Friday, 22 June 2012

KNOTS blogger

KNOTS blogger

Harnessing diversity across the global innovation system: a key challenge post Rio+20

Posted: 21 Jun 2012 03:02 PM PDT

By Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement, STEPS Centre

Technology and innovation feature prominently in what looks likely to be the final outcome document from Rio+20, however the diversity of new ideas that can contribute to sustainable development remains underappreciated.

Mark Stafford-Smith, co-chair of the 'Planet Under Pressure' conference that was held in London in March this year called for the world to embrace a 'global innovation system' for sustainable development.  Without reference to innovation systems, the outcome text from Rio+20 highlights the role of technology-transfer, finance, capacity-building and intellectual property – all relatively predictable components of an internationally-negotiated text.  But beyond that, there are some passages (in the 19th June text) that relate to the role of more diverse forms of knowledge and action within a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Diversity in Innovation Systems
Innovation scholars who have looked at innovation systems at national and regional levels have noted the importance of diversity.  As one of the earliest theorists of innovation systems has noted, "National and international policies thus confront the need for a sophisticated dual approach to a complex set of problems. Policies for diffusion of standard generic technologies are certainly important and these may sometimes entail the encouragement of inward investment and technology transfer by MNCs. But also important are policies to encourage local originality and diversity" {Freeman, 1995}.

Another pioneer of innovation systems thinking has warned against an excessive focus on dominant and narrow innovation directions – "'intellectual strip-mining' indicates a process where moving rapidly ahead on well-established trajectories may imply that too few resources are used to explore alternative ones" {Lundvall, 2002}.
This focus has been re-emphasised by work in the STEPS Centre's Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development and also in our recent work that highlights the role of innovation in transforming development pathways so that they remain within planetary boundaries.  'Transforming Innovation to Sustainability', co-authored with colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute, stresses the urgency of shifting global patterns of development in an attempt to keep them within a 'safe operating space for humanity'.  Beyond a focus on the transfer of cleaner technologies from North to South, the report calls for a radical re-think of innovation that "gives far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes, involving them within an inclusive, multi-scale innovation politics."

In what ways does the Rio text recognise more diverse forms of innovation?
Beyond the predictable focus on the need to transfer technological solutions from North to South and "close the technological gap between developing and developed countries", I was surprised by some sections in the Rio+20 text that point to the possibility that diverse forms of innovation are beginning to be increasingly recognised across UN member states.

Paragraph 197, for example, states "We recognize that traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities make an important contribution to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their wider application can support social well-being and sustainable livelihoods."  Innovation is not solely the domain of 'developed countries,' therefore.  This sentiment is reinforced in paragraph 268 which stresses the need to "facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation including among women, the poor and the vulnerable."

In a recent article in the Guardian, my colleague Adrian Smith and I have stressed the role of inclusive innovation at Rio and beyond.  Innovation needs to be inclusive not just in the outcomes that it delivers but also the process of innovation itself – involving users and poorer communities in setting the new pathways for their development, and empowering bottom-up efforts towards shared sustainability goals.

Similar ideas were reflected in civil society inputs to the 'Rio Dialogues' process, in which the top 3 recommendations in the theme 'Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty' included a reference to supporting grassroots innovation, and the online forum that informed these went as far as recommending the establishment of an international programme to identify, validate and support the dissemination of grassroots innovation ideas.

Within agriculture, for example, this might mean fostering traditional approaches that have been shown to raise productivity or serve broader sustainable livelihood needs in one part of the world, and facilitating their recombination and hybridisation with different approaches (technological and non-technological) that have been shown to work elsewhere. In paragraph 109, the text recognises "the importance of traditional sustainable agricultural practices, including traditional seed supply systems, including for many indigenous peoples and local communities."  However, commitments and to supporting and connecting such approaches are absent.

Where now?  Linking diverse contributions
Even despite these encouraging sections in 'The Future We Want', the text still remains overly fixated on conventional North-South technology transfer, a focus on hardware and finance and insufficient attention to diverse contributions from communities and civil society across the world.

