Efforts to promote sustainable development must tap into technologies developed locally, driven by community needs and priorities.
The products of modern science and technology (S&T), from chemical pesticides to carbon-emitting combustion engines, are frequently blamed — with some justification — for the unsustainable use of the planet's resources.
At the same time S&T offers a variety of tools for sustainable development — from forms of pest control that work with, rather than against, natural ecosystems, to cost-effective devices for producing renewable energy.
This creates a dilemma. We cannot reject technological tools in the quest for a sustainable future. But equally, without a radical transformation of how society defines and uses S&T, current patterns of growth and use of resources are unlikely to change.
Providing greater support for grassroots innovation in the developing world could be an important part of such a transformation: it encourages technological development from the ground up, and nurtures the creative and technical skills of communities.
Successful sustainable development requires tapping into the full potential of grassroots innovation to respond to locally-defined needs and priorities, applying technical solutions under the control of local communities and in a sustainable manner. But achieving this is not without its challenges.
This week, we publish a collection of articles that sets out this case in detail, highlighting the potential contribution of grassroots innovation to sustainable development, the obstacles that lie in its path, and how these might be overcome.
An introductory article by Adrian Smith of the University of Sussex in the UK and colleagues provides an overview of grassroots innovations — their basic characteristics, diversity and the sometimes contradictory ways of looking at this type of alternative innovation.
It lists a growing number of initiatives and networks that support local innovation across the developing world, and highlights some constraints on their capacity to promote sustainable development.
Three opinion articles highlight key aspects of debates that are currently taking place.
Lawrence Gudza, a Zimbabwe-based representative of the organisation Practical Action, argues that too many technical assistance projects fail because they do not respect the needs and priorities of the communities they set out to benefit.
Successful innovation, argues Gudza, requires a process of dialogue and engagement in which local voices are heard and respected.
Innovation specialist Tony Marjoram, formerly head of engineering programmes at UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), argues that grassroots technology must be given greater attention in the international development agenda.
From more advertising to better business advice to microfinance, says Marjoram, there is a lot that can be done to encourage grassroots knowledge and innovation.
Anil Gupta, founder of India's Honey Bee network, argues for new ways of protecting the rights of grassroots innovators.
This could be achieved through so-called 'technology commons' agreements — loosely based on the concept of Creative Commons that covers copyright on content published on the Internet — or a global pool of innovations that could be licensed to developing countries at a minimal cost.
Finally, SciDev.Net correspondents around the developing world report on a selection of grassroots innovation initiatives currently underway.
Not so simple
The picture painted by this set of articles — which inevitably provides only a partial glimpse of a vast area of activity — is both promising and challenging.
On the positive side, it reflects a revival of debates first heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s about alternative ways of achieving technological development.
At the same time, the debate on grassroots technology has matured substantially over the past 40 years. Gone are the days when 'small is beautiful' was, for some, the simple answer to the world's environmental problems.
Today, awareness of the need to think in terms of innovation systems at both a national and local level, and involving both high and low technologies, provide a more realistic view of the changes required for sustainable development.
But this new perspective comes with its own challenges. Systems of innovation are not socially or economically neutral. They reflect the values and interests of the political systems in which they are embedded.
Where grassroots initiatives seek to promote a community-based system of innovation that challenges conventional top-down approaches, they can rapidly run out of support from those whose interests are best met by the latter.
There is no easy solution to this. But one component must lie in increasing local empowerment, for example by opening up interaction with institutions (such as university laboratories) that can support this empowerment in the technical sphere.
Governments should create policies to allow grassroots innovation to flourish, for example through subsidy schemes, or community-oriented forms of intellectual property protection.
Communication technologies have an important role to play, in the way that they allow people to connect and learn from each other. Indeed, one of the main motivations for setting up SciDev.Net was to use the Internet to support grassroots movements by providing direct access to scientific findings.
The power of technologies such as mobile phones to facilitate knowledge-sharing between scientists and communities is increasingly evident.
Mainstream initiatives for sustainable development, such as government programmes to promote renewable energy, are missing out when they fail to tap into the potential of networks and creativity on the ground.
They need to catch up with this grassroots movement and harness local innovation in a systematic way to promote change on a larger scale, while respecting the conditions that allow such innovations to emerge in the first place.
These issues need to be on the table at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) being held in Brazil in June 2012. More importantly, they must be a key theme in defining whatever targets are chosen to succeed the Millennium Development Goals.