Whenever I deal with innovation, I insist that technical innovation will be useless or event harmful if we can’t combine it with the required social innovation. See my comment on technological determinism about it. So, I was really fascinated when I discovered the new book “Grassroots Innovation Movements“, written by Adrian Smith, Mariano Fressoli, Dinesh Abrol, Elisa Arond, and Adrian Ely. This is a great book that deals with six diverse grassroots innovation movements in India, South America and Europe, situating them in their particular dynamic historical contexts. Analysis explains why each movement frames innovation and development differently, resulting in a variety of strategies. The book explores the spaces where each of these movements have grown, or attempted to do so. It critically examines the pathways they have developed for grassroots innovation and the challenges and limitations confronting their approaches.
I was able to contact Dr. Mariano Fressoli and ask him for an interview and he was kind enough to provide it. Please enjoy it.
In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, we are used to identify innovation with big multinational Infotech companies and the laboratories of some famous universities. But your book highlights another important factor, the contribution of grassroots movements to innovation. Could you give us some examples of such grassroots innovations?
There has always been a lot fascination with edge technologies like, ICTs biotech and nanotech. And the big players in innovation policy are keen to foster the interest in new technological revolutions to come. But if you think about those spaces of innovation, like universities and multinationals, there are usually based in a top down approach towards technology which ultimately remains very elitist. Grassroots innovation movements offer a different vision of innovation: that technology can be developed and held by other actors like social movements, NGOs, social cooperatives, etc. In our book we show 6 examples of grassroots innovation around the world: from Appropriate Technology Movement in South America, to the Social Useful Production movement in Europe, the Peoples Science Movement in India, and finally the more recent Maker movement. These are movements that have shaped the approach to technology differently, taking into account issues of inclusion, sustainability and social justice. For instance, the Appropriate Technology movement during the 60s up to the 80s was an important force in envisioning new ways of doing technology at low cost, with available resources and materials and taking care of the labor and capabilities existing in small villages. In this way, the AT movement also developed a critique of mass industrialization and resource intensive development. As a result, much of the sustainable technologies available now can be to some extend traced to this movement.
What is the historical role and the importance of grassroots innovations and how they are different from the business as usual approaches to innovation? What are the barriers and the drivers for grassroots innovations?
Grassroots innovation movements have been key in opening up new spaces for innovation, recognising the role of the people (including workers, peasants, women, indigenous communities) in developing their own solutions. By doing so, they also helped to create new visions for alternative futures oriented towards sustainability and social inclusion. There are perhaps three key aspects that make grassroots innovation different from conventional, top down innovation. First, there are based in collective action and solidarity (thus they not usually guided with the aim of maximising profit). Secondly, they encourage participation in technological development as a form of increasing democracy. In practice this means, not only participating in developing solutions to the local problems but ultimately in gaining a voice in the bigger debate on technology and the directions of development. And finally, since they try to encourage participation and solidarity, grassroots innovation movements have over time devised a lot of mechanism to foster collective sharing and collective learning on technologies. From the use of Appropriate Technology handbooks in the 70s towards the development of tutorials in Youtube nowadays, grassroots innovation are keen to support open ways of designing and producing technologies.
There is a serious global movement that delivers Open Source software and hardware. Do you consider this movement as a kind of social grassroots innovation? How about the results achieved and their usefulness?
Open source and peer production initiatives are thriving in several fields, not only in software but more recently in open hardware, digital manufacturing, citizen driven data, and even open science. This phenomenon seems to be the tip of the iceberg of something else, which is connected with grassroots innovation movements in terms of values, alternative pathways, empowerment and democratisation. But these are also different movements in terms of networks, connectivity and mobilisation. Open hardware in particular is related with the maker movement and idea of returning to local manufacturing and fostering creativity and freedom. It helps to envision a future where people can be involved in the design and production of their own tools. Potentially, this could lead to a more efficient use of resources, less waste and the design of more sustainable and fair forms of consumption. It is not rare also to associate these ideas with broader themes of the sharing economy, collaborative production and collective intelligence. However, we still do not understand the full implications of these movements, neither we seem to have the conceptual tools to analyse if effectively they can gain the same scale and participation that the open software movement have had. Interestingly though, we can see the capillarity of open hardware initiatives growing up very fast, but how these will scale up and in which ways it will change production, labor and power, it is still an open question.
Can we hope that such movements will democratize technology that is currently under patented private control? Can we hope that grassroots innovation will help the world to achieve inclusive innovation?
This is a complex question. Open collaboration and peer production does not necessarily mean lack of control or intellectual protection. It is a different system which is based in the idea that open collaboration allows creativity and replication of ideas and technologies at a much faster rate. There are two issues to consider the potential of new grassroots innovation movements to democratise technology. The first one is that a lot of the scientific knowledge and technologies that are produced in the world have been supported to some extend with public funds. So, it does not make sense to allow a private appropriation of those elements and foster further inequalities by restraining access to what really should be public knowledge. A second point is that open systems of collaboration -be this open science, open hardware or open software – foster a more efficient, dynamic and inclusive mechanism of problem-solving. This it is itself very disruptive for incumbent industries and governments who see technology as a matter of concentrated and controlled expertise. However, these movements are showing that expertise is much more distributed than previously thought and that the best experts are usually not located in one institutions but around the world. So, especially when there is a need to tackle complex problems like climate change, waste, access to basic services or food security; there is a need of further collaboration and interdisciplinary. This is very difficult in itself, but becomes even more complex with the current innovation systems based on patented proprietary control of new technologies and knowledge. What open and collaboration and peer production provides is a powerful platform to allow this collaboration, democratise the use of existing knowledge and technologies and support new innovations.