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OECD Symposium on Technology, Innovation and Inclusive growth

This post was published on the OECD's blog for the Symposium on Technology, Innovation and Inclusive growth, that will be held on 28-29 April 2016.

In a context of growing income inequalities, the question of what opportunities the new emerging economy holds for different groups in society, and what policy can do, is crucial. Among the many challenges in promoting inclusive innovation, the lack of technical expertise is one of the biggest, a serious obstacle for grassroots entrepreneurs aiming to scale up their innovation. Another challenge is that they have access to very few resources to help them develop their project.

As the OECD report dedicated to Innovation Policies for Inclusive Growth published in 2015 shows, grassroots expertise is based upon their experience of everyday life and the informal nature of their business prevents them from accessing of knowledge of existing technologies, networks and expertise of their field. Of all the actors across the innovation system spectrum, universities are the ones playing a major role in providing such expertise for two main reasons:

  • Traditional economic role: Public research is the main source for research and development as well as trained experts in numerous fields. Financed by public funds, universities have access to special equipment and data, important financial resources that enable them to provide fundamental knowledge and expertise to companies which develop innovation products. Universities are therefore the best intermediary for grassroots entrepreneurs to access expertise.
  • New economic role: In the economy of knowledge, universities take on a new role which is to participate actively in the economic growth. Connections between universities, private enterprises and the industry are thus fostered in order to facilitate the transformation of scientific research results into potential innovations suitable to feed the economy. In this context of the commercialisation of public knowledge, universities could also consequently act as facilitators to support grassroots entrepreneurs’ commercialisation efforts as the report points out.

The innovation system as it exists today seems to exclude actors of the informal economy. Indeed the report explains that what is observed today is theconcentration of innovation which is also called “the search for excellence” in countries, regions, sectors, firms, universities and public research which became leaders in the economy.The concentration of innovation has positive outcomes as it helps to create advanced knowledge. However, it also creates a high concentration of knowledge, tools and resources, excluding potential economic actors.

In some ways this seems to be in contradiction with the reverse trend, of the democratization of innovation (i.e. widening of the group of successful innovators to include actors who did not previously participate in innovation processes thanks to ICTs and bottom-up initiatives which are the main drivers to the democratization of innovation).

New actors in the economy of innovation are individuals, social entrepreneurs, grassroots innovators and also citizens. The latter want to take part in the scientific research by providing data or developing their own research on dedicated platforms and spaces such as Fab-lab, DIY labs, etc (citizen science). As they collect more knowledge to understand societal issues, they want to play a role in solving them. Even though this trend is developing fast, citizen science is often under evaluated by the scientific community. However, scientific researchers have also become aware of the nature and consequences of their work. As citizens they assume a new role: they want their work to contribute to the good of society.Those two communities often depicted as separate are not that different after all !

That is why we shouldn’t consider these trends as opposites: we ought to think differently on this issue and see these trends as complementary for developing inclusive innovation.

Although the concentration of innovation can get in the way of democratizing innovation, it can also provide advanced knowledge and expertise to the remainder of the economy.Unfortunately, interactions across the field of innovation actors are almost non-existent and must be developed to promote the diffusion of knowledge and cooperation.

From this point of view, one solution to this issue and especially to the lack of expertise we mentioned above is to foster cooperations between grassroots entrepreneurs, universities and research institutes. Such a cooperation could take the shape of intermediary institutions allowing for the exchange of knowledge and information. One such example is The Honey Bee Network (India) which connects informal innovators with formal institutions, including universities and public research institutions. On the platform, for instance, the Techpedia project promotes links between technology students and innovators in the informal sector.

In this spirit, we created SoScience in France in 2011, which is the first startup dedicated to Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe. Last year, we were selected by the European Union as one of the five responsible innovation projects to take as models in Europe which demonstrate the significant importance of this trend. We collaborate with research centers and social entrepreneurs in order to foster the development of scientific answers to today’s grand social and environmental challenges. To do so, we aim to develop and test partnerships between social entrepreneurs and research institutes to integrate societal needs in research and development. We believe it is the most promising way not only to forge bonds of mutual interest between social entrepreneurs and researchers but also to develop inclusive innovation.

Nathan Grass