Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Innovation and Cognitive Justice

When I was last in Malawi, and checking out what's been going on in the markets we work with, I noticed that things like water taps and toilets were being referred to as 'innovations.' Obviously, this is an artifact of the 'game' of development. We come from the US and have a stated objective of developing 'frugal innovations' in collaboration with the local people. So, now, things that are not new are called 'innovations' because we've established the 'space' we're working in and it's all about 'innovation.'

Clearly, a toilet that uses water is not an innovation. A water tap is not an innovation. So, what gives? Why are we focused on things like this in our practicum?

I've said it many times: innovation is not the province of particular people, and it doesn't look a certain way. Rather, innovation is a feature of human intellect and creative capacity.  The focus on innovation as a thing designed to achieve particular objectives that have been defined by developmentalist values is messed up because it robs people of intellectual sovereignty and, thus, is an assault on cognitive justice.¹  But, in today's brand of development, 'innovation' is equated with 'cool new silver bullet.' Innovations are only innovations if they've been defined by the 'developmentalist' community as such, so we get things like 'climate resistant maize' and 'sustainable intensification.' None of these are necessarily bad, but where do the values that produce these things reside? Where does the embedded intellect originate? Generally, not with the people whom they are supposed to serve.

We focus on urban food markets because they are vitally important to urban and rural food security.  Not only do they distribute food in ways that are appropriate to the conditions that define the food-provisioning and exchange system in Lilongwe, they are major economic and social institutions. They should evolve to meet a wide variety of opportunities and constraints as defined by the people who rely on them and as the city grows and changes. But, due to many factors, including imposition of structural adjustment, many such markets have stagnated, not because of any inherent flaw, but because conditions don't enable the ability to effect change. They lack the most basic infrastructure and income margins are so small as to be non-existent in some cases. How are people in those conditions supposed to have the bandwidth to drive innovation in a way that meets their needs as they define them?

That's where toilets and water taps come in. Not only do they meet some critical needs as defined by the people who will be using them, their construction and maintenance relies on a community-driven and community-defined process. At the same time, the forum we provide for identifying problems and deciding what to do about them has the ancillary benefit of confronting actual obstacles to innovation, such as lack of communication and transparency between vendors and city decision-makers. These are systemic issues that have to be addressed to allow the innovation system to evolve. Change can happen, but the conditions, including material conditions, that foster it need to be nurtured.

¹This is a term I first read in the book "Science and Citizens," an edited volume by Melissa Leach, Ian Scoones & Brian Wynne. The specific chapter: Visvanathan, Shiv. "Knowledge, justice and democracy." Science and citizens: Globalization and the challenge of engagement (2005): 83-94.

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