Resource Politics: Democratising innovation, data and knowledge

by John Thompson, STEPS Centre/IDS

During the Resource Politics conference I had the privilege of attending sessions addressing different aspects of what could broadly be described as ‘innovation for sustainability’.

Presenters and contributors talked of ‘inclusive innovation’, ‘grassroots innovation’, ‘socio-ecological innovation’, ‘digital innovation outside the system’, ‘open-access innovation’ and ‘transformative innovation’. They also described new forms of social and scientific organisation to foster this innovation – by creating, as Ed Hackett put it, ‘intellectual fusion’ – through ‘synthesis centres’, ‘mobile hubs’, ‘social innovation labs’, ‘change labs’ and ‘public labs’.

As people described it, innovation is about more than technological invention. It involves change of many kinds: cultural, organisational and behavioural, as well as technological.

Democratising innovation

As we heard in several sessions (and plenaries) in a world crying out for social and environmental justice, innovation holds great progressive potential. Yet there are no guarantees that any particular realised innovation will necessarily lead to positive outcomes for poor and marginal groups. Indeed, powerful forces too often ‘close down’ innovation in the directions favoured by the most privileged interests.

Therefore, as many people have argued here, harnessing the positive transformative potential for innovation for sustainability is not about optimising some single self-evidently progressive trajectory, but about collaboratively exploring diverse and uncertain pathways – in ways that deliberately balance the spurious effects of incumbent power.

In other words, what is needed – and what people have called for in the sessions I have attended – is a more realistic, plural and vibrant ‘innovation democracy’.

Democratising knowledge-making for sustainability

A second theme that emerged related to knowledge-making for sustainability, which essentially highlighted the ‘politics of knowledge’, both for – or in some cases, against – sustainability.

Presenters in several sessions I attended addressed this in different ways. Some shared their work on citizen engagement and communities of practice in relation to the democratisation of science and technology and knowledge-making for sustainability. They highlighted the potential for ‘open science’ to support ‘engaged communities’ through development of new tools and technologies for analysis and citizen action, such as the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ aerial photography for real-time monitoring of social, environmental and technological processes and practices described by Cindy Regalado.

They also stressed the need for ‘open data’ to encourage the widespread sharing of information and ideas, challenge the commodification of knowledge, improve accountability, overcome data divides, and enhance analysis and understanding of sustainability challenges.

Data: ‘the new oil’?

The ‘open data’ agenda was touched on in a several sessions, including the one on ‘The Digital Economy’. However, in that session, it was argued that “data is the new oil”, meaning that data extracted by private companies from our burgeoning use of mobile telecommunications has become as much a globally-traded commodity as minerals, timber or crude oil.

This poses huge dangers to our privacy – particularly as mobile technologies are not a public resource but are controlled by a massive, private-sector led industry. It leaves these data locked behind firewalls and open to capture, manipulation and sale to the highest bidder.

Several initiatives are now under way to develop clear protocols on data management and use that respect user rights to privacy and confidentiality under the title ‘responsible data’, so that people’s data can be used to inform and enhance processes that promote social justice, poverty reduction and sustainable development.

Alliances and coalitions

Others talked about the politics of knowledge as part of creating and maintaining global networks and alliances for sustainability science research and for citizen action, where shared knowledge and beliefs can be central in holding together ‘advocacy coalitions’ or creating and sustaining broader ‘epistemic communities’ to engage, inform and influence global debates on sustainability.

I had the pleasure of convening a panel session on ‘Assessing Global Sustainability Assessments’ with Erik Millstone, Clark Miller where these issues were discussed at some length. Those sessions included reflections on the need to rethink the role of ‘expertise’ in knowledge-making in complex global governance structures addressing sustainability challenges, as the question of ‘who is the expert?’ and ‘what role should the expert play? remains highly contested.

Framing ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’

Whether we look at this knowledge-making issue from above or below, it is clear that we must not shy away from recognising how political cultures influence the way sustainability problems are framed and how sustainability ‘solutions’ are defined within particular governance arrangements and socio-technological regimes.

Sustainability has always been and will remain centrally about democratic struggle; about a clash of ideas, values and interests; about competing epistemologies and ontologies.

With that in mind, we need to find new ways to engage, analyse, document and learn from the changing politics of innovation and politics of knowledge-making if we are to find pathways to sustainability that are truly transformational. I believe this conference has offered us some valuable and timely insights that will go some way towards helping us achieve that aim.

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