Grassroots Contributions to Sustainability

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* Article: : Smith, Adrian, and Andrew Stirling (2018). “Innovation, Sustainability and Democracy: An Analysis of Grassroots Contributions,” Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics 6(1): 64–97.

URL = https://grassrootsinnovations.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/smithstirling-2017-gi-id-journal-article.pdf


Abstract

"In this paper we introduce an area of activity that has flourished for decades in all corners of the globe, namely grassroots innovation for sustainable development. We also argue why innovation in general is a matter for democracy. Combining these two points, we explore how grassroots innovation can contribute to what we call innovation democracy, and help guide innovation so that it supports rather than hinders social justice and environmental resilience.


Drawing upon qualitative case studies from empirical domains including energy, food, and manufacture, we suggest it does so in four related ways:

  • 1. Processes of grassroots innovation can

help in their own right to cultivate the more democratic practice of innovation more generally.

  • 2. Grassroots innovations that result from these processes can support citizens

and activities in ways that can contribute to practice of democracy.

  • 3. Grassroots innovations can create particular empowering sociotechnical configurations that might

otherwise be suppressed by interests around more mainstream innovation systems.

4. Grassroots innovations can help nurture general levels of social diversity that are important for the health of democracy in its widest political senses.

The paper finishes with a few suggestions for how societies committed to innovation democracy can better support and benefit from grassroots activity, by working at changes in culture, infrastructure, training, investment, and openness."

Excerpts

Adrian Smith and Andrew Stirling:

"Grassroots innovation is a diverse set of activities in which networks of neighbors, community groups, and activists work with people to generate bottom-up solutions for sustainable developments; novel solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved; and where those communities have control over the process and outcomes (Gupta et al., 2003; Seyfang & Smith, 2007).

Unencumbered by policy silos, commercial logics, disciplinary boundaries, and other institutional pressures, grassroots groups are free to innovate how they see fit.

Throughout the history of modern environmentalism and development there has always existed an undercurrent of grassroots activism, working directly on sustainable local solutions (Ely et al., 2013). This has played out equally in the global north and south; in urban or rural settings; and across all sorts of sectors, including food, energy, housing, manufacturing, leisure, health, communications, education, and so on (Hess, 2007; Thackara, 2015; Schumacher, 1973; Gupta et al., 2003). In a few cases, what began as grassroots activity has evolved into substantial commercial activity in green industrial sectors, such as wind energy and car clubs (Truffer, 2003; Jorgensen & Karnoe, 1995). Often the mainstreaming of grassroots innovation involves input from – and hybridization with – more conventional research, development and investment in institutions for science, technology and marketing (Fressoli et al., 2014).

Sometimes grassroots innovation is an entirely indigenous endeavor, with people creating their own technologies, methods and organizations in order to realize a community need or aspiration. The Honey Bee Network in India, for example, has documented thousands of ingenious developments in villages across the country (http://www.sristi.org/hbnew/). Honey Bee has worked for decades to build up a system of support and diffusion that connects these grassroots innovators to formal research, development and marketing organizations in order that local ingenuity can be turned into marketable products (Gupta, 2016; Kumar & Bhaduri, 2014).

In other instances, grassroots initiatives appropriate technologies or models from elsewhere and adapt them to their own needs in unusual ways. Hackerspaces and makerspaces, for example, are popping up in many towns and cities globally – helping to make available to local communities versatile, small-scale industrial prototyping technologies, such as laser cutters, microelectronic controllers, design software, and 3D printing, but also traditional hand tools too, including lathes, drills and sewing machines (Kohtala, 2016; Smith, 2017). Inspired by ideas from free software, open design and peer production, these community-based workshops enable neighbors to cultivate the skills of using these tools and appreciate the new working practices of peer production, and apply these tools and practices to their own projects (Hielscher & Smith, 2014). Many hackerspaces and makerspaces are networked with one another, and form part of a global phenomenon that shares designs, instructions and code over social media platforms. In this way collaborative projects can be pursued and replicated internationally.

In grassroots innovation, skills are developed through the practicalities of creating an initiative, as well as the innovation presenting new capabilities for communities to develop (Sen, 1999; Bell, 1979). Take a community microhydro project, for example, where a group wishes to convert the run of a river into clean electricity for the local community (and thereby opening up new possibilities for that community). The community group will have to constitute itself and attract members. They will have to learn about the technology options, and begin the demanding task of raising funds and securing permission to develop a suitable section of their local river. Throughout, they will need to reinforce commitment, maintain solidarity, and have the emotional stamina to keep going. This requires a continuous articulation of the plurality of reasons motivating different members, to support the project and its aims (Seyfang et al., 2013); but also the negotiation of sometimes painful compromises."

Grassroots Contributions to Innovation Democracy

"We have introduced grassroots innovation and painted a picture of innovation not just as a technical matter, but as deeply value-laden; and not just about technology, but sociotechnical configurations (that include many social dimensions).


In this view, it is possible to identify four related ways in which grassroots innovation can contribute to innovation democracy:

  • 1. Processes of grassroots innovation can help in their own right to cultivate

the more democratic practice of innovation more generally.

  • 2. Grassroots innovations that result from these processes can support citizens

and activities in ways that can contribute to practice of democracy.

  • 3. Grassroots innovations can create particular empowering sociotechnical

configurations that might otherwise be suppressed by interests around more mainstream innovation systems.

  • 4. Grassroots innovations can help nurture general levels of social diversity,

that are important for the health of democracy in its widest political senses. These contributions are interlinked. None are guaranteed. Realizing their potential depends upon the social conditions in which grassroots innovation arises. We will now discuss each of these issues in turn."

Visualizations

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