Inclusive innovation critical for sharing benefits of growth and countering rising inequality, UNCTAD meeting told

07 May 2014

Government representatives discussed how innovation that is inclusive can help improve the lives of the disadvantaged in society at UNCTAD’s Investment, Enterprise and Development Commission on 30th April 2014.​

In a global context of rising inequality within most countries, policy analysts are grasping for solutions that can make economic growth more inclusive by spreading development benefits widely to include, in particular, the less wealthy and more marginalized in society.

Fears are growing that growth is benefiting too few, threatening to undermine the social cohesion that glues societies together and builds confidence that market economies can benefit everyone.

Confronted by persistent unemployment and poverty, policymakers badly need tools to redress inequality and improve people's lives while simultaneously lowering global emissions of greenhouse gases that currently fuel much of global growth.

Participating experts and Government representatives at UNCTAD's Investment, Enterprise and Development Commission agreed that inclusive innovation can make a powerful contribution to inclusive development.

Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University argued that inclusive innovation represents the emergence of new models of innovation geared toward the needs of the poor. Many inclusive innovations are market and consumer driven even though they cater to low income and other excluded groups, because the "bottom of the pyramid" market is, at a global level, very large in number. Public policy intervention is needed because there is an evident global failure in generating inclusive innovations, which benefit the poor and excluded. Traditional innovation systems therefore need to be reoriented towards meeting the needs of the excluded.

Professor Jaideep Prabhu of Cambridge University presented a series of cases of inclusive innovations, using the term "jugaad innovation", which he described as the art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources. Such innovators were characterized as being frugal, flexible and inclusive. In terms of policy issues, an important problem is that many inclusive innovations are difficult to scale up. Resolving this challenge required developing linkages and partnerships between small grassroots innovators, small organizations and larger science, technology and innovation (STI) stakeholders (including both industry and government).

Mr. Martin Aufmuth, the founder and President of OneDollarGlasses, presented the experience of this inclusive innovation in different developing countries. He quoted WHO statistics that about 150 million people worldwide need glasses but cannot afford them or do not have access to them. This clearly had detrimental effects on the lives of this excluded group.

The OneDollarGlasses initiative provides high quality eye glasses which are affordable, locally produced, robust and individually customized. The project's innovative character lies in the production, delivery and cost structure of the eye glasses. Local production in developing countries requires an important training element, building local competencies through a train-the-trainer model. From his experience, governments in developing countries play an important role in enabling the local use of the innovation through collaboration with the local Ministry of Health on legal and regulatory issues. Organizing the financing of the initial implementation stage of the project was also an important issue. Finally, finding educated and reliable people to collaborate on the project and continue to run it is critical for success and sustainability.

The Investment, Enterprise and Development Commission's discussion illustrated how in several developing countries inclusive innovation initiatives are already contributing to progress in areas such as poverty reduction, women empowerment and gender equality, resilience to natural catastrophes and access to health, education and other basic services.

Participants agreed that it was important for countries to secure an enabling environment for firms and other social and economic players to develop innovations that meet the needs of poor people and other excluded groups. STI policies had a crucial role to play by strengthening the capacity of countries to generate sustainable inclusive innovation.