Why STEPS is creating a new research hub in Latin America

I am in Buenos Aires for the ESOCITE/4S conference, which is bringing together Latin American scholars in Science & Technology Studies and visitors from the USA, Europe and other regions of the world.

It is an exciting moment to convene in Argentina. The government is mired in controversy over payment of debts, vulture funds, nationalisations, and the future direction of development as the country’s politicians jockey for position ahead of the presidential elections next year. In the region too, a decade or so of trying to make a neo-structural model of development more inclusive is leading into a period of reflection and debate about the experience.

That decidedly mixed experience has centred on attempts to build upon natural resource-based economies, and use them as a basis to leverage investment for developing a different productive matrix that is less dependent upon the vicissitudes of global markets in resources, and that can create jobs and other industrial sectors with high social inclusion. Reflections on how this has worked, or not, and where it has struggled, and why, must consider which groups, issues and agendas have been included, and which excluded, and the fruits of these attempts.

Debate appears to be opening up to a questioning of this model of development, and consideration of alternative models. Obviously, it is extremely difficult for visitors like me to get the full picture, especially without an appreciation of all the nuances and historical specificities required. And, arguably, it is also challenging for people in the region to look across the diverse communities and groups involved. Which is one reason why the creation of the Centro STEPS America Latina – our new research ‘hub’ in Latin America – is particularly exciting, since it is committed to exploring alternative pathways for sustainable developments in the region.

Building regional links

steps-america-latinaRight now, the nucleus of the Centro STEPS, which will become a hub for regional reflections, is a team at Fundación Cenit here in Buenos Aires. It consists of Valeria Arza, Anabel Marin, Patrick van Zwanenberg, Mariano Fressoli and Antonella Perini. They are already building upon existing links with other researchers in the region.

The Centro STEPS network provides a platform for critical reflection on the development models currently pursued in the region; a venue for debating alternatives; collaborations that gather evidence and analysis of concrete experiments on the ground; as well as a vehicle for engaging with different agencies and social and economic sectors across the region.

Centro STEPS is taking a particular interest in the roles that science and technology, as well as other forms of knowledge production and material creativity, can play in developments that seek social justice and environmental sustainability. The Centro already has considerable experience in deploying the analytical resources from Science & Technology Studies, Innovation Studies and Development Studies.

Past projects by Centro members also have a track record in drawing in contributions from the natural sciences, design and engineering, as well as social science disciplines including economics, sociology, political science and anthropology. An engaged and interdisciplinary approach is the hallmark of past projects by this team, and which forms the ethos for the network they are facilitating. The Centro also builds on roundtables organised in Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina as part of the STEPS Centre New Manifesto project for rethinking science and technology for development.

At the ESOCITE/4S conference the Centro have a stall and are hosting an evening reception on Friday 22nd August for scholars interested in contributing to this exciting initiative (organised, appropriately, as an alternative to formal conference business). At the reception, in a bar downtown (in the basement of 36 de billar, I hope!), there will be scope to discuss the issues of concern, methodologies, engagements, modes of activity for the network, and opportunities to join and contribute.

Getting going: debates, films, conferences

The Centro already has a cycle of debates, which began in April with agricultural biotechnology in Buenos Aires. It will be moving soon to other cities in the region (the Centro has funds for potential hosts to bid into). A working paper series is in preparation and a regular network newsletter. These and other items will be hosted on a network website (in development). Our activities, such as the seminar debate on intellectual property, are already reported regularly in the Argentine paper Pagina 12, and syndicated in the region through blogs and other media. There are plans for film documentaries and other media for exploring the issues. And at ESOCITE/4S, as at other academic fora, members of the Centro and network are convening special sessions.

For example, Mariano Fressoli and I have convened a two-part session at ESOCITE/4S around the question, What is innovation for social inclusion? We have a fantastic set of contributions in Spanish, Portuguese and English. I will also be contributing the following week to a Centro seminar debate dedicated to the topic of digital fabrication, most emblematically in 3D printing, and what this means for development. I’ll be asking questions about grassroots experimentation in new socio-technical possibilities being explored in makerspaces, FabLabs, and hackerspaces.

All this is incredibly exciting. I think this initiative is not only important for the region, vital as that is, but also for people considering alternative developments in other regions of the world, whether in Europe like me, Asia, Africa, and North America. The STEPS Centre is collaborating with partners to establish network hubs in all these regions. We plan for these networks to intersect, and provide dynamic and diverse platforms for exchange of experiences and analysis.

We want to cultivate a reflexive attitude sensitive to the differences in histories, cultures, economies, societies, epistemologies and so forth, and which we believe can lead to deeper insights and stronger solidarities through appreciation of located and interconnected development alternatives. And hopefully the encounters involved, sparking criticism and argument as well as identifying common ground, will contribute creative insights for those already engaged in experimentation and building diverse pathways towards varied forms of social justice and environmental sustainability. The situation in Latin America now suggests Centro STEPS will provide an important component for that platform; a platform that can help more people become protagonists in the building of caminos (pathways) by asking questions.