STEPS-JNU SYMPOSIUM: Every case is its own study? Every movement has its own goals?

Map of grassroots innovation movements

By Adrian Smith, Researcher, STEPS Centre / SPRU

Learning with and across diverse grassroots innovation movements

Here in Delhi, first at the Grassroots Innovation Movements Workshop, and then at the STEPS-JNU Symposium, participants were interested in the commitments and positions taken in STEPS Centre research projects. Our project on Grassroots Innovation Movements in Historical and Comparative Perspectives is investigating six grassroots innovation movements whose diverse histories arise in very different geographies, and whose activities, participants and sectors are similarly varied:

– Honey Bee Network in India  – Peoples Science Movement in India  – Social Technology Network / Technologies for Social Inclusion in South America  – Appropriate Technology Movement in South America  – Movement for Socially Useful Production in the UK  – Grassroots Digital Fabrication in Europe

Not only does this raise questions about research methodology, but also what the project expects to achieve practically in engaging with these movements. At root, this is a question of motivations for the research: why study such a collection of disparate movements? I tried providing my own, personal answers to this question when introducing both the workshop and the session on grassroots innovation at the symposium.

My answer had three aspects to it: each engaging with different communities. The first relates to activists and practitioners. The second relates to the research community. And the third aspect relates to the world of policy-making.

At any time, in many places around the world, if we look carefully enough we can find networks of activists and communities generating bottom up solutions to the challenges, opportunities and aspirations for development as they view it. Ingenious grassroots activity produces a variety of innovations, and which activists, engineers, scientists, and others (including investors and entrepreneurs) sometimes try to develop further and help scale-up and spread in some form. This activity can involve improvisation as well as knowledge, and both of which can be elusive for formalisation and dissemination. Conversely, activists concerned for the problems of often marginal or disadvantaged communities, and overlooked by many innovation institutions, try to bring science, engineering, and project development into dialogue with the grassroots, and to develop solutions in which communities are empowered to shape the design and execution of projects that make use of appropriate innovations (even if they did not originate within the particular grassroots setting).

What we see repeatedly over time is participants in these varied grassroots innovation initiatives looking to those involved in similar activities elsewhere. Networks are formed, experiences shared, reflections are made, and discourses and practices emerge around how to help deepen and spread this mix of grassroots innovation activity and grassroots activism making use of innovations. We call these developments grassroots innovation movements.

The first aspect to our research motivation is to engage with these movement processes, and to try and contribute to the dialogues involved by making connections with other movements elsewhere. Even where movements appear to have little in common at face value, such as the Honey Bee Network in India today and the movement for socially useful production in the UK in the 1970s, bringing them together and contrasting them can still have its uses. Looking carefully at a contrasting case can help activists step outside their day to day activity, and in thinking about grassroots innovation experiences in very different times and places, reflection can help reveal, recast, and rethink the processes they are engaged in, and which daily pressures may obscure. Just as foreign travel can enrich how we think about our home countries, so we hope dialogue between contrasting grassroots movements will enrich the reflections of activists in each. Contact such as these may even help processes of international solidarity. As we’ll see below, policy for inclusive innovation has an international dimension, and so it might make sense for movements to engage internationally too.

The second aspect to our research motivation relates to how we study these movements, and how we engage others in our analysis. There exists already considerable research into grassroots movements. However, much of this research attends to either protest movements, movements for rights, or movements for cultural identification. Studies of grassroots movements that innovate, and that are doing alternative development, are fewer. Some exist, such as the work of David Hess. But few have looked across a diversity of grassroots innovation movements in the way we are trying in our project. Elsewhere, we have also argued how the field of innovation studies gives insufficient attention to the particularities of grassroots innovation. Innovation studies have tended to focus on systems of innovation based around firms, markets and research institutes, and if they turn to questions of alternative innovation, then they tend to apply the same conceptual apparatus developed for market-oriented settings. So a second motivation for the project is to contribute an empirically-grounded, theoretically-informed understanding of grassroots movements involved in innovative solutions for alternative developments.

The third and final motivation for our project is to engage with renewed policy interest in grassroots innovation. The activities of grassroots innovation movements are attracting attention in the context of elite policy interest in inclusive innovation. The OECD and other international bodies are interested in inclusive innovation. They are conducting studies and developing programmes. A common feature for the discussions is the search for models of inclusive innovation, and how to scale-up the use of these models. Understandably, these discussions often draw on conventional innovation terms and concepts familiar to these organisations. So, for example, grassroots innovation is seen in terms of the development of innovative devices, which can be developed into products through processes for cultivating entrepreneurship and marketing. These approaches do make sense to some in grassroots innovation movements. But they do not make sense for all participants. Terms like inclusion, scaling-up, and even innovation itself, need to be interrogated in the context of grassroots attempts to democratise innovations for alternative modes of production and consumption.

There is much more to grassroots innovation than an overlooked reservoir of appropriable ideas and devices, open for selection, inclusion, and commercialisation. Grassroots innovation movements are also about mobilisation around different visions for development and alternative ways of innovating. In the process of developing solutions for alternative development problem frames, grassroots innovation movements generate new subjectivities, discourses, agendas, and visions for innovation in development, and not just devices, capabilities, and infrastructure. Some grassroots innovators become protagonists in a different kind of development. Some even present alternative innovation as a tool to resist being included, or subsumed as they might term it, into conventional innovation agendas. This is a position that asserts a right to innovation in a way that poses discomfiting challenges to the fundamental notions held by elite innovation institutions. It is a position that speaks to knowledge politics and relations of political and economic power. It is a position we were reminded about in the discussions in our workshop and Symposium in Delhi. It is important to pressure policy-makers also to recognise this more radical and transformational aspect in grassroots innovation movement.