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Delivering public value from new technologies

21st May 2007

Making Innovation Work for the Poor in a Globalised World
Part of the Delivering Public Value from New Technologies series

A joint seminar from STEPS and Practical Action. Focusing on increasing the recognition of the role of technology in human development, this day-long seminar put the emphasis on improving the choice people have about which technologies are developed and how they are diffused.

Speaker presentations:

  • Andy Stirling – Innovation vectors and the politics of technology choice (pdf 216kb)
  • Brian Wynne – From risk goverance to innovation governance (pdf 105kb)
  • Ian Scoones – Biotech in Bangalore: the politis of innovation (pdf 619kb)
  • Uli Beisel – DDT, GM mosquitoes and a malaris vaccine: tracing innovation in malaria prevention and treatment (pdf 282 KB)
  • Andrew Adwerah – Experiences of social entrepreneurs in East Africa (pdf 156kb)

“My mission is to change the way in which science delivers benefits to society.” It was an ambitious opener to a day-long seminar on ‘Making Innovation Work for the Poor in a Globalised World’ from David Grimshaw, international team leader of the charity Practical Action.

Setting the tone for the day Grimshaw said Practical Action wanted the benefit science delivers to society to be less driven by “the consumer wants” and “more towards being driven by human need – the need for clean water, the need for energy and so on.”

Delivering Public Value from New Technologies

The seminar was the second in a series entitles Delivering Public Value from New Technologies supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, UK. The subject is particularly relevant in the current environment where spending on science and technology is increasing and where society’s expectations are that technology will deliver solutions that “solve” environment and development problems.

Technological innovations, whether in the arenas of agriculture, medicine, energy or environment, are often posed as solutions to problems of poverty, livelihood and ill-health.Yet whether innovation actually works for the poor depends on how choices about alternative innovation pathways are made, who participates in them, the nature of the systems in which innovation processes are embedded, and how these are governed.

Innovation systems often encompass both highly globalised institutions and processes, and a multiplicity of actors and institutions, private as well as public. Ensuring that innovation responds to poorer peoples’ own perspectives and priorities in this context is difficult, yet vital.

And today’s seminar focused on increasing recognition of the role of technologies in human development, with an emphasis on improving the choice people have about which technologies are developed and which are diffused.

Making Innovation Work for the Poor in a Globalised World

The STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability), hosted this, the second of the Delivering Pubic Value series, with STEPS director Professor Melissa Leach chairing.

Leach said: “We are at a point at moment where there is a great deal of optimism and hype and investment going into science and technology for poverty reduction. There is excitement about economic growth, excitement about magic bullets for poverty reduction and a lot of private and philanthropic development money from organisations such as the Gates Fund.

“But will technology really meet peoples’ needs on the ground, and the complex realities of life. Who is involved in developing the technology, and crucially, what are some of the governance and institutional policies that are helping to chart the direction these technologies go in?”

Innovation and the politics of technology choice: “sleepwalking into a technological future”

Among the speakers at the event were STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, SPRU Science Director and Professorial Fellow, who talked about how the pervasive culture of “anti or pro-technology” must be challenged. (view Andy’s presentation)

Stirling said: “Innovation is being treated as a simple magnitude – just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘how much’ or ‘how fast’? This language of pro and anti innovation is really meaningless…innovation is not homogenous, it can follow many different directions and we face these different directions now, different technological pathways, and we cant realise the potential of all options. So what we see is ‘shaping’ by networks and the least powerful actors are marginalised in the processes that are set up.”

He went on to explain how innovation pathways and choices can be opened up rather than locked down and locking out those without power – the poor. Among the necessary considerations is the issue of framing – the way a question is asks impacts on what answer you get. “Participatory engagement is not immune to framing. So broadening out is not enough, it is essential, but not sufficient.”

Stirling called for four main elements to this new approach – precautions, inclusion, pluralism and diversity: “We need a more precautionary approach, we need to look at uncertainty with open eyes, we need to be more inclusive and to address more alternative options, we need a more plural appraisal of policy advice, opening up to wider politics and we need diversity that fosters innovation and mitigates lock in.”

“We lack a mature view on science and innovation. We are sleepwalking into a technological future and the interest of the most marginal groups are being ignored. Be more realistic about what innovate is and is the best way to open the door to a more pro-poor approach.”

Challenging assumptions

Brian Wynne, of the Instiute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy at Lancaster University talked on ‘The Absurd Idea of Addressing Global Poverty Through Risk Governance’ and tackled the idea that public is objecting to science.

“There is the suffocation of opening up potentials- the playing field is not open. Various kinds of assumptions are embedded and privileged which are shaping the structure of our institutions. That needs to be critically addressed and changed,” said Wynne.

Biotech boom in Bangalore

STEPS co-director Ian Scoones spoke about the politics of innovation using the biotech boom in Bangalore as his touchstone.

Bangalore – ‘the knowledge economy capital’ – is home to India’s largest biotech cluster, with an annual revenue growth of around 35% over last few years. The boom has brought big expectations.

And embedded in the hype are variety of innovation and development narratives, said Scoones. “But one has to ask how these narratives play out in terms of public value, you have to ask ‘innovation for whom?’”

Of his study of eight biotech research and development departments, Scoones said: “What we increasingly saw was a disjuncture between elite science and increasingly appropriated social activity from northern based companies. The social and political dimensions of networks, and their power relations were deeply affected in Bangalore by the social and political dimensions of networks that exist.”

And of the so-called public-private partnerships, there are many big questions about ownership, about who is in control and who benefits from them, according to Scoones.

“Where does that Bangalore hype fit with the rural life and reality ? Well it doesn’t, there is a disconnect. There is rapid urbanisation and growth in new technology centres alongside the marginalisation of people and the lack of access to this new growth.

“The question is how, and in what way, can democratic politics assist in the opening up of these debates that allow the opening up of these alternative pathways,” concluded Scoones.

GM mosquitos and social entrepreneurs

The Open University’s Uli Beisel spoke on DDT, GM mosquitoes and malaria vaccines and her research on tracing innovation in malaria prevention and treatment. While Andrew Adwerah of the Kenyan African Centre for Technology Studies spoke on the experiences of social entrepreneurs in East Africa.

Adwerah said: “There is a market for demand-driven product development and business plans, and there should be more resource allocation to training and R&D and more problem definition before product design.

He added that social entrepreneurship should be aimed at poverty reduction, especially through income development and the success or failure of the product should be measured, with incentives to investors – tax relief to private sectors funding research.

Other seminars in the series

  • Seminar 1: Reframing understandings about the role of science and technology in human development
    The first of the four seminars was on 22 February 2007 at the Schumacher Centre for Technology and Development, Bourton on Dunsmore, Rugby, UK. A set of disciplinary position papers, with a focus around the key issues, were presented, plus discussion and inputs from practice and developing countries.
  • Seminar 3: Towards new business models. How can we develop new business models or processes that would support outcomes of science-led new technologies that fulfil human need rather than market demand? 20 November 2007
  • Seminar 4: Taking the research agenda forward. Building on the interdisciplinary frameworks and taking these forward into empirically based research. 14 April 2008


21st May 2007