Q&A with Gillian Marcelle, Executive Director, UVI Research and Technology Park

25 January 2017

It is becoming clearer that tackling urgent development challenges like access to affordable homes and clean water requires mixing and matching traditional and non-traditional sources of innovation and investment. UVI Research and Technology Park Executive Director Gillian Marcelle, whose varied career spans academia, commerce and development agencies, visited the UN's Commission on Science and Technology for Development, convened by UNCTAD on 23-25 January, to spell out how she sees the way forward.

Q: Tell us about being the executive director of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park?

A: The park is an economic development agency set up to attract inward investment into the US Virgin Islands, a territory of the United States in the Caribbean.

We have a small population of 100,000, so having an economic development agency with a mandate for inward investment has been an important part of the economic development strategy. Our agency specifically targets technology and knowledge-intensive businesses.

Q: How can we re-conceptualize innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

A: I have been an innovation scholar for some 25 years. One of the core issues on which I focus is the need for a conceptual interpretation of innovation that has meaning for the Global South.

Firstly, I think it's true that innovation is subject to a lot of bias: when people hear the word, they think of high-technology gadgets. That may seem innocuous but it means that the majority of people who do innovation for the majority of the world's people do not see themselves as innovators. We have constrained the word "innovation" to have a very narrow meaning. To re-conceptualize innovation is to think about it broadly.

Secondly, we need to think of innovation as a process. The folks who undertake investment, whether it's in a farm, a small business or a large corporation, do so because they have a desired result - either to produce a financial return, to change their circumstances, to solve a problem, to respond to a natural disaster - but all of these things result in something that is quantitatively and qualitatively different from where they started.

Thirdly, it is also important to look at the sources of knowledge we can draw on, not only from modern, so-called hi-tech research that is undertaken in universities but also from sources of knowledge that have been ignored or devalued and that are sometimes called "traditional" or "indigenous". We are now finding that these can actually be used to develop good services and new ways of doing things that are relevant to the communities where they come from.

Q: Are there new ways to finance the implementation of the SDGs? What are they?

A: It's not so much that we need to find new ways of financing the SDGs. I think the work that UNCTAD did on the Action Plan to finance the SDGs is excellent. What we need to do is mobilize existing sources of finance whether they are in formal capital markets or in informal financial structures.

I am originally from Trinidad and Tobago and we have lots of informal financial structures. The issue becomes "Are there ways in which traditional or non-traditional financial instruments work so that people can get financing to start up an enterprise?"

We have to find ways of making capital allocation decisions more relevant to the SDGs. What is termed a "goal" or a sustainable development area is also an opportunity. For example, the fact that there are millions if not billions of people without affordable housing means that there is a market and an opportunity to solve that particular need. It could come with new materials or new ways of construction or news ways of construction finance or all of the above. Then there is access to clean water, and so on. The most pressing developmental challenges have a flip side: if you go into those arenas, there is also a financial return to be made.

Q: What can the Commission on Science and Technology for Development do to promote innovation for the SDGs?

A: The CSTD has a very good reputation with developing-country member States. It is seen as a venue where there needs are given respect, where their voices can be heard and they can engage. This is a really important asset.