Blog by Andrea Jimenez

Much is written about the role of innovation in contributing to the wellbeing of people in the global South. During the last 2 decades, the development sector has increasingly focused on innovation as a key concept for socioeconomic development, both as a mechanism for overcoming local challenges and for integrating into a global economy.

There is an overall agreement on the positive effects that innovation can have in making countries wealthier, based on the experiences of the ‘Asian tigers’ like Korea, etc. Yet, controversy exists concerning the ways in which innovation concepts and models have been imposed into other countries in the global South, reinforcing neo-colonial behaviours that continue to reproduce uneven relations of power between the ‘West and the rest’.

Numerous authors have documented how innovation theory and practice has had negative consequences given the unquestioned transfer of models and concepts developed in the West, looking at Western experiences and discourses to the South. Examples like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a seamlessly neutral and positive innovation described as a ‘one-size-fits-all American solution to complex global problems’, proved that not just by thinking that because a technology can fix a problem, it will do so. The OLPC program failed to provide cheap computers to every corner of the world. Instead, this experience was characterised by logistical problems, as computers were being send to schools with weak power electricity and teachers were not being trained properly. Nonetheless, countries like Peru and Uruguay bought thousands of these.

It could be argued that a fresh approach – one that questions some of the assumptions around innovation —can contribute to a better understanding of this concept by including the types of knowledge and interests of indigenous people, framing the global South not just as a context for empirical data, but also, and fundamentally, for building theory.

The Western imaginary of innovation

In our recent published paper, we argue that most of what we know around innovation has been framed by Western thinking, informed predominantly by Schumpeter’s understanding of creative destruction. Schumpeter’s work explained that there are different waves of technological change which have characterised Western societies and explained their levels of development. This feature/ability of creative destruction proposes certain countries to be more advanced than others based on their ability to innovate. Behind this argument is the idea that countries should be directing efforts to develop technological innovations, because otherwise they will stay behind. As such, innovation is often assumed to lead to competitive advantage and economic growth, which is equated with progress, and progress is equated with development.

When innovation models and theories are applied in other contexts and such initiatives do not work (because they do not produce similar outcomes as in the North) then they are explained to be the result of corruption, lack of skills, etc. This can be evidenced with the example of Silicon Savannah, a term used to described the Kenyan technology ecosystem. Jimmy Gitonga, a technology expert summarizes this view by saying that “words like Silicon Savannah—and you can see that not a lot of thought was put into the connotation, as if the perception of the American Silicon Valley had been taken wholesale and simply plastered onto an African scenario” . We can now find articles that describe the failures of the Silicon Savannah. Perhaps the failure is in naming it Silicon anything in the first place.

Very little work has been focusing on thinking that maybe the problem is not lack of understanding, but that the theories, concepts and models come with specific values and ways of thinking that do not align with local epistemologies and values. The problem then is not a matter of resources, or lack of commitment, but of redefining what innovation is, and what it should do, so it is aligned with local understandings more than Western assumptions hidden in a universal discourse.

This argument is particularly relevant in our current context of environmental catastrophe. Carlota Perez argues that the last technological change, besides introducing new technologies and infrastructures, introduced new lifestyles and discourses, inherently linked to patterns of consumerism and an inherent disregard of the environment. As such, assumptions around innovation are inherently linked to a way of thinking where the environment becomes an issue that should be transformed, to fit our interests. The overwhelming use of the human-centred design for innovation is a good example of this. Some have already argued that this approach is inherently anthropocentric, and by allocating value predominantly to individuals we ignore the ways in which goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed, with devastating consequences to the environment.

If we can understand that the western understanding of the world is only one of the several understandings of the world, and if we accept that most of what we know around innovation is informed by a western imaginary, then we can accept the possibility to reframe innovation from different ways of thinking and being. However, to do that we need first to understand more about other ways of knowing and thinking in their own terms. We must, however, always keep a critical eye.

We also need to recognise that both innovation and technology were powerful instruments in the process of colonisation. When we recognise the political dimension of innovation, we can start considering legitimate alternative solutions. For this, we need to decolonise innovation.

Some ideas of this blog have been published in:

Jimenez A., Roberts T. (2019) Decolonising Neo-Liberal Innovation: Using the Andean Philosophy of ‘Buen Vivir’ to Reimagine Innovation Hubs. In: Nielsen P., Kimaro H. (eds) Information and Communication Technologies for Development. Strengthening Southern-Driven Cooperation as a Catalyst for ICT4D. ICT4D 2019. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, vol 552. Springer, Cham

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