Situating pathways in historical contexts

Lightbulbs of different shapes and sizes

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


Concern for the uneven development consequences of mainstream approaches to promoting innovation systems is prompting interest in more inclusive approaches to innovation. A variety of ‘inclusive innovation’ approaches are being developed and analysed, including many operating at the grassroots level.

The STEPS Centre research project Grassroots Innovation: historical and comparative perspectives is investigating some initiatives that promote grassroots innovation, or attempted to do so, and situating each in its local historical context. Here we reflect on contributions that our case study methodology can make to debates about policies and other support for grassroots innovation.

Read a fuller explanation of this methodology, written by Adrian Smith: Situating pathways in historical contexts (PDF 107kb)

Case studies

We hope to provide an antidote to silver bullet solutions for grassroots innovation by studying a variety of places and times. We expect the importance of context and contingency to become apparent, but are interested in common issues across the cases and fundamental challenges for grassroots innovation. The cases are:

  1. The People’s Science Movement in India, active since the early 1980s
  2. The movement for social technologies and socially inclusive technology in Brazil and Argentina, active since the early 2000s
  3. The movement for socially useful production in the UK, active from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s
  4. The Honey Bee Network active in India, active since 1989
  5. Hackerspaces and FabLabs promoting grassroots digital fabrication, active internationally since the early 2000s


1.      Identifying the challenges across all cases
A review of the literatures associated with grassroots innovation movements has identified three challenges. By studying the different responses across varied situations, we hope to generate informed insights for more sensitive and situated support towards grassroots innovation for sustainability. The challenges are:

  • Policy pressure to scale-up and diffuse solutions that originated in particular grassroots contexts
  • The delicate balance between fitting and conforming to powerful agendas of resourceful agencies, whilst seeking to stretch and transform local situations on grassroots terms
  • Relying on project and programmatic solutions to issues whose root causes lie in structures of economic and political power.

2.      Analysis of case studies
Our analysis aims to address strategies for creating pathways over time, paying particular attention to politics and contexts. Historian John Tosh’s ‘thinking with history’ argument is among the influences on our approach (see PDL for more details). Our case studies provide a series of vantage points from which to address issues for promoting grassroots innovation and improve the strategic choices available, noting hard-to-change recurring patterns and trajectories more likely to persist. For each case we analyse:

  • Historical background: the context that generated the movement and in which it operates
  • Framings: Understanding the framings that influence the way grassroots innovators and activists approach solutions, and how they tried to shape the purpose and direction of innovation in society
  • Spaces: Exploring the spaces available to movements to put their framings into practice, and how the material consequences cause reflections on framings
  • Pathways: A discussion / analysis of the pathways that result from this activity, and the key challenges to path construction across and beyond the spaces available

Different histories and futures

Different histories, and not History, shape our thinking about the present and our views on the future. A critical historical perspective can challenge assumptions propagated by the powerful about the naturalness or immutability of our situation. Mobilising precedents from the past can recast, inform and address fears over the apparent novelty of situations. As such, carefully contextualised case studies from different places and pasts can become a resource that people can draw upon in thinking through our current predicaments and possibilities. Considering how people address similar social problems in different places and over time becomes an important methodology for critical debates about our future. Plurality in perspective is one way of broadening the terms and quality of debate: its merit rests in opening rather than in closing questions, in facilitating and sharpening debate.