Technology innovation systems

Market systems are not just about economic transactions. They are also about social relationships, collaboration, competition, influence and exchanges of data, information and knowledge (hereafter referred to simply as “knowledge”