Friday, April 22, 2016

All Innovation is Social!

I work for an organization called the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, the mission of which is to 'create, test, and enable scaling of effective solutions and evidence based approaches to a defined set of future critical global trends impacting food systems.'  We are based at Michigan State University, and are one of eight development labs funded by US Global Development Lab at USAID.

Since coming to work for GCFSI, I've thought a lot about the concept of innovation. I like unpacking words and concepts, and think that doing so can force one to be more precise and thoughtful about how concepts are enacted and how those enactments are measured.

The word 'innovation' is used so often, by so many people, in so many different contexts, that it's no great insight on my part to say that, in common parlance, it carries more emotional weight than scientific. If you asked 10 people to define 'innovation,' you might get a consensus on the idea that it is something new that provokes change for the common good, but if you started asking about definitions of 'common good,' you'd get as many answers as people asked.

My favorite museum is The Henry Ford, a museum dedicated to the history of technological innovation. At The Henry Ford, there are many examples of technological innovations that changed the world, but less about the negative social, environmental, and economic implications of those technologies. For example, there's no denying that the steam engine was an innovation that provoked major social and economic change, but the consequences of that change were not always positive; in fact, they were pervasively negative for certain groups of people.  Clearly, innovation is historically situated and its effects are socially stratified, and whether or not an innovation is 'successful' depends on what the metric for success is.

Our food systems are facing some major challenges. Doing things differently is going to be required, but it is important to be clear about what the goals are, as well as who is served by any particular innovation.  For example, if conversations about innovation are guided by the imperative of meeting demand, but there is little discussion about the quality of demand and its interaction with supply systems, we are not acknowledging some fundamental truths about planetary boundaries. A so-called 'modern' food system has been operating without consideration for planetary boundaries, which, in turn, has resulted in extremely energy-intensive diets and food practices (one excellent article on the subject: "What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming").  Acknowledging boundaries means that trajectories towards energy-intense food systems must not be assumed, and that innovation needs to be shaped not only in the demand space, but also the supply space.  In other words, food security and ecological sustainability need to be simultaneously addressed in integrated ways (for one recent discussion, see this paper by Roberta Sonnino et al).
Figure 1: technocentric problem-solving

Furthermore, these are not just technical issues, but social issues.  Technology is never neutral; technological solutions have unintended consequences. Food systems, though often treated as a mechanical series of activities that get calories from farm to plate (or bowl), are intensely social and political, a fact that is often considered inconsequential or incidental by mainstream economists and engineers. I'm reminded here of a conversation I had with a wise engineer colleague here at MSU (Ron Averill) who says that engineers typically problem-solve with a techno-centric perspective (Figure 1), while he insists on a socio-centric approach (Figure 2).  Done properly, this kind of problem-solving would by constituted by the experiences and knowledge of those whom the innovation is supposed to serve.
Figure 2: Socio-centric problem solving

In Africa, where most of GCFSI's work takes place, food exchange is a highly decentralized affair, contingent on the activities and relationships of many small-scale entrepreneurs. Those livelihoods may not be well-served if metrics of success are shaped by, for example, conventional (i.e. western) notions of 'efficiency.'  As much as food is needed for sustaining bodies, it is also a vehicle for social and economic growth, and, thus, a primary platform for livelihood.  Innovations must be shaped not according to discipline, but by local realities and relationships.

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