By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

Wealthier, northern societies are deeply embedded in unsustainable technological practices and consumption patterns, but these development paths tend to lock-out poorer communities in the south. And current drivers of globalisation risk furthering these processes of problematic inclusion and exclusion in different settings. (photo credit: Trevor Samson/World Bank)

STEPS co-director Andy Stirling and I attended a workshop in Zurich recently (Innovation, Institutions and Path Dependency: The Management of Variation in Innovation Systems), that focused on the first of these interlinked processes: trajectories of socio-technical development in richer countries.

A variety of perspectives and studies came together to consider how innovation could be harnessed to deflect these powerful trajectories and help construct more sustainable pathways in the north.

I was at the workshop to discuss sustainable niches and my STEPS and SPRU colleague Andy Stirling presented a paper entitled A general framework for analysing diversity in science, technology and society.

Whilst the industrialised focus differed from STEPS, some concerns nevertheless merit reflection and have resonance with our agenda. Not least, they provide a list of considerations as to why the poor might be ‘locked-out’ of innovation processes, issues that must be addressed by any science and technology agendas wishing to work for the poor.

In Zurich participants identified how technological developments tend to be incremental and path dependent owing to:

  • the cognitive frameworks, routines, resources, capabilities, and knowledge of technology producers and users, and expectations about what kinds of knowledge will be profitable in the future;
  • the way specific social and technical practices are embedded within wider, facilitating infrastructures, which subsequently restrict opportunities for alternatives;
  • incumbent practices enjoy economies of scale (e.g., mass markets) and positive network externalities that have been built up over long periods of investment (it is easier and less risky to follow established practices than to invest in new practices);
  • the co-evolution of institutions with technological practices, like professional associations, government policies, investment risk analysis and market rules, that reinforce existing trajectories;
  • prevailing market and social norms influence the kinds of performance deemed satisfactory, and the lifestyle routines and norms that develop embed these practices further.

Various approaches were suggested for identifying ways of challenging and breaking away from these tendencies, such as niche sustainability experiments, policies for promoting alternative technology systems, and seriously considering diversity in technology policy.

All these presuppose a raft of institutional, economic and technological capabilities that make their relevance to the southern poor highly problematic – which is not a criticism of the workshop, merely a result of the focus taken.

Nevertheless, a workshop whose point of departure was innovation pathways for the poor would also have to confront some of the points listed above, as well as others. Of broader significance, however, and underpinning our work at the STEPS Centre, is that participants found little inevitable or natural about innovation pathways. Sure, they are underpinned by very powerful forces that can be nigh impossible for some communities to resist or influence. We remain technology takers in too many instances.

But in the final analysis the pathways are the product of human interaction, they can become susceptible to disruption, and are open to challenge by alternatives. Therein lies hope. We need constantly to ask whose pathways, which sustainabilities, and why these innovations?

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