The idea of innovation, certainly not new to development practitioners, is once again picking up steam. In fact, it has become a buzzword now permeating many discussions and development conversations.
The Arab Spring and other social movements in both the developed and developing countries brought back to the forefront not just the catalytic importance of new ICTs but, perhaps more importantly, the centrality of democratic governance in fostering sustainable human development. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen (and in some cases build) the bridges between public institutions and the people, the latter having a voice that influences the former. Public institutions, in turn, must be capable of responding effectively and in a transparent fashion.
Nowadays, what is perhaps new is the more vital link between innovation and democratic governance.
For many, innovation seems to be driven by technology alone. While this might be the case in some instances in the development field – remember the Green Revolution? – This is not always true. From a development perspective, a critical issue is the diffusion of innovations, that is, the uptake by intended beneficiaries on the new solutions furnished by development practitioners, the private sector, and many others. A vast development literature on this topic already exists but somehow seems to be in the back-burner of most ongoing discussions.
Today we also hear quite a bit about social innovation, an idea that has been around in different incarnations since the 1860s or thereabouts.
What is different today?
While innovation was usually associated with “stuff” happening in industrialized countries in the recent past, today we see a shift towards developing countries. In other words, innovation is now taking place on a larger scale in countries that traditionally were not known for being members of the innovation “club.” India and China are good examples, as is Kenya. And there are many others.
A vital aspect of the new innovation wave in the South is the fact that it is linked to development gaps, perhaps unintendedly. There are now concerted efforts to address critical socio-economic and governance gaps with new solutions created internally. And here, local social innovators are playing an essential role.
The rapid evolution of mobile technologies has provided fertile ground for this new innovation wave. By the end of 2014, it was estimated that almost 5 billion mobile phone subscribers lived in developing countries – and this is growing. The same data indicates that Asia and Africa are the fastest-growing regions. Although these numbers are impressive, let us not lose sight of what is going on behind the scenes.
Why is this happening now? First of all, the barriers to entry for the production, distribution, and consumption of new tools and solutions have been dramatically reduced in the last five to seven years. Second, many innovative solutions developed countries furnish do not reach the bottom of the pyramid, nor are they designed for such a purpose. There is thus a latent demand, a captive market for affordable and “pro-poor” innovative solutions that can rapidly diffuse if price points and priority needs are satisfied. And third, the new technologies foster interactive communication tools that in principle give voice to those who had none before; now, they could become active participants in decision-making processes, not just traditional consumers. The latter is indeed a governance innovation.
Kenya is an excellent example of an innovation economy in a developing country. Well known for crowdsourcing with Ushahidi and mobile money with M-Pesa, it has surged by responding to specific socio-economic and political issues. Kenya is also deploying innovative solutions for health, agriculture, and education, with the support of local social entrepreneurs, many of which are women. Indeed, a culture of innovation is flourishing in the country. The same is happening in several other developing countries.
In these cases, social innovation is happening on a bottom-up basis. Local community members with adequate skills get involved by trying to address specific issues the community confronts. Many of them are, in turn, members of these communities and thus have the trust of local stakeholders. However, the government is still marginally involved and has yet to fully embrace these efforts. Nevertheless, the critical issue is the sustainability of most of these efforts now embedded within the communities themselves as project ownership is local.
However, issues of replicability and scalability remain. It is here where governments could play a catalytic role by supporting and piggybacking on these efforts. Among other things, governments could directly support social innovation by creating strategic multi-stakeholder partnerships, moving beyond the now traditional public-private partnerships.
On the governance side, social innovation promotes three of its fundamental principles: participation, transparency and accountability, the core pillars of Open Government. Together, they demand the involvement of both governments and stakeholders who, working together as partners, can strengthen the public sphere and enhance democratic governance in developing countries in the medium term.