GLOBAL KNOWLEDGE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE

Transforming innovation for sustainable development and poverty reduction

13 June 2012

A radical new approach to science and innovation is urgently needed to steer us within planetary boundaries and secure human wellbeing, fostering diverse types of innovation and empowering the grassroots creativity of poorer people, say researchers from the Institute of Development Studies-based ESRC STEPS Centre.

As the world gears up for the Rio + 20 Earth summit, many are pinning hopes on a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that, by 2015, will be succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in thinking and action on environment and development.

Safe operating space

New research by the STEPS Centre, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute argues that SDGs that keep human societies within a 'safe operating space' requires an approach to innovation that gives far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes, involving them within an inclusive, multi-scale innovation politics.

In a jointly-authored paper, Transforming Innovation for Sustainability, current development goals focussing on one-track scientific solutions to global challenges are seen as failing to respond effectively to the uncertainty and shifting dynamics of today's world, and to the diverse needs of the poor.

We are already pushing up against planetary boundaries that are near, or already past, breaking point. And if these one-direction approaches continue, the paper says, we risk breaching the boundaries which define a safe operating space for humanity, while undoing past progress on global poverty reduction.

'Science, technology and innovation can help avert catastrophic developmental and environmental damage. But only if we move beyond outdated notions of whose innovation counts, to recognise the vital role different forms of innovation can play' said Professor Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre and one of the paper's authors.

Research and experiences across the world, in areas like agriculture, water, energy and health, illustrate what the paper suggests are a set of underlying principles that need to guide innovation for sustainability and poverty reduction. Three interlinked dimensions need to be assessed together:

Direction

The specific Direction of change. This means being clear on the particular goals and principles driving policy and innovation, not leaving these open, undiscussed or driven by general imperatives of growth or progress, but actively steering these towards the kinds of transformation needed to meet integrated sustainable development/poverty reduction aims.

Diversity

Second, Diversity is also crucial. Nurturing more diverse approaches and forms of innovation (social as well as technological) helps respond to the very varied ecological, social and economic contexts in which poorer people live, as well as to cope with uncertainty and surprise.

Distribution

A third dimension is Distribution. This means asking about who gains and who loses from particular innovations. Grassroots innovations offer particular value, helping to favour and prioritise more fairly the interests of the most marginal groups.  

A '3D' analysis, the paper suggests, can help to reveal the nature and stakes of choices made around science, technology and innovation, and to guide decision-makers as they grapple with challenges in their own particular settings.

Rio+20 is an opportunity to provide a global framework supporting different forms of innovation that address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels. Beyond setting targets, this is about enabling the grassroots and enhancing innovation capabilities for the longer term.

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability brings together the Stockholm Resilience Centre's work on planetary boundaries, the STEPS Centre’s innovation for development research and Tellus Institute’s focus on sustainable futures.

Illustration by Radomo

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