STEPS-JNU SYMPOSIUM: Transformative innovation from the grassroots

By Ian Scoones, Co-Director, STEPS Centre

Session three at the JNU-STEPS Symposium focused on ‘grassroots innovation’. The panel emphasised the transformative possibilities of innovation, and the need to go beyond a narrow definition of innovation as focused only on technology. Rooted in movements, Adrian Smith from the STEPS Centre, argued that innovation is also about inventing new subjectivities as innovators, developing new social relations, linking technology to services, and fostering interconnections with conventional innovation systems.

The session confronted some major challenges in building new pathways. Can you scale up without losing sight of the origins of and contexts for innovation? How can incumbent systems be confronted, even disrupted? How can wider structural changes be challenged, without cooptation by the mainstream be resisted? What forms of accountability are required so that transformative innovation is made possible?

During the session cases from Brazil and India were presented; two of six cases in the project that have looked across geography and over time to draw comparative insights into the link between grassroots innovation and social movements. The case studies presented took an historical perspective showing how movements that link to technological innovation have longer histories, rooted in particular social, political and historical contexts.

As Mariano Fressoli from the Institute of Studies on Science and Technology – National University of Quilmes (IESCT_UNQ) showed, for the social technologies network in Brazil that had roots in the democratic struggles in Latin America has spawned a range of activities. Yet they have failed to negotiate a relationship with incumbent institutions and policies. Mariano pointed to a massive gap between elite policies focused on neoliberal modes of growth and grassroots visions, imaginations and frames.

Reflecting on movements in India, Dinesh Abrol from the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP) at JNU argued that a greater accommodation has been possible, as the Ghandian Khadi movement, as well as the Nehruvian vision of autonomous transformation with small-scale enterprise, both allowed for local level innovation. Through various forms of institutionalisation in the post-Independence period, such activities have persisted.

Dinesh in turn highlighted two grassroots innovation initiatives. First the People’s Science Movement that helped generate “new social careers of innovation, new relations between primary, secondary production, new socio-technical systems and new brokerage institutions link that have helped scale up beyond the ties and trust of the locality towards wider political alliances between workers, peasants, product-makers”. Examples of tanners, biogas, stove making, vegetable production and more were discussed. This, he argued, is one of transformation, and scaling up happens through wider structural change. This experience was contrasted with a second case: the Honey Bee Network that emerged in the 1980s, at a moment when concerns around intellectual property, market development and social entrepreneurship were more dominant. As an innovation network this has scaled up through entering the mainstream, with support from government, linking a movement, with a network to a formal institution as Anil Gupta has described.

How do these cases relate to wider debates about ‘inclusive’ or ‘responsible’ innovation? Here the rhetoric identifies grassroots innovation as an opportunity for ‘insertion’ into the innovation system, and therefore to ‘roll out’ and ‘scale up’. Some saw this as cooptation, others as a route towards greater impact. Through this marketised approach, it was argued, the origins and politics of innovation may be lost, and the principles of protecting a knowledge commons, generating open source technologies, as well as commitments to sharing, inclusivity and democratisation. And in turn the wider challenge to visions of development that these suggest. As Suhas Paranjape from the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), Pune, argued in discussion, grassroots innovation movements must not aim for inclusion and incorporation, but movements need to be “challenging, disruptive and subversive”, fundamentally focusing on “a resistance to subversion to capital”. There exists an uneasy coexistence between these strands that suggest very different pathways.

Deliberation and reflection on different options for innovation pathways was seen as an important challenge. The session reflected in particular on how researchers, innovators and movements interact. The STEPS project several commented has provided a useful space for reflection by both academics and activists, and the many hybrids that exist between. This allows people to “look up from their locality”, encouraging reflection, networking and debate between actors. It will be out of these interactions that pathways to sustainability will emerge.