By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

The tone of the launch of Demos’ Brazil, the Natural Knowledge Economy report by Kirsten Bound, was aimed at boosting innovative activities and potential in the country in general. The distributional consequences (social and environmental) of that innovation were acknowledged as a challenge, but not covered at the event, although the report, part of the Atlas of Ideas project, does delve into this.

Rather, at the launch in London on Tuesday, we heard much about standard indicators of innovation, and how relatively well Brasil was improving on these. Though patenting was poor and considered a bad thing. As was the high proportion of research in the public sector, which is 80 per cent, though around 40 per cent is public money.

It was acknowledged in passing that there might be ‘hidden’ innovation beyond scientific publications and R&D investment. However, pro-poor innovation was not considered at all. A question posed by a delegate from SustainAbility about secondary education performance did indicate this was a problem. Whilst university education was performing well, and the best universities were free to students, one needed a good private education to stand a chance of a place. If secondary education is poor, then this may also have implications for the non-graduate skill base necessary for the urban and rural poor to capture any spill-over benefits from a conventional innovation system, frontier pursing approach.

We got a very upbeat presentation on bio-ethanol from Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, Bioenergy expert, Itajubá Federal School of Engineering, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and the industrial system for its production in Brasil is impressive. Future capacity increases were substantial, and Brasil was well placed (subject to trade rules) to export biofuel around the globe, and bioethanol knowledge and technology to other potential tropical producers.

It was an example of what Ban Ki-Moon has called the gentle green giant – Brasil’s quiet advances in the area of environmental innovation. But again, little interrogation of the conflicts between movements like MST and the large agri-businesses driving biofuels. Nor the controversial encroachment of agbiotech into Brasil. As on other contentious issues, the need to develop regulatory systems that can direct innovation, and create resource-based solutions without destroying the resource base, was skirted around. A ‘challenge’ for the future.

The term ‘natural knowledge economy’ was coined to try and capture the way Brasil was using science and technology to increase the value it attains from its rich natural resource endowments. In contrast to the sequence from resource-based to knowledge-based economy, Brasil was combining the two, now. From a Sustainability perspective, this dichotomy between knowledge and resource based economies rings hollow. All economies are resource based. And their exploitation always requires knowledge. The relative economic value attached to each may vary, but it is hard to see one without the other at the global scale. Indeed, those concerned about Sustainability worry that much environmental knowledge is being ignored by innovators.

Overall, what was lacking was reflection on competing ideologies of development, and the roles for innovation therein. Nor, more pragmatically, which models of technology and development are ‘apt’ under Brasilian circumstances, and which alternatives are considered better for different sections of Brasilian society. The diversity of Brasilian society, and its open culture, was considered a strength for innovation. But this was not then considered in terms of different kinds of innovation within that diversity (cf. an implied linear model in many presentations and discussion – especially Andrew Cahn, the head of UK Trade & Investment).

Perhaps the closest we got was some very thoughtful closing remarks from the Ambassador of Brasil. He pointed out how ‘territory’ had been a long-standing feature in Brasilian thought – the ‘meaning’ of Brasil, though always subject to revision, nevertheless drew upon the early and rapid colonisation of land within its present day borders. Ambassador Santos-Neves listed a number of innovations, in agriculture, and in oil exploration, that failed when standard approaches were imported from the US and elsewhere; but when local knowledge about Brasilian territory was applied, then results improved. Oil was found in unexpected places (and
lots of it). Brasil does best when it uses knowledge with the full
knowledge of its own territory. It will be interesting to see the extent to
which innovation priorities alter as Brasil moves towards its bicentennial
of independence, and reflects on its visions for the future, and the kind
of society it wishes to develop.

Doubtless some of this more critical reflection upon Brasil’s impressive
rise is picked up in the report. But the launch concentrated more on boosting Brasilian innovation to the mutual economic advantage of those already in a position to benefit.