Enabling innovations

By Patrick Van Zwanenberg

At the launch of STEPS America Latina in 2015, one of the themes that we focused on at our opening event was what we called ‘enabling’ innovations. These are new institutions, policies or technologies that are not only, themselves, a novel way of doing something or of solving a problem, but that also encourage and support others to do new things too.

I was reminded of those discussions when I was in Rosario last month, in the Argentinean province of Santa Fe, where Latin America’s annual Laboratorio de Innovacion Ciudadana (Civic Innovation Lab) was being held.

What is Laboratorio de Innovacion Ciudadana?

Inspired by Madrid’s Medialab Prado, the idea is to create a space for experimentation, based on the hacker ethics of radical openness and collaboration, where citizens can design and prototype any kind of project aimed at addressing challenges in their communities.

At this year’s Lab, hosted by the provincial government’s SantaLab initiative, there were a hundred people from all over the continent developing and prototyping ten ideas that focus on addressing one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals. They included:

  • Semillas Poderosas – an open source technique for agricultural communities to produce their own low cost, ecologically benign seed coatings;
  • Mujeres Qom Empoderadas – a co-operative to support the livelihoods of women in the Qom indigenous community whose families have migrated to Rosario in search of work; and
  • Elevaciones – an initiative to design a cheap, self-build, standing wheelchair for people on low incomes with Cerebral Palsy.

During the two week-long Lab, support is provided in the form of a physical space, accommodation and food, mentors, advice from various technical specialists, and a series of talks and visits to related initiatives in the region. Just as importantly, as was obvious from my short visit, the Lab creates considerable enthusiasm and energy for the idea that people can act collectively and creatively, and do not need to rely only on government, firms and other established institutions to address problems.

Innovations: enabling collaborative ways of working

I was at the Santalab event for a panel discussion where I was talking about Home, an open source seed innovation initiative that we have been developing as part of the STEPS Consortium’s Pathways project. I mentioned how one of the striking things about the Bioleft project is not so much the utility of the open source license we are developing, but how the overarching idea of a more open and collaborative way of practicing seed innovation has enthused all sorts of people, and encouraged them to join and contribute to the project.

For example, breeders working in organic and agro-ecological seed production have contacted us on the basis of media reports, interested in releasing their seeds under the Bioleft license, even though they (or indeed ourselves) do not quite know how the license will work in practice. Their interest has been piqued by the underlying values of the project, which chime with their own.

University seed breeders and agricultural extension workers have also joined our project, as team members, giving their time voluntarily, for similar reasons. In doing so they came up with the idea, which had not occurred to us, of a peer-to-peer participatory seed breeding initiative that could function under the umbrella of the open source license.

Several other kinds of innovation seem to have this characteristic – of providing space for other peoples’ desires to imagine and build more environmentally responsible and socially inclusive forms of socio-technical practice. A few years ago, for example, we worked briefly with an agro-ecological cotton co-operative in the North of Argentina. It helped small farmers produce cotton in ways that were safer than existing techniques. This encouraged their children to go to school and, critically – via trading partnerships with processors and retailers in the Fair Trade movement – meant they received relatively higher, and more stable prices for their product than in conventional markets. Whilst such initiatives might have emerged anyway, the institutional innovation of Fair Trade – which has established an alternative production and distribution model for trading with producers in the Global South – has clearly opened up critical space and support for such projects.

Another example is the electricity Feed in Tariff, a policy innovation that allows households, farms and small business to sell excess renewable electricity generated on their premises back to the electricity grid. In some settings, such as in Germany, that innovation has prompted all sorts of distributed renewable energy initiatives, from municipal energy generation projects, to the establishment of small co-operative energy producers, to encouraging individual household to invest in solar panels.

What makes these innovations ‘enabling’?

So what is it about these innovations that give them this enabling quality? Clearly, the provision of resources for people interested in developing novel ideas and putting them into practice, whether in the form of finance, or of training and mentoring, or the provision of a physical setting to share skills and ideas, are often important. So, too, is the ability to create new markets or to alter the rules within which existing markets function. But there are other important attributes too.

For example, the Feed in Tariff not only creates new markets, but it also prompts people to reinterpret their own material interests in favour of small-scale renewable energy generation, in ways that create useful political coalitions with other actors trying to build and promote distributed renewable energy systems.

Likewise, our Bioleft initiative acts as a bridging innovation, in the sense that it can help to create coalitions between different groups of people who collectively are better positioned to try and pursue more sustainable pathways of socio-technical change in seed systems.

The novel spaces created by these kinds of initiatives also provide actors and institutions with a degree of freedom to innovate that are not available to incumbents, locked in by prior investments, business models, and other commercial and institutional commitments to existing, often unsustainable, innovation trajectories.

More generally, and importantly, all of these examples provide symbolic support for efforts to try and explore how values that are poorly reflected within mainstream innovation settings – such as those of solidarity and sharing – can be brought to bear in practical ways on the development and application of knowledge. We should think hard about why and how such innovations are able to open up such space, enthuse people and catalyze efforts to create more sustainable and socially just directions of socio-technical change, and about which others kinds of novel institutions, policies and techniques might do so too.