Where are the poor in innovation studies?

The poor hardly feature in innovation studies, yet could really benefit from a new look at how their innovation systems work, write JO LORENTZEN and RAHMA MOHAMED. 
 
   
Innovation is en vogue, and as a field of scientific enquiry, innovation studies are now being pursued by researchers all over the world. Indeed, ‘innovation’ has replaced ‘competitiveness’ as one of the more faddish terms on the planet. It’s about achieving one happy planet through creating the global knowledge economy. But there’s a conundrum in that the poor hardly feature in innovation studies. The large majority of innovation research focuses on how to make high-income economies keep their place in the sun. Very little work is dedicated to the catch-up, let alone take-off, of low income countries (LICs), those regions that need these insights most.

 

...but who out there studies how innovation, whether technological or otherwise, can lift the bottom out of misery? By and large, not the innovation research community.

 

Poorer countries not on the radar

 

Almost a billion people live in LICs. Four out of five inhabitants survive (or not) on less than $1.25 (R8.99) a day and make up the world’s poorest people (World Bank 2008). In fact, about half the world’s population lives on less than $2 (R14.40) a day. So the poor are a sizeable constituency.

 

International organizations like NEPAD, UNCTAD and the World Bank exhort the transformational role that science, technology and innovation can and must play in changing their fate for the better by graduating into a global knowledge economy, but who out there studies how innovation, whether technological or otherwise, can lift the bottom billion out of misery? By and large, not the innovation research community.

  
Why not?

 

Literature in the field marginalises LICs. One possibility is that there is simply no innovation in LICs and hence nothing to research. It’s been postulated, for example, that it makes no sense to conceive of innovation in developing countries as all they are doing is adopting existing foreign technologies in the interest of upgrading. Implicit in this view is that innovation is the icing on the cake that takes place exclusively in advanced economies.

 

A second possibility is that there is innovation in LICs but everybody is too busy studying innovation in ‘sexier countries’. Researchers have incentives to devote themselves to Brazilian biofuel, Indian IT, Chinese genetic engineering or South African telescopes, but the same is decidedly not the case for, say, irrigation systems in Eritrea or sheep husbandry in Tajikistan or healthcare service provision in Papua New Guinea.

 

It’s been postulated, for example, that it makes no sense to conceive of innovation in developing countries as all they are doing is adopting existing foreign technologies in the interest of upgrading.

 

The third possibility is that there is innovation, but that researchers don’t know how to approach it in LICs. New-to-world products from big firms are quite different to the more informal innovations of smaller firms, for instance, but the analytical tools to understand these are inappropriate. The fourth possibility is that there is innovation, but we don’t recognise it in informal economies, as they may be happening in social contexts and not in tangible technologies or products.

 

The third possibility is that there is innovation, but that researchers don’t know how to approach it in LICs.

  
There's a need

 

Innovation in health systems is enormously important for development in Africa and South Asia, yet that is just one of the needs in poor countries that innovation studies have ignored or failed. At best, the research is piecemeal and messy. Innovation is of course also a collective endeavour by people to better their lot. What should happen is that these many small tales should combine into a compelling story that spells out how catch-up in LICs can work. More adequate models would then emerge, and research on how innovation affects the poor would certainly benefit. In the end, maybe even the poor would.

This is an extract from a paper prepared for the NickFest, Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), University of Sussex.

The late Dr Jo Lorentzen was a chief research specialist, Science and Innovation unit, in the research programme on Education and Skills Development, HSRC; Rahma Mohamed was a researcher in the same unit. She is currently pursuing PhD studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.