This blog post was written by Andrea Jimenez, who is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in SIID. This post discusses findings from her recently published paper on inclusive innovation, which draws insights from innovation hubs in the UK and Zambia.
In the last five years, innovation has become a relevant concept in the international development discourse and practice. One of the most significant moments happened in 2011 when Bill Gates addressed the G20 countries in a speech that said:
‘I believe innovation is the most powerful force for change in the world’
The significance of Gates speech is multilayered. On the one hand, it is almost impossible to disagree with him. Innovation is perceived as something good which we all desire. On the other hand, we cannot be sure that we all understand the same thing when we discuss innovation. Nevertheless, innovation is framed as a solution to many of the world’s problems.
This phenomenon called the innovation turn in development is evidenced through the generation of innovation principles developed by UNICEF and later on adopted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UN Foundation, WFP, UNDP, the EOSG (Global Pulse) and others. It is also evidenced in many initiatives, like UNICEF’s innovation labs; UNHCR innovation; a Global Innovation Fund (GIF); a Technology Facilitation Mechanism and Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation set up under the SDG process (ODI 2016).
In academic literature there has also been a solid recognition that theories and approaches to innovation have been predominantly conceptualised in industrialised countries, and adapting them to other contexts can be problematic. The problem was identified as an issue of exclusion: innovations from scientific, technological sources were rarely focused on the needs of the poor. Furthermore, people in lower socioeconomic levels had not been considered as relevant sources of innovation, either as producers or consumers.
This realisation encouraged a proliferation of concepts which sought to reflect innovation activity in the Global South. From these, the concept of inclusive innovation has been developed to shift away from innovation approaches that do not consider the poor in both the process and the outcome of innovation. Inclusive innovation has been defined in different ways, but usually refers to ‘[…] the inclusion within some aspect of innovation of groups who are currently marginalized’. Also, it usually refers to phenomena happening in the Global South.
What are the implications of framing inclusive innovation in these terms?
In my recent publication, I explore how women innovators are experiencing processes of inclusion in the context of an innovation hub. An innovation hub constitutes a space for people (mainly entrepreneurs) to connect, collaborate and be inspired in a conducive environment. These organisations have been described as spaces that attract diverse members with heterogeneous knowledge. Their flexible structure and collaborative ethos have encouraged the spread of hubs both in the Global South and Global North.
The paper draws on empirical evidence from two innovation hubs in the UK and Zambia and uses interpretive research methods including semi-structured interviews and participant observation to understand how these women are evaluating their work and experience at the hub.
To explore the processes of inclusion, the paper adopts the feminist concepts of situated agency and intersectionality. Situated agency has been developed to understand how human beings are always uniquely situated. Furthermore, given that women experience the world not only based on their gender, but also on their race, socioeconomic class, amongst other dimensions, intersectionality is used as a lens to understand such “situatedness”.
Through this, I was able to see that female members of an innovation hub in London, UK, felt that the hub had temporarily eliminated the structural constraints they had experienced previously. For instance, women who had previously worked in the IT sector were initially given benefits to integrate them into the IT sector (scholarships, free training courses), as part of a campaign to have more women working in IT. However, after some time these women experienced a glass ceiling: they were not able to get the jobs they wanted and saw their male peers progressing in their careers.
This is an example of how strategies for inclusion fall short if they are framed to only include people in terms of quotas, without questioning the system that was not coded to be inclusive of women in the first place.
Findings were significantly different on the other case study of an innovation hub in Lusaka, Zambia. Whilst the hub represented a space where women were challenging societal expectations of their role by choosing careers that were not usually perceived for them, other women were experiencing a degree of exclusion. Through an intersectional lens, I was able to see that women who felt welcomed and included at the hub were mainly coming from urban areas; in contrast to women who felt excluded who mainly came from rural areas. It was at the intersection of their gender and socio-economic class that these women were experiencing exclusion.
Stemming from these findings, in the paper I argue that the process of inclusion cannot be limited to temporarily tempering institutional and contextual constraints. Rather, I suggest that we need a broader structural approach, which looks at what excluded people in the first place.
In theorizing the situatedness of agency through the constitutive nature of gender, race, class, and other aspects that shape our world, we can look at how the inclusive innovation discourse has been gendered through everyday practices and how it is rooted in context-specific socio-political frames of reference.
This paper is important in two ways:
Firstly, it continues to fill the gap of empirical data on inclusive innovation, looking both at the Global North and Global South. Secondly, it contributes to the operationalisation of inclusive innovation by adopting the concept of situated agency as an important component of the social inclusion process, and the role that intersectionality plays in that respect.
This paper provides a framework to look at the process of inclusion that goes beyond including people in the market, but for principles of equity and participation. For decades, feminists have worked on deconstructing different aspects in society that exclude women. This is an example of how adopting feminist lenses can help understand more about the process of inclusion in innovation for development.