Methods Vignettes: Innovation histories



The Innovation Histories method was developed by Boru Douthwaite and Jacqueline Ashby (2005) as a way of drawing on experience from past innovation processes. The authors base their method within the wider Learning Selection Model developed by Douthwaite (2002). The method comprises a set of flexible guidelines on how to run a workshop with stakeholders involved in an innovation process.

The STEPS Centre’s affiliate project Pro-poor, low carbon development: Improving low carbon energy access and development benefits in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) adapted the method for a 2013 workshop as part of research into the uptake of solar home systems (SHSs) in Kenya. In using the Innovations Histories method, our approach sought to understand how pathways to pro-poor low carbon development, particularly those that could benefit the poor and marginalised, have evolved. The findings will be used, as part of our overall research, to provide analysis to help local, national and international decision-makers plan and deliver climate compatible development.

We sought to adapt the Innovation Histories method to fit within theoretical perspectives informed by the STEPS Centre’s Pathways Approach, together with Strategic Niche Management and Innovation Studies.

A short briefing and a workshop report – available on the Innovation Histories page – offer further offers insights from our experience. The method can be adapted flexibly and may be particularly useful for researchers striving for a bottom-up, participatory approach, especially in the sustainability and development fields. It seeks to engage a range of stakeholders in the research process and, through the construction of a timeline and actor network map, to gather information on some of the facilitating and limiting factors for the uptake of an innovation, in this case SHSs.

What’s Involved?

A step-by-step summary of the method as conceived by Douthwaite and Ashby (2005), and then as adapted in this project as well as the key points to consider during workshop planning, are outlined in Innovation Histories step-by-step (PDF 373kb). Douthwaite and his co-authors emphasise the method is a reflection tool to learn from any experience, whether it be positive or negative. For instance, perceived “failures” are often not reported, although they are critical to the learning process. The Innovation History workshop should therefore try to provide an open and trustworthy environment, so participants feel comfortable enough to share information and to reflect critically on their experiences. Furthermore, for participants to be able to voice their opinions, workshop facilitators must be sensitive to power relations between the stakeholders. Ideally the interaction between participants at a workshop will elicit dynamic discussions, with participants prompting and reminding each other and negotiating the significance of the events and other factors identified.

Notably Douthwaite and colleagues emphasise there is no fixed recipe on how to organise and structure the workshop or the write-up of the innovation history, but that it can be adapted flexibly according to the needs of each project. For instance, they suggest the workshop could include the drawing of timelines and actor network maps. These can first be constructed individually and then shared in groups to discuss, compare and integrate where possible. The discussions and results recorded during the workshop can be used to write up an innovation history, which provides room to narrate various perspectives and controversies. Before it is published the innovation history should be read and commented on by the participants, in order to double-check the researchers’ interpretation. How we went about organising our Innovation Histories workshop is detailed in the briefing.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

The method can be used both as an intervention to improve the innovation process while it is unfolding, or to facilitate an in-depth historical analysis to inform future innovation projects. We adopted a holistic definition of the term innovation, including not only technological innovations, but also social or organisational innovations, viewing innovation as much more than something “new to the world”. In this sense, the context in which we applied the Innovation Histories method is broader than the focus on the uptake and adaptation of (or to) single technologies that forms the basis of Douthwaite’s work.

The method not only pays attention to events but also to projects, processes, products and actors that influenced the development of an innovation (including technical, financial, social and policy aspects). Douthwaite and colleagues propose the workshop includes stakeholders from all levels and stages of engagement in the innovation process, from the researchers, designers and manufacturers to the end-users (and in the context of our work, policy makers, donors and other significant actors). This way the context of the innovation process is more likely to be taken into account, as well as enabling feedback from the users’ perspective. Another benefit of this method is its participatory nature. It enables different stakeholders to tell their stories and voice their opinions. It is a way of drawing on their unique knowledge and experience as well as engaging them in the research process.

In these ways the method is able to ‘broaden out’ by attending to factors beyond standard market parameters of technical aspects alone and take a more holistic view of technologies as artefacts of socio-technical processes of innovation and development. It can also ‘open up’ analysis to reflexive consideration of the implications of different perspectives on the research questions, and how in some cases the answers might depend on context-specific conditions and necessarily subjective constructions of narratives that serve to frame attendant problems and solutions.

Roles, Fit and Limits?

The Innovation Histories method was chosen to ensure the participation of key stakeholders in the research process, hoping to help the stakeholders to feel some ownership of the research, to understand its arguments and thereby increase the impact it is likely to have. If stakeholders are actively involved in the analysis and feel that their opinions are being heard, they are able to direct the research to be useful to them, at the same time as making a substantive contribution to the research itself. In this way, stakeholders active at different levels are able to influence policy through their contribution to the workshop and the research’s subsequent engagement with policy makers in Kenya and internationally.

The participatory nature of the method therefore assists in adhering to the research team’s normative commitment of achieving impact via an approach based on three key principles: 1) Engagement between researchers and other groups across society can improve the quality and substance of the research as well as ensuring that research contributes to learning; 2) Interaction with a diverse set of other actors can provide not only useful inputs into research but can also protect against undue influences by any one group; 3) Independent researchers can provide the setting in which to bring together diverse groups from across society to discuss difficult challenges, or can provide intermediary functions.

One strength was that the workshop provided a networking opportunity for stakeholders, which may be beneficial to their subsequent interactions and further development of SHS uptake in Kenya. One weakness was difficult to pick up on power dynamics between participants in only one day, without meeting them previously. Douthwaite and Ashby (2005)‘s suggestion to involve end-users of the technology in the evaluation process would have been useful.

The Innovation Histories method may be useful across a range of research fields in the environment, sustainability and development context. The inclusion of a broad range of perspectives and the encouragement of critical reflections – so that dominant narratives and accounts can be questioned – may also be useful to researchers. It also provides a voice to stakeholders who otherwise may not get heard, which is particularly important for empowering poor and marginalised stakeholders. Although the extent to which the perspectives of marginalised stakeholders were represented in our workshop is questionable, participatory approaches such as this will hopefully increase the relevance and impact of the research on policy thinking with subsequent benefits in terms of facilitating broader uptake of technologies with combined development and climate change benefits.

Key  references and links