Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Supporting inclusive innovation with free and open source software

Among the key objectives of our partnership development project is to look at institutional arrangements that can support what is being called 'inclusive innovation'. The term has been around for a few years and is generally used to refer to an innovation systems approach that seeks to involve those who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream of development.  I think the concept has a lot to offer for our project, and for this entry I am working from Heeks' recent paper on the topic (available here).

The term inclusive innovation has two key elements, both with considerable latitude as to how they might be interpreted or acted upon:  On the one hand, 'inclusive'  begs the question what group(s) is to be the focus of attention (e.g., women, youth, disabled, poor).  On the other hand, 'innovation' has many possible interpretations but can be summarized into two basic categories:  innovation outcomes targeted at excluded groups or inclusive innovation processes.

Heeks provides a 'ladder of inclusive innovation' as a framework for considering the range of possibilities inherent in the term.

At the lowest rung of the ladder, innovation is inclusive if the idea is targeted to the needs of an excluded group.  Heeks makes the distinction here between abstract ideas and concrete instantiations of those ideas.  Moving from abstract to concrete, the second rung of the ladder innovation is considered inclusive if it is actually used by the excluded group. 

When considering the base of the pyramid (BOP) as an excluded group (those earning less than $2/day), we might point to the advent of prepaid credit for mobile phones as an inclusive innovation at the second rung of the ladder because it is used extensively by those in the BOP.  The LIRNEasia Teleuse@BOP surveys have documented the impact of prepaid on adoption and use of mobile telecom within this segment of the population. 

The third rung of the ladder is where the innovation is considered inclusive because it has made a positive impact on the livelihood of the excluded group.  The introduction of m-agriculture services like Dialog's Tradenet and others that provide farmers with real-time market prices might be placed in this category as innovations that have had a positive impact on livelihoods at the BOP by reducing the transaction costs associated with information seeking behaviour.

Moving into deeper levels of engagement, the fourth rung of the ladder is where the excluded group is directly involved in the innovation process.  This, in turn, requires us to further specify 'innovation processes' to consider the role of the excluded group, whether it be consultation or direct collaboration.  Moreover, it requires us to consider the stage of innovation from upstream invention to downstream distribution of an existing innovation.

An example in this case might be any of the Free and Open Source Software platforms that we are using in our project: FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, Freedom Fone.  These software applications were developed intentionally to support excluded groups (level 1 on the ladder) and have been used by those groups in countries around the world (level 2).  The software itself is highly configurable and open source, meaning that excluded groups are able to participate directly in design and implementation through customization suited to highly localized applications.

The fifth rung of the ladder says 'innovation is inclusive if it is created within a structure that is itself inclusive.'  This is deep inclusion and may require reform of existing or the introduction of new institutions, organizations, and social relations to take place.  Introducing Ushahidi for crowd mapping disease outbreaks in crops, for example, will introduce new social relations between farmers, agriculture experts, and government departments.  Inclusive innovation at this level would include changes to the social organization of the system to recognize the contribution of 'lay' knowledge to the process.  It might also require the formation of new peer-based communities of practice to curate and manage the knowledge generated in this innovative approach (Robin Mansell has a good discussion of the challenges in managing 'constitutive' versus 'adaptive' authority in crowdsourcing contexts).  

Finally the sixth rung of the ladder is where innovation happens within 'a frame of knowledge and discourse that is itself inclusive'.  Here we invoke philosophy of development with perspectives such as Dorothea Kleine's capabilities approach, which finds its deeper roots in Sen's theory of development as freedom.

Meeting with farmers in Batticaloa to exchange ideas.
They expressed interest in using text messages to provide 
seasonal flood alerts to the community.  FOSS software 
like FrontlineSMS makes it possible to involve them 
directly in the process of designing, running, and managing
the alert system for themselves.
So where does our project fit on the inclusive innovation ladder?  Or perhaps it is better to ask, what is our objective with respect to climbing the ladder?

We are working with Free and Open Source Software, highly configurable platforms FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Freedom Fone.  The idea behind adopting this software is because it is low cost, readily accessible, and relatively easy to use.  This positions it at the second rung of the ladder: as many other documented projects have shown, excluded groups can easily adopt and use this software.   We have focussed on the mobile phone and radio broadcasting as end user devices as well, given that we have good documentation to show that these simple ICTs have had positive impact on excluded groups livelihoods. 

Our rapid prototyping method and campaign approach to introducing the FOSS platforms into the communities is intended to move us up the ladder to levels 4 and 5.  In particular, we are working with communities to identify innovation intermediaries in the form of technology stewards who can work with the research team to start a process that we hope will lead to them taking increasing control over how the software will be implemented and used with and by the communities themselves.  

Working closely with sponsoring organizations, including government departments and NGOs, and in collaboration with Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, we are hoping to establish a foothold at level 5 on the ladder by identifying and working toward institutional arrangements that will facilitate sustainable inclusive innovation through the tech steward model.  The campaigns can provide firsthand experience, evidence, and insights as to the kinds of arrangements and requirements that may need to be addressed to achieve an inclusive institutional structure.  Among these we envision training of technology stewards as innovation intermediaries as a key activity in the near future.  In fact, we are in early stage discussions with Wayamba University on a Joint Training and Education Initiative for tech stewards to facilitate this step.


1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent conceptual scheme. Like many development projects it sees that it would take time, variable due to context, to get to level 5 or 6, or to be able to evaluate how well an inclusive technology has reached that level of function.