Making futures

STEPS Centre
Sep 21, 2017 · 10 min read

This impact story, one of a series from the ESRC STEPS Centre, shows how our research revealed new insights about science, technology and innovation. From the ‘New Manifesto’ to work on ‘grassroots’ innovation, STEPS researchers have opened up conversations around the world, exploring how citizens can be better involved in shaping the kinds of technologies, innovations and science that can contribute to more sustainable futures.

Roundtable in Sri Lanka on 31 March 2010, part of the project ‘Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto’.

Science, technology and innovation can be crucial to creating prosperity and wellbeing, but there are big assumptions about how they do it. One is that investing in innovation and technology is bound to speed countries towards economic growth as part of a process of modernisation, with benefits trickling down to the poor. Another is that universal solutions to grand challenges can be found, if only they can be ‘scaled up’ in the right way.

In its work on innovation, the ESRC STEPS Centre set out to challenge these assumptions. As well as being a force for good, new technology and innovation can bring problems, entrench inequalities, or even be used for violence and oppression. And problems of poverty or conflict rarely have a single cause that can be fixed by technology alone. This means it’s crucial to think about how decisions are made, who makes them, what values are behind them, what kinds of uncertainties are in play, and how the benefits or risks of innovations are distributed.

Since 2006, STEPS research has explored how citizens can take centre stage in developing science, technology and innovation, and how this might lead to better results. This might be done through participatory processes designed or run by big institutions (governments, businesses and the like), or by citizens taking the matter into their own hands — developing their own technologies and solutions to problems — or by a combination or hybrid forms of the two.

A New Manifesto

A reprint of the original Sussex Manifesto, which caused controversy with the United Nations at its publication in 1970. More information (Wikipedia)

In 1970 a document called the ‘Sussex Manifesto’ written by a group from the Institute of Development Studies and the Science Policy Research Unit helped to shape modern thinking on science and technology for development. Forty years on, the ESRC STEPS Centre (including researchers from the same institutions) decided to ask what kind of Manifesto was needed for today’s world.

The ‘Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto’ project involved contributions from all STEPS Centre members and a network of international partners. The process included a dedicated series of 13 background papers by STEPS researchers and their colleagues, exploring the history of these ideas and the latest experience on how science, technology and innovation were shaped.

But it also aimed to get participation and ideas from a wide range of people and places. This reflected the core idea that science and technology play very different roles in development depending on where you are, and different professions can have radically different views on it.

Exploring this diversity was important to make the New Manifesto live up to its aims. To do this, STEPS ran an international seminar series and 20 roundtables conducted throughout the world — involving hundreds of individuals from women’s groups in rural Maharashtra to researchers in Venezuela to the Zimbabwean Minister of Science and Technology.

A clickable map of all the roundtables run under the Manifesto project.

Our partner in rural India, Marathmoli, reported that women involved in the roundtable had changed their perception of women’s experiential knowledge and science and technology innovation, added value to their work and made them look at their work in a new light.

The project ran other events in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in collaboration with the development NGO Practical Action and worked with TWAS to engage with young researchers in Kenya and India.

The Manifesto roundtable held at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, 19 March 2010.

A dedicated website was used to encourage people to engage and document the process. The website included a crowdsourced (‘wiki’) timeline charting key relevant events in history, along with publications and all the multimedia resources we collected, including videos, photos and reports from the global roundtable events. Since its launch the site has attracted more than 55,000 users from around the world.

The interactive timeline on the Manifesto site.

The New Manifesto proposed a ‘3D agenda’, drawing attention to a set of questions for innovation policy: ‘what is innovation for?’, ‘which kinds of innovation, along which pathways?’ and ‘towards what goals?’ (Direction); ‘who is innovation for?’, ‘whose innovation counts?’ and ‘who gains and who loses?’ (Distribution); and ‘what — and how many — kinds of innovation do we need to address any particular challenge?’ (Diversity). It also made recommendations around five areas for action (Agenda setting, Funding, Capacity building, Organising, and Monitoring, evaluation & accountability).

The New Manifesto published in 2010 (download a PDF version)

In 2010, forty years after the original Sussex Manifesto, the New Manifesto was launched at the Royal Society in London, with a one-day conference involving around 150 people. It was translated into French, Egyptian Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish, and reported not only in the UK media but across Europe, China, India, USA, Brazil and Colombia.

The report was also made available as a ‘Multimedia Manifesto’ online and on CD — an annotated version with links to video and other resources at key points in the text.

The document struck a chord with many, especially as the international community reflected on the Millennium Development Goals and what might follow them after 2015. Outputs from the Manifesto project influenced (and were cited by) UK parliamentary committees on building scientific capacity for development and the post-2015 development goals. In a debate in the House of Commons in October 2012, Martin Horwood MP recommended the application of the Manifesto’s ‘3D’ agenda of direction, distribution and diversity.

Internationally, STEPS researchers were invited to present the Manifesto at an IDRC-OECD event in Paris in 2009, to UNESCO, the World Social Forum and the World Innovation Forum. STEPS also organised an event at the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Brighton, 2010, aimed at the general public. And in October 2012, the New Manifesto project won the prestigious European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Ziman award for “the most innovative cooperation in a venture to promote the public understanding of the social dimensions of science”.

The thinking behind the project went on to inform STEPS work around the Rio+20 conference and the Sustainable Development Goals, which is covered in another impact story in this series.

It also led on to STEPS hosting a series of commentaries in 2015, reacting to the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024). This culminated in a debate at the Institute of Development Studies in August 2015, which brought together panellists from SPRU, MIT, Chatham House, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST), the African Union, the BBC and the agribusiness Agrigum International. This was a chance to look in detail at a new ambitious strategy for Africa, asking questions about how innovation in Africa was funded and governed, and the role of citizens.

