What the new Ahmedabad Declaration means for grassroots innovation

by Adrian Smith, STEPS Grassroots Innovation project

NOTE: A new article on grassroots innovation has just been published on the website of the Journal of Cleaner Production, authored by Adrian Smith, Mariano Fressoli and Hernán Thomas.

Smith, A., Fressoli, M. and Thomas, H. (2013) Grassroots innovation movements: challenges and contributions, Journal of Cleaner Production (in press)

The Honey Bee Network has issued a Declaration for grassroots innovation. It draws upon a quarter century of experience in the field, and the Network’s increasing profile and influence. A draft Declaration was debated at conferences convened in Ahmedabad in India and Tianjin in China in December 2012. The conferences provided space for grassroots innovators, people working in support agencies, and researchers to feed their experiences into the Declaration.

The resulting Ahmedabad Declaration has now been issued. Given the experience it draws upon, this is an important document.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Indian conference, held at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management. The atmosphere there, buoyed by discussion mixing Hindi, Gujarati and English, not to mention the assortment of grassroots perspectives encountering the discourses of innovation, science and technology, was full of energy, ingenuity, and possibilities – much like grassroots innovation itself.

The conference also included serious reflections on the restricted forms of institutional support currently available to grassroots innovation; and participants debated ideas for extending and transforming institutions in ways that might fully realize grassroots potential. India, principally through its National Innovation Foundation, is pioneering the development of institutions for scouting grassroots innovations, developing open access databases of innovations, providing technical support, assisting with intellectual property, and marketing promising innovations.

But the Declaration wants to go much further. And, given current interest in ‘innovation and inclusive development’ within the OECD, and interest in inclusive innovation from other multilateral agencies, as well as various national governments, including China, Malaysia, Namibia and others, there is a chance some influential people might be listening.

High-level interest will rest upon how agendas for inclusive innovation can be served by activities coming up from the grassroots. Arguably, grassroots solutions tend to be more inclusive precisely because they derive from experience, application and debate in communities, rather than calculations of what are appropriate or inclusive innovations in terms of abstract measures of social or economic progress. I stress arguably, because communities are messy things that can be divisive, hierarchical, and excluding, as well as exhibiting solidarity, equitableness, and inclusion; and also because even apparently abstract measures of progress ultimately rest in practices with real world consequences. More research and debate is required into whose claims and purposes are served in the mobilization of grassroots innovation. Activities such as the STEPS Centre’s New Manifesto process internationally, and the Knowledge Swaraj in India, are interesting examples of how those debates can be conducted.

Ahmedabad proved to be a fitting location to debate and declare on these matters. Not only because the city manifests the mix of traditional and modern, whether Mughal monuments and Le Corbusier buildings, or craft traditions and high-tech space laboratories. But also historically fitting, since under the auspices of the United Nations, an earlier Ahmedabad Declaration on Industrial Design for Development was issued there in 1979. It too followed an international conference in the city, this time convened by UNIDO and ICISD (the International Council of Societies of Design). The older declaration urged, ‘design in the developing world must be committed to a search for local answers to local needs, utilising indigenous skills, materials and traditions while absorbing the extraordinary power that science and technology can make available to it’.

It is instructive to contrast the newer, grassroots Declaration, with its emphasis in helping people to get on with being innovative for themselves and their communities, with the earlier generation of activity and debate evident in the older Ahmedabad Declaration, focused in cultivating appropriate technology principles to help well-intentioned designers and engineers choose sensitively what technologies were best for people.

The challenge for those engaging with the recommendations in either Declaration, as I see it at least, is to recognize the political character of the measures proposed. This is not so obvious on first reading, since many of the recommendations are skillfully portrayed as very practical, even technical measures.

Yet innovation scholars have long argued that whilst the intrinsic technical characteristics of any innovation are important, such as scale, complexity, spatial extent, material requirements, and so forth; the determinants of innovative success, and its associated development consequences, are fundamentally social, political and economic in character. Inclusion is consequently a non-technical, political issue.

Analysing innovation and development around the time of the first Ahmedabad Declaration, innovation scholars Charles Edquist and Olle Edqvist were quite typical in considering inclusive innovations in terms of policy choices between contending techniques for providing food, housing, energy, manufacturing capacity and so forth. They wrote:

The conclusion we draw is that technique cannot in general be assumed to be neutral in relation to society. The choice of technique implies social consequences, favouring some social groups or classes while disfavouring others. Technique, or rather the choice of technique, is therefore a political issue of great importance to society.’ (1979: 316):

Working at a time when debates about ‘appropriate’ technology design choices were particularly salient, Edquist and Edqvist stressed the importance of ‘social carriers’ of innovations: the groups with the economic and political resources to realize their preferred innovations. What they saw to be critically lacking in appropriate technology debates was insufficient attention towards the social carriers of such proposals. They wrote (1979: 324):

Catalogues of simple techniques are compiled. The discussion is, on the whole, very narrow, focusing only upon techniques as such and not taking the specific character of the society where these techniques are supposed to be used into account. Who is going to use the techniques is generally not discussed. Neither is the question of what their interests are, what resources they have in terms of power, and which structural constraints those social entities are subject to when making choices. A closer study of the problem must necessarily lead back to the crucial questions: Techniques for whom? Techniques for what purposes? Techniques under what circumstances? Further, who are going to be the social carriers of the ‘appropriate’ techniques?

Crucially for them, whilst the poor and others excluded on the margins of mainstream development need various technical capacities in order to choose, develop and adopt livelihood-enhancing innovations, it is their position in relation to economic, social and political power that determines whether they can actually realize those capacities. Without social, economic and political agency, people are technology takers rather than technology makers.

A caricature of appropriate technology painted back then portrayed well-intentioned engineers proposing devices with what they thought were intrinsically attractive techniques for disadvantaged communities. Critics pointed to an inability of engineering designs to cultivate the social and economic changes required to make the techniques a reasonable choice for the intended beneficiaries.

Edquist and Edqvist pointed out how socio-economic structures situate some actors more powerfully, centrally and favourably than others, and thus innovation choices tend to be carried towards their social images of progress, rather than the priorities of others. In Edquist and Edqvist terms, the creation of ‘social carriers’ becomes rooted in the requirement to ‘seize economic or political power’ and overturning the interests vested in the skewed and excluding carriers of innovation currently perpetuating poverty and under-development. In the late 1970s, Edquist and Edqvist suggested a form of decentralized socialism as the social carrier of innovations that look a lot like what we would now call inclusive innovation. Meanwhile, the powerful social carriers of the late 1970s were opting for neo-liberalism, structural adjustment, and leaving technology choices to ‘markets’.

Such argument about ‘social carriers’ may seem quite dated now, and says much about the times when Edquist and Edvist were writing. The language and tone, the focus on social choices rather than market selection, and the (quite linear) conceptualisation of innovation as somehow apart from society yet structured by it, makes an interesting comparison with ideas about innovation developed in the 1980s and after. Charles Edquist went on to make major contributions to those later developments; principally the ‘innovation systems’ approach that has become influential in analysis and policy for innovation. These newer ideas recast questions about ‘social carriers’ and the ‘seizing of power’ into less confrontational-sounding ‘institutional factors’ affecting the formation and operation of ‘innovation systems’.

To what extent systems approaches privilege incumbent ‘social carriers’ of innovation – the business, research and political elites that set agendas and constitute core system components – is a moot point. Emphasis has certainly tended to rest on the conditions and capabilities for market competitive innovation, rather than the contents and purposes of innovation for social development. This is not exclusively the case, nor is it necessarily a problem. Nevertheless, an unfortunate consequence has been to narrow and defuse questions about pathways for innovation, and to elide questions of social development with market development.

The re-emergent saliency of inclusion, and by implication acknowledgement of a continuing problem of exclusion in the processes and outcomes of innovation, suggests that more work is needed to create the right kinds of ‘institutional factors’. Perhaps current high-level activity in innovation and inclusion is belated recognition that not all innovation is good for development? Maybe innovation systems are not inherently inclusive towards the poor, the marginalized, and the dissenting? However, given the structural position of these excluded social actors and their distance from effective, competitive innovation systems, then is it realistic to expect any inclusive innovation in the absence of improvements in their social carrying capacity? This is where the new, grassroots Ahmedabad Declaration is so important. It corrects a long-standing oversight in innovation study and policy, and reclaims a hidden history.

Evidence built up by the Honey Bee Network and others suggests the formulation about social carriers is misguided. Honey Bee and others direct attention to the mass of grassroots innovation hitherto ignored by analysts and policy-makers. Perhaps the appropriate technology debates of old missed a trick, by failing to notice how grassroots innovation was being borne of its own, ready-made social carriers? Disadvantaged in socio-economic terms, but rich in knowledge and innovative potential, the grassroots have not been waiting to seize economic or political power. People have been getting on and innovating for themselves out of a mix of necessity and idealism.

Nevertheless, the Declaration for grassroots innovation recognizes the power of grassroots innovation is constrained. Grassroots social groups may be able to carry an innovation process so far, but more powerful support is required to realize its full potential. Here matters become more complicated. Full innovative agency is distributed and enacted through complex and contradictory social relations. The social carriers of innovation tend in practice to involve complicated networks of people situated in different structural contexts, and whose interests are threaded together uneasily through the bargains, compromises, authority, subversions, co-operations, and competitions between them.

At the grassroots conference in Ahmedabad, for example, there was debate about the possibility of protecting the intellectual property of grassroots innovators whilst simultaneously keeping innovation open to grassroots movements. The challenge is to balance the entrepreneurial view of innovators and their innovative objects (that can be bounded, identified, and commercialised) with a more collective view of innovation processes (involving solidarities, emulation and learning that is hard to encapsulate).

The Declaration is clear in its commitment to the institutionalization of a ‘Technology Commons’: ‘so that protection of intellectual property rights does not come in the way of people to people (p2p) copying, learning, sharing and at the same time firms are obliged to license the rights before use. The legitimisation of Technology Commons will require changes in the policy and implementation system for IPRs’. These are changes that may not be embraced so readily by those that continue to work hard to maintain and extend IPR systems, but perhaps some accommodations can be found? Innovation platforms might need to be prized open, if necessary through mandating agricultural and industrial extension centres to provide space and resources for grassroots innovators (the Declaration suggests 10 million Rs per district in India and urges politicians to put pressure on extension centres). Incentives may need to be altered so that ‘a consortium of designers, fabricators and calibrators/testers’ can ‘provide low cost and flexible services for innovators’.

At moments like this, the new Ahmedabad Declaration echoes the old in urging the international institutions of science, technology, design and business to join with the informal, indigenous and grassroots. But the big difference between the Declarations is in the direction of travel. The new Ahmedabad Declaration insists linkages have to work from the grassroots upwards.

Clearly, extending grassroots social carriers to do this, in ways that are capable of reforming IPR regimes, and that recalibrate the incentives of design and engineering institutes, is a challenge for political mobilization. And yet, the Honey Bee Network has been very skillful in always presenting these issues in practical ways, providing ideas and suggesting measures that seem not only eminently reasonable, but that can be broken down into concrete, achievable activities. Indeed, when considered in the context of a wider social movement already experimenting with open innovation and practicing commons-based peer-production, then perhaps it is not so fantastic to think the Declaration already has many carriers?