Opening up science and development in Latin America

STEPS América Latina is the latest regional hub of the Pathways to Sustainability global consortium to be launched. The launch event, which took place on 5-6 November in Buenos Aires, brought together diverse perspectives on how pathways to sustainability can be identified, analysed and nurtured.


The first day brought together two highly connected topics: ‘inclusive innovation’ and ‘open science’. The Uruguayan academic Judith Sutz is one of those advocating for more inclusion of vulnerable groups in research and policy.

Sutz pointed to the idea of ‘undone science’ put forward by David Hess. Roughly speaking, it means ignored or neglected research agendas which are identified by non-academic groups, for example poor communities.

As the location of most knowledge production in Latin America, universities have a key role in listening to these non-expert voices. They should help to ensure that innovation policies have inclusion of disadvantaged groups as a measure of their success.

Inclusive development

The architect and researcher Paula Peyloubet, from the Argentinean city of Córdoba, expanded on the theme of knowledge from different sources. She runs building projects that aim to produce ‘collective knowledge’, bringing together and sharing carpentry, architecture and construction skills among groups of people in different sites.

She asked two challenging questions for inclusive innovation: ‘Who includes who?’ and ‘Why should we include?’ For Peyloubet, the development model we have is not inclusive. Part of the problem is that knowledge and debate is often not accessible to all – with privileged knowledge located in universities and think tanks, but not opening up to other views and kinds of learning.

Benito Juarez, an advocate of digital fabrication for Latin America, shared ideas on how Fab Labs might connect with local people’s needs. They are workshops where people can use digital tools (including laser cutters and 3D printers) to make, remake or adapt products. At their best, Fab Labs can provide a way of implementing ideas very quickly – responding to need at a speed unmatched by conventional processes. Benito also shared the progress made on the Fab Lab flotante project – an initiative to create a floating Fab Lab for the Amazon which would enable more remote communities there to experiment with digital tools.

Alongside these examples from Latin America, STEPS Centre member Adrian Ely shared insights from other parts of the world: the Honey Bee Network in India, which organises walking tours to seek out rural innovations, and the history of the People’s Science Movement which aimed to create local innovation systems. But nurturing innovation at a local level is difficult: it needs lots of energy, trust, the right combinations of knowledge and skills, and perhaps safe spaces and communities that reduce the risk of ideas being co-opted or misused.

The phrase ‘inclusive innovation’ has a curious double meaning. Firstly, it could mean innovation that creates something (a new product or system) that means more people are included. A simple example might be a screen reader that allows blind and partially sighted people to access digital text. Secondly, it might mean including more perspectives in the innovation process – listening to people about why and how things should be done differently, and for whose benefit.

Natural resource dilemmas

Many countries in Latin America face a big dilemma, as Anabel Marin of STEPS América Latina pointed out. Their economies’ dependence on natural resources has grown in recent years. But they are also seeing negative environmental and social impacts of the exploitation of these resources – for example, by extractive industries and intensive agriculture.

Some are in denial about this dilemma. Others seek to solve it by putting their faith in technology. The discussion at the STEPS América Latina launch showed that too often, perspectives and experiences from the grass roots and civil society are unfairly overlooked.

Opening up research and innovation to more diverse groups, and allowing them to define different questions and priorities, is not easy. It means recognising the correspondence between knowledge and power. It also means finding ways to open the door to more democratic debate around intertwined social, environmental and economic questions.

But the discussion showed the enthusiasm among participants to explore ways of doing this through citizen science, research, activism and policy processes, in order to seek pathways to sustainability for Latin America.

Find out more

STEPS Latin America launch event: ‘Opening up the development agenda’

STEPS América Latina website