We can only hope that the implementation efforts that must follow the Rio conference will embrace calls to nurture, empower and connect innovation for sustainable development in communities across the world.  A global system of innovation needs to be inclusive – not only in its outcomes but also in the inputs to the innovation process itself. We have a long way to go in building linkages between the diverse range of actors who can make valuable contributions to a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Freeman, C. (1995). "The National System of Innovation in Historical Perspective." Cambridge Journal of Economics 19: 5-24.

Lundvall, B.-Å., Ed. (2002). Innovation, Growth and Social Cohesion: the Danish Model. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Opening up Sustainable Development decision-making at the UN?

Posted: 21 Jun 2012 02:04 PM PDT

By Adrian Ely, in Rio de Janeiro

The Rio+20 conference has been enriched by a process to engage civil society  the Rio+20 Dialogues forSustainable Development.  While innovative and pioneering approaches like this should be encouraged, there is much room for improvement in the future.

The Rio Dialogues were initiated in April by the Government of Brazil and carried out with the support of the United Nations.  In each of ten different themes, they involved a multi-stage process including:

  • Online discussion, facilitated by academic organisations from around the world
  • Selection of 10 recommendations from the online discussion
  • Open (online) voting on those ten recommendations
  • Presentation of the online discussions to a panel of 10 experts in Rio
  • Live discussion by this panel at the main Rio+20 venue, Rio Centro
  • Voting by the live audience on the ten recommendations from the online discussion
  • Articulation of a further recommendation by the panel
  • Presentation of three recommendations from each theme to a roundtable of leaders gathered for the high-level segment of the Rio+20 conference

Tens of thousands of participants took part in the online discussions, and the voting process saw more than 63,000 people from 193 countries cast nearly 1.4 million votes.  This is an impressive attempt to open up the intergovernmental process to other actors by the hosts Brazil, who have also provided leadership in other areas of the negotiations.

However, how will the outcomes of the dialogues really contribute to the conference outcome, and how can we best profit from the process – into which so many have dedicated their time and efforts?  These questions deserve serious thought if such efforts to open up to civil society are to be improved into the future.

Even now, writing from Rio, the answer to the first question seems unclear beyond the reporting from roundtables to the plenary at the end of the conference.  There seems never to have been a well-articulated process through which the 'Rio Dialogues' outcomes will be introduced into the inter-governmental process, from which they have been isolated from the outset. 

If these kinds of institutional innovations are to play a role in future conferences, the involvement of governments, and a commitment from Member States and the UN - at least to respond in writing to the recommendations – should be a pre-requisite.  More detailed planning and a much longer period of engagement would also be needed for this complex process to be co-ordinated successfully.

With regard to the second issue, the knowledge and ideas captured through the online process is much broader than the recommendations themselves.  In many cases, detailed discussions and considerations around implementation appeared in the online fora. Without attention to the recommendations that have been 'voted out' along the way, and the detailed discussions online, the Rio Dialogues risks losing much of the richness of the process as they narrow down to three one line recommendations. 

Colleagues from IDS (Matthew Lockwood, Melissa Leach, Adrian Bannister) and I helped to facilitate the theme 'Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty'.  With academics from Brazil and South Korea, I presented the outcomes of the online discussion to the expert panel at Rio Centro.  From the ten recommendations identified, three were finally fed to the roundtables.

Beyond these, however, the dialogues process gathered together a diverse range of views and novel ideas which cannot be communicated in three bullet points.  These are unlikely to be relayed to leaders through the roundtables, and it is unclear whether they will be taken into account as the outcomes from Rio are taken forward.  

Much of the STEPS Centre's 'designs' work and thinking around 'methods and methodologies' highlights the need not only to broaden out the inputs to policy appraisal, but also to open up the outcomes of such processes in order to profit from the plurality of views that they contain.
I believe that these kinds of institutional innovations should be encouraged, and that experiments such as the Rio Dialogues should be further developed in future UN processes.  Personally, I hope that the Dialogues – not only in terms of the 3 (or 10) recommendations selected but also the knowledge gathered throughout the process – can be taken forward in the implementation of what is agreed over the final days of the conference. 

Future approaches for engaging civil society in UN negotiations (outside the major groups architecture) deserve to be supported, but must also be sufficiently resourced and realistically planned, if they are to strengthen what is already a complex and difficult process.