Innovation at the grassroots

An example of a makerspace. Makerspaces aim to make digital fabrication and other tools available to members of the public by providing a space for sharing and learning.

The Manifesto had set out to show how citizens could be involved in shaping science, technology and innovation in different places. But was there anything special about innovations started by citizens themselves?

A STEPS project on grassroots innovation set out to understand better how individuals and communities at grassroots level were coming up with solutions for sustainability, and had been doing so for decades. How readily might this on-the-ground experience become the raw material for the more generalised aspirations of the New Manifesto?

The project looked at history as well as the present day — from the UK movement for socially useful production in 1976, to modern-day makerspaces and hackspaces, or the Honey Bee Network operating since 1996 in rural India. These groups often involved creating spaces where people could share skills and exchange ideas — more recently, using the internet to communicate.

In particular, the project looked at innovation in India, Latin America and the UK. These three settings were very different, but some common questions applied. For example, what happened when grassroots innovators came face to face with mainstream institutions — lenders, businesses, patent offices and governments? Would this help them ‘scale up’ their ideas, or would they clash or be co-opted? Why did some movements fail and others succeed? Was there anything about grassroots innovation that made it more ‘sustainable’, or was it equally prone to creating wasteful or ephemeral things?

A key insight was that the products — the most visible things or solutions — were only half the story. Communities of makers and hackers create something more than objects: they create things that are less visible, but no less important. These are things like the right to unpack technology, take it apart and understand how it works; a sense of solidarity and community; the sharing of skills and learning; and even new visions of the future. They could provide spaces for people to question how products, from a mobile phone to a new kind of seed, are normally designed and developed.

Gujarati farmer Mansukh Jagani on his adapted Enfield motorcycle, ‘Bullet Santi’. “You have to feed bullocks through the year whether they can be used in farming or not. Bullet Santi, on the other hand, drinks fuel only when used.” (Photo: Rushlane)

What impact could the STEPS Centre have? By its nature, grassroots innovation is very dispersed and diverse, and can’t be fixed or improved by applying a single solution or policy. Instead, the STEPS team in India, the UK and Argentina cast the net wide — talking to makers and institutions around the world. Some of these were well-known, influential bodies, like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was exploring how ‘inclusive innovation’ could be scaled up; or the Inter-American Development Bank, asking whether digital fabrication could herald a ‘revolution’ in Latin America.

For these organisations, the insights from the STEPS Centre’s project were challenging. Instead of scaling up, perhaps grassroots innovation could be supported by a more decentralised, scaled-downwards’ approach, as it looks very different in different contexts. And could a technology really be revolutionary, without a social ‘revolution’ as well — one that allows people space to deliberate and debate about new technologies?

In other places, the researchers worked with small units in larger organisations. The Science Policy Research Unit’s work in Colombia, which followed on from the project, showed staff at Colciencias how their work connected to wider movements and histories of community innovation. The benefits of supporting this went beyond the products themselves.

They also met many communities of makers and innovators — from ‘street engineers’ in Argentina, to people involved makerspaces and workshops in the UK, Barcelona, France and the Netherlands. An event in London with the Centre for Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) brought together an international group to talk about makerspaces and sustainability, inspiring several blog posts and articles by participants.

Didac Ferrer of Tarpuna Coop in Barcelona talks at the event on making and sustainability at the Machines Room in London, October 2010.

Articles in the Guardian about the Lucas Plan and fabrication workshops in Barcelona, plus an appearance by Prof Adrian Smith, the project’s convenor, on national radio in Spain, helped to spread ideas about grassroots innovation to a wider audience, and helped to highlight problems as well as celebrate examples of success. A thinkpiece for Friends of the Earth showed the links between innovation and democracy, and how grassroots innovations could be supported by action on culture, infrastructure, training, investment and the law.

The 2016 book Grassroots Innovation Movements (Routledge) which reflected on the findings of the STEPS Centre’s project on grassroots innovation.

In 2016, a book published by Routledge brought together insights from the project. The findings went on to inform further events and work on open science in Argentina led by STEPS América Latina.

Reflecting on this project, we realised that it reveals some questions about how research is often organised and funded, and how it can engage with makers and innovators over time. The networks formed with makers in the project shows the importance of allowing time to build relationships. Many of the most exciting ideas and initiatives in this area are not obvious — they have to be sought out, recommended, explored. This means having room to experiment.

By their nature, grassroots innovations change over time, meaning that a single visit or engagement isn’t always enough to really understand what’s going on. It also takes time to build up trust, so that busy makers will allow time to explain to a researcher what they’re doing.

And it’s not enough for researchers to capture what they’ve discussed into neat or general insights for a journal article — they also ought to feed back their findings to help grassroots innovators reflect on their own practices and learn from what others are doing. As innovators and technologies become more networked, and explore how to confront new problems and challenges, this isn’t the end of the story — it’s the beginning of much longer stories of learning, with more surprises and experiments on the way.

To find out more about STEPS research on this theme, visit the Technology & Innovation section of our website and browse blog posts, publications, projects and more.

This is one of a series of impact stories from the STEPS Centre looking back at the Centre’s work since it was established. Read the other impact stories.

STEPS impact stories

Stories of change from the ESRC STEPS Centre: how we’ve made a difference to debates, policy and practice.

STEPS Centre

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An ESRC Centre exploring how sustainability relates to politics, development, science & technology. Hosted at IDS + SPRU, Sussex University.

STEPS impact stories

Stories of change from the ESRC STEPS Centre: how we’ve made a difference to debates, policy and practice.