Fostering grassroots innovation: Lessons India can teach Michigan

May 9, 2016

The Next Idea


Modern, high-tech innovation has benefited the world enormously. It has improved health and safety, and helped us communicate and travel across borders. But lots of people cannot afford these technologies – many of which are of limited usefulness for economically disadvantaged citizens who live outside of metropolitan areas. Indeed, these citizens were never the main market for these technologies in the first place.

Policymakers tend to address these issues in a few ways. They subsidize costs to make some technologies more widely available. Or, they encourage science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, so that a more diverse array of citizens can participate in the high-tech economy and produce innovation. Unfortunately, these efforts seem to have had limited success.

Is there a way to address these challenges? Can we rethink innovation, and innovation systems, to better serve the interests of multiple, diverse publics? And must innovation always be high-tech, produced by those with formal education? Must it come from places like Ann Arbor or Silicon Valley, and be supported by venture capitalists? To explore these questions, I am investigating “grassroots innovation” and efforts to foster it in India. By that I mean low-tech, low cost, and small-scale technologies produced by those with limited formal education.

India’s commitment to grassroots innovation is a long-standing one. It is home to a number of traditional knowledge systems including Ayurvedic medicine and yoga. And Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist movement emphasized the importance of “homespun” innovation and industry as an important way to establish and maintain India’s independence from Britain. In order to achieve self-determination, citizens needed the freedom to innovate and to have control over the fruits of their innovation.

In recent years this ideology has inspired both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government institutions to identify and encourage innovation among average citizens who are “knowledge-rich and resource poor.” These organizations argue that fostering grassroots innovation could be of immense help for these citizens’ communities, and, more broadly, for the urban and rural poor – even though it is unlikely to capture attention in the global marketplace due to its limited profitability. Logan D. A. Williams, in her essay for The Next Idea, called this concept “innovation from the margins,” and argued that we miss valuable insights when we ignore the experience and ideas of the elderly, the poor, and people of color.

The Indian government’s National Innovation Foundation (NIF) is one such institution. Its work, carried on by approximately 100 staff members as well as NGO and individual partners, can be divided into three categories. First, it identifies grassroots innovation by sponsoring exhibitions and competitions, and by advertising in local newspapers across India. In addition, every year a small group of staff and volunteers takes a one- to two-week walk in a different part of India to see innovators directly. The idea, as one NIF staff member told me, is to “meet them where they are.” To date, the NIF has identified over 200,000 technologies.

After this initial process, the NIF assesses eligible inventions according to their potential to help the community, their environmental sustainability, and the feasibility of further development. Based on this assessment, it chooses a subset of these technologies to develop further. NIF staff then works with grassroots innovators to conduct extensive field-testing to gauge the technology’s effectiveness and then refine it to comply with existing laws and regulations. If relevant and appropriate, they also try to patent the invention on the innovator’s behalf.

Consider, for example, the NIF’s investment in a low-cost windmill. Two farmers from the Indian state of Gujarat, with less than high school educations, were frustrated trying to irrigate their fields. Hand pumps required a great deal of time and labor and had negative health impacts. Pumps powered by diesel engines were costly and had negative environmental impacts. So, these farmers developed a windmill made of tin sheets and bamboo rods at a cost of about 120 U. S. dollars. The NIF helped the farmers secure an Indian patent, develop their technology so it would work with different types of farming, and conduct multiple field trials.

Finally, the NIF works with the innovator to disseminate her technology. On the innovator’s behalf, it negotiates with companies who have manufacturing and distribution capacity. The NIF sees itself playing a supportive role, ensuring that the inventor’s terms are met. Invariably, these terms include direct benefit-sharing provisions with the local community. The inventors of the low-cost windmill, for example, used a portion of their earnings to donate their windmills to needy farmers.

If the corporate sector decides not to invest, the NIF and its NGO partners usually take on dissemination themselves. They may work with local factories to manufacture the invention, or help the innovator spread knowledge about her work to surrounding communities so that others can develop it themselves or invent beyond it. The ultimate goal of this work is to empower the innovative work of average citizens, in order to encourage technological development that may be more useful to economically disadvantaged communities while also demonstrating the value of grassroots knowledge to scientific, technological, and economic elites.

Certainly, Michigan and India are quite different. But what can the U.S., and Michigan more specifically, learn from these efforts in India?

First, it should force us to rethink what innovation looks like and who is engaged in innovative work. The NIF example shows us that neither a formal education nor high-tech infrastructure is necessary for innovation to flourish. In fact, it suggests that grassroots innovation can, under some circumstances, serve social needs more directly than the technologies that we tend to invest in and focus on.

In recent years, local makerspaces have emerged throughout the United States to encourage innovation. But these initiatives tend to have a business and entrepreneurship, rather than a public interest, orientation. They also tend to focus on higher-tech work. To supplement existing efforts we could imagine “public interest makerspaces,” funded by government and non-profits. Focused on identifying and fostering low-tech work, they might not generate as much revenue but could serve the needs of local communities more directly.

Second, while we tend to see formal research laboratories as generators of innovation, they can also be supporters of it. They could help to test and refine citizen-driven innovation, just as in the Indian case. These kinds of initiatives have two potential benefits. They could facilitate bridges between average citizens and the scientific and technical communities, quietly addressing the growing citizen distrust of our science and technology policy institutions. And, by making the innovation process more accessible, it could inspire more of us to pursue STEM education and careers in the future.

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