Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Innovation, technology, and the need to be grounded in material realities and contemporary problems

I read a post today by Sally Roever, the Director of Urban Policies Programme at WIEGO, called "You don’t need facebook to tell you how to pick waste’ – Technology and innovation at the base of the economic pyramid," in which she discusses the necessity of engaging people at the 'bottom of the economic pyramid' to develop meaningful and democratic approaches to technological change. She notes that "technology can be embedded in power hierarchies related to gender, caste, occupation and the value chain." Understanding this means acknowledging that any work that promotes technology runs the risk of exacerbating social and political oppression. Likewise, technology can produce liberation, but, in order to do so, it must meet the needs in context of those it is intending to serve. The pathways towards liberation are not intuitive, and will not necessarily follow past trajectories, which is why it is absolutely imperative for any researcher (or other change agent) to get one's shoes dirty.

The same points apply to technology as it relates to food security and food systems.  As I mentioned in my last post, the evolving dominant narrative in agrifood development work in Africa concerns a so-called 'food systems transformation.'  The word 'transformation' here refers to both a 'natural' and universal trajectory that (apparently) happens as a result of urbanizing food demand, as well as the need to invest in structural 'transformation' that can handle that demand. In this narrative, engaging with the people who are actually currently doing the heavy lifting of food distribution isn't a critical feature of the approach because that kind of food system is considered to be 'fragmented,' as well as pre-modern, and therefore time-bound. It won't be the first or last time I say it, but assuming any future trajectory based on past trajectory is dangerous and is fundamentally, at its core, a narrative that serves to oppress people. Why economists, many of whom would probably pride themselves on being driven by empirical evidence, and are probably unlikely to believe in soothsaying or determinism, perpetuate this kind of thinking is something I haven't figured out, yet.

In contrast to approaches to food transformation that see the ‘magic’ in the technology, specific institutional structure and relationship, or intervention, I am of the mind that social and technological change is an outcome of processes that promote co-created responses to locally defined problems and forums that promote creativity, relationship-building, and mutual accountability.   Our focus through the Frugal Innovation Practicum is to support innovation in local food systems, particularly as it relates to small- and medium-scaled food exchange. We are motivated by the recognition that these local food livelihoods play a vital role in urban food security and urban economies, but that they are neglected and often maligned by policymakers and researchers. But viewed through a lens that grounds them in place and according to local conditions, such food-provisioning activities can be seen to be well-adapted to the realities facing many in growing African cities.[i]  For example, these food systems are decentralized and therefore widely accessible to people in all parts of the city; food is generally available in small quantities, which accommodates people who make very small incomes and for whom refrigeration is not an option; due to personal relationships, food is often available on credit; their highly individualized, ad hoc nature makes them extremely nimble and able to adapt to opportunities and constraints as the city changes and grows.  At the same time, and due to underinvestment in the sector, individuals bear the costs of poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, and high transportation costs. Such conditions result in a situation in which food retailers have little energy, resources, time, and power to invest in social and technological change that could help them to improve profit margins and develop their businesses.

Solving such issues is possible and necessary.  Yes, cities are growing, but the future of food is not set in stone.  Taking a wider view that sees beyond the past and recognizes the infinite options that can come out of creative engagement is what is required for sustainable food systems that serve people in democratic and just ways.

[i] White, S (forthcoming). Urban agriculture as adaptive capacity: An example from Senegal. In WinklerPrins, A. & McClintock, N. Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South. (Ch. 11). Oxfordshire, UK. CABI. 

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