Inclusive innovation: beyond the Silicon Valley conception
Robyn Klingler-Vidra, Alex Glennie, and Courtney Savie Lawrence argue that COP27 shows that a more inclusive approach to innovation is needed.
COP27 closed with a breakthrough; an agreement to create a “Loss and Damage” Fund for Vulnerable Countries. The details of the fund are still to be determined—including the size of the fund. It is at this stage that its key that we get the direction right for how the “direction” of the fund, in terms of who is involved, and how. This comes as the wider conference left us acutely aware of the need for coming together—working together—to deliver the change needed for people and the planet. Statements about the importance of unity abounded over the conference, but with many of the usual, elite faces gathered in Sharm El Sheikh.
At the same time, recent technology headlines continue to be dominated by household, even infamous, names. Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover of Twitter, and WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann’s raising $350 million in VC funding for his new startup, Flow, despite his chequered record and lacking prototype.
These developments underscore how few people dominate the design and implementation of the technologies that shape our daily lives, and, benefit from an unfair ability to secure high-powered capital.
In short, it augurs against the notion that we are all in it together. The unity calls coming from the elite gathered in Egypt feels disconnected from a reality that rewards insiders and does not yet do enough to include the voices, and interests, of the millions – and billions – who remain under-represented.
This exclusionary bend, especially in the context of innovation, can be ameliorated. Innovation offers potential: to cure diseases, to better connect people, and to make the way we live and work more efficient and enjoyable. At the same time, innovation can fuel inequality, decimate livelihoods, and cause environmental degradation.
It’s essential that we remember that innovation has a direction; people decide which challenges are addressed, who is included in the process, and who targeted beneficiaries are.
A more inclusive approach to innovation is needed to inform the new Loss and Damage Fund. “Inclusive innovation” describes the pursuit of innovation that has social and environmental aims, and local context, at its heart. Inclusive innovation centres around the understanding that inclusion is necessarily about people and the planet, and so ecological concerns need to be at the centre as they were in Egypt.
To move the post-COP27 discussions towards greater unity – or at least, widespread involvement in and benefit from – collective action, key questions need to be asked before policies are written, money is invested, and business is carried out.
First, asking: who is involved and who benefits? Who doesn’t have access to finance, to high-tech jobs, to guidance? Stunted access to participating in producing innovation can come from demographic characteristics (e.g., ethnicity, gender, race), geography (e.g., disadvantaged areas), and industries (e.g., traditional, or low productivity, industries). Who will be included in developing the solutions to the existential risks that the Loss and Damage Fund aims to address? A concerted effort is needed to ensure that a wider range of voices are included. Research shows that involving more groups in agenda-setting conversations, and in ecosystem discussion, delivers widespread benefits. For instance, connecting immigrant founders with VCs for ‘office hours’ can help them gain the local know-how and social networks they need to thrive.
Second, by expanding our understanding of what “counts” as innovation the Fund can better amplify solutions coming “by, from and for” those who have suffered the losses and damages. Silicon Valley, and high-tech, have become shorthand for innovation but non-tech innovations can have a massive impact on daily lives around the world. For instance, during Covid a web cam entrepreneur adapted his business to create a “rice ATM” that helped distribute tonnes of rice to society’s most vulnerable. Public funding can be designed to amplify the prototypes of entrepreneurs who address these kinds of societal challenges by re-imagining their product, or amplifying its distribution, rather than financing research and development in a lab (in a wealthy country).
Third, is supporting innovation as a collaborative process. The lone genius, or inventor, has never been the reality of innovation. Alexander Fleming, for instance, is said to have “discovered” penicillin in St. Mary’s Hospital in 1928. But this “ah ha!” moment only came after years of work with multiple collaborators across labs. This reality remains true for so much of innovation today, yet we conceive of a singular leader – e.g., Elon Musk – or Nobel prize winner. To deliver innovation that involves, and benefits, more of society, the way in which we support innovation needs to support the contributions of multiple stakeholders and different projects. Choosing to award funding to only one or two projects to deliver on each aim, for example, is far too narrow of an approach if we are to drive systemic change.
There is no silver bullet to delivering on the lofty goals reiterated at this year’s COP. But we can make progress by bringing different voices to the table to set the (next) agenda, and to help the watershed announcement of the Loss and Damage Fund deliver.
Robyn Klingler-Vidra is Reader in Political Economy at King’s College London. She is the author of The Venture Capital State: The Silicon Valley Model in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018) and focuses on entrepreneurship, innovation, and venture capital.
Alex Glennie is Senior Policy Manager at the Innovation Growth Lab at Nesta. Her work focuses on supporting governments to develop more inclusive and experimental innovation policies, and she has published several reports on the theme of inclusive innovation.
Courtney Savie Lawrence is a climate, systems, and social innovation practitioner. She has lived and worked in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the US across the grassroots to government spectrum, including cofounding the Circular Design Lab and working with the UNDP and UNICEF innovation teams.
The authors wrote the book, Inclusive Innovation, which was published by Routledge in 2022.
Photo by ThisIsEngineering