Harnessing diversity across the global innovation system: a key challenge post Rio+20

By Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement, STEPS Centre

Technology and innovation feature prominently in what looks likely to be the final outcome document from Rio+20, however the diversity of new ideas that can contribute to sustainable development remains underappreciated.

Mark Stafford-Smith, co-chair of the ‘Planet Under Pressure’ conference that was held in London in March this year called for the world to embrace a ‘global innovation system’ for sustainable development.  Without reference to innovation systems, the outcome text from Rio+20 highlights the role of technology-transfer, finance, capacity-building and intellectual property – all relatively predictable components of an internationally-negotiated text.  But beyond that, there are some passages (in the 19th June text) that relate to the role of more diverse forms of knowledge and action within a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Diversity in Innovation Systems
Innovation scholars who have looked at innovation systems at national and regional levels have noted the importance of diversity.  As one of the earliest theorists of innovation systems has noted, “National and international policies thus confront the need for a sophisticated dual approach to a complex set of problems. Policies for diffusion of standard generic technologies are certainly important and these may sometimes entail the encouragement of inward investment and technology transfer by MNCs. But also important are policies to encourage local originality and diversity” {Freeman, 1995}.

Another pioneer of innovation systems thinking has warned against an excessive focus on dominant and narrow innovation directions – “‘intellectual strip-mining’ indicates a process where moving rapidly ahead on well-established trajectories may imply that too few resources are used to explore alternative ones” {Lundvall, 2002}.

This focus has been re-emphasised by work in the STEPS Centre’s Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development and also in our recent work that highlights the role of innovation in transforming development pathways so that they remain within planetary boundaries.  ‘Transforming Innovation to Sustainability’, co-authored with colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute, stresses the urgency of shifting global patterns of development in an attempt to keep them within a ‘safe operating space for humanity’.  Beyond a focus on the transfer of cleaner technologies from North to South, the report calls for a radical re-think of innovation that “gives far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes, involving them within an inclusive, multi-scale innovation politics.”

In what ways does the Rio text recognise more diverse forms of innovation?
Beyond the predictable focus on the need to transfer technological solutions from North to South and “close the technological gap between developing and developed countries”, I was surprised by some sections in the Rio+20 text that point to the possibility that diverse forms of innovation are beginning to be increasingly recognised across UN member states.

Paragraph 197, for example, states “We recognize that traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities make an important contribution to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their wider application can support social well-being and sustainable livelihoods.”  Innovation is not solely the domain of ‘developed countries,’ therefore.  This sentiment is reinforced in paragraph 268 which stresses the need to “facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation including among women, the poor and the vulnerable.”

In a recent article in the Guardian, my colleague Adrian Smith and I have stressed the role of inclusive innovation at Rio and beyond.  Innovation needs to be inclusive not just in the outcomes that it delivers but also the process of innovation itself – involving users and poorer communities in setting the new pathways for their development, and empowering bottom-up efforts towards shared sustainability goals.

Similar ideas were reflected in civil society inputs to the ‘Rio Dialogues’ process, in which the top 3 recommendations in the theme ‘Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty’ included a reference to supporting grassroots innovation, and the online forum that informed these went as far as recommending the establishment of an international programme to identify, validate and support the dissemination of grassroots innovation ideas.

Within agriculture, for example, this might mean fostering traditional approaches that have been shown to raise productivity or serve broader sustainable livelihood needs in one part of the world, and facilitating their recombination and hybridisation with different approaches (technological and non-technological) that have been shown to work elsewhere. In paragraph 109, the text recognises “the importance of traditional sustainable agricultural practices, including traditional seed supply systems, including for many indigenous peoples and local communities.”  However, commitments and to supporting and connecting such approaches are absent.

Where now?  Linking diverse contributions
Even despite these encouraging sections in ‘The Future We Want’, the text still remains overly fixated on conventional North-South technology transfer, a focus on hardware and finance and insufficient attention to diverse contributions from communities and civil society across the world.

We can only hope that the implementation efforts that must follow the Rio conference will embrace calls to nurture, empower and connect innovation for sustainable development in communities across the world.  A global system of innovation needs to be inclusive – not only in its outcomes but also in the inputs to the innovation process itself. We have a long way to go in building linkages between the diverse range of actors who can make valuable contributions to a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Freeman, C. (1995). “The National System of Innovation in Historical Perspective.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 19: 5-24.

Lundvall, B.-Å., Ed. (2002). Innovation, Growth and Social Cohesion: the Danish Model. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.