3. Technology, Innovation and Sustainability

Large old telephone switchboard with connecting wires
Telephone switchboard, by charlie inskip (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

What are the relationships between technology, innovation and development? There is much emphasis (and, indeed, faith) in the role of technology and innovation in delivering sustainability. But what assumptions lie behind these technological visions? And what are the implications of centrally-controlled, high-tech approaches compared to more bottom-up, grassroots forms of innovation? A plurality and politics in ‘innovation’ for sustainability is evident, but how can alternative pathways be opened up?

Lecture: Adrian Smith and Adrian Ely, Sustainable innovation

Watch Adrian Smith and Adrian Ely discuss conventional approaches to innovation, as well as alternative approaches and how they can be supported.


After you have watched the lecture, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Why do the authors argue that traditional metrics for measuring innovation (‘gross expenditure on R&D’) are limited? Why is this important when thinking about sustainability?
  2. What do the “3Ds” stand for?
  3. In what way do the authors argue that these 3Ds can support socially just and environmentally sustainable directions of innovation?

Essential reading

STEPS Centre (2010)

Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto

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Smith, A., Fressoli, M., Abrol, D., Ely, A. and Arond, E. (2016)

Introduction of Grassroots Innovation Movements.. Routledge: London

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Fressoli, M., Arond, E., Abrol, D., Smith, A., Ely, A. & Dias, R. (2014)

When grassroots innovation movements encounter mainstream institutions: implications for models of inclusive innovation. Innovation and Development 4(2): 277-292

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Further reading

Smith, A. and Fressoli, M. (2021) Post-automation. Futures 132(2021):102778

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Cremaschi, A., Van Zwanenberg, P., Marin, A., Basch, M. and Lowenstein, V. (2020) Bioleft: Beyond an open source seed system. XRDS Crossroads, the ACM Magazine for Students, July 2020

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Smith, A. (2018) Smart cities need thick data, not big data. The Guardian

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A collection of STEPS resources for grassroots innovation: Six grassroots innovation movements and why they matter

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Pansera, M., & Fressoli, M. (2020) Innovation without growth: Frameworks for understanding technological change in a post-growth era. Organization, 28(3):380-404

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Course home Part 4