alternatives involve continual divergence away from co-optation, and that this dynamic may be necessary for nourishing the emancipatory values involved.


Photo: Demonstrating DNA extraction. Visitors to the opening of the ‘Biohacking: Do It Yourself!’ lab installation at Medical Museion are treated to Rüdiger Trojok’s hackerstyle DNA extraction – using salt, washing up liquid, ice, and alcohol. Photo credit: Martin Malthe Borch. Source: Medical Museion / Flickr

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