Opening up development agendas in Latin America

16 November 2015

This year, the STEPS Centre is establishing the Pathways to Sustainability global consortium to link up research on sustainability across a series of worldwide hubs. STEPS América Latina is the latest of six regional hubs to be launched. The six global 'hubs' links up researchers at the Institute of Development Studies and SPRU (University of Sussex) to other academic institutes across Africa, South Asia, China, Europe, Latin and North America.

As the Sustainable Development Goals establish a new era for development, north and south, solid research evidence and critical engagement in policy and action is essential. The regional hubs are working together on research and engagement with policy and society, combining natural and social scientific understandings of the challenges involved in pursuing sustainable development.

I was there at the launch event 'Opening up the development agenda' on 5-6 November in Buenos Aires, which brought together diverse perspectives from Latin America and beyond on how pathways to sustainability can be researched, debated and fostered.

From 'undone science' to inclusion

A key theme was how to make sure that science and development include vulnerable and marginalised people. This was addressed through panels on 'inclusive innovation' and 'open science'.

The Uruguayan academic Judith Sutz pointed to the idea of 'undone science' put forward by David Hess. Roughly speaking, it means ignored or neglected research agendas which are identified by non-academic groups, for example poor communities.

As the location of most knowledge production in Latin America, universities have a key role in listening to these different voices. They should help to ensure that innovation policies have inclusion of disadvantaged groups.

The Argentinean architect and researcher Paula Peyloubet, who works on producing 'collective knowledge' among communities in housebuilding projects, expanded on the theme of knowledge from different sources. Peyloubet asked two challenging questions for inclusive innovation: 'Who includes who?' and 'Why should we include?'

For Peyloubet, these questions need to be thought through because the development model we have is not inclusive. Part of the problem is that knowledge and debate is often not accessible to all – with privileged knowledge located in universities and think tanks, but not opening up to other views and kinds of learning.

Making things together

Benito Juarez, an advocate of digital fabrication for Latin America, shared ideas on how Fab Labs might connect with local people's needs. They are workshops where people can use digital tools (including laser cutters and 3D printers) to make, remake or adapt products. At their best, Fab Labs can provide a way of implementing ideas very quickly – responding to need at a speed unmatched by conventional processes.

Benito also shared the progress made on the Fab Lab flotante project – an initiative to create a floating Fab Lab for the Amazon which would enable more remote communities there to experiment with digital tools.

Alongside these examples from Latin America, STEPS Centre member Adrian Ely shared insights from other parts of the world: the Honey Bee Network in India, which organises walking tours to seek out rural innovations, and the history of the People's Science Movement which aimed to create local innovation systems. But nurturing innovation at a local level is difficult: it needs lots of energy, trust, the right combinations of knowledge and skills, and perhaps safe spaces and communities that reduce the risk of ideas being co-opted or misused.

Natural resource dilemmas

Many countries in Latin America face a big dilemma, as Anabel Marin of STEPS América Latina pointed out. Their economies’ dependence on natural resources has grown in recent years. But they are also seeing negative environmental and social impacts of the exploitation of these resources – for example, by extractive industries and intensive agriculture.

Some are in denial about this dilemma. Others seek to solve it by putting their faith in technology. The discussion launch showed that too often, perspectives and experiences from the grass roots and civil society are unfairly overlooked.

Opening up research and innovation to more diverse groups, and allowing them to define different questions and priorities, is not easy. It means recognising the correspondence between knowledge and power. It also means finding ways to open the door to more democratic debate around intertwined social, environmental and economic questions.

Despite these challenges, the discussion at the STEPS América Latina showed the enthusiasm among participants to explore ways of doing this through citizen science, research, activism and policy processes, in order to seek pathways to sustainability for Latin America.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the STEPS Centre website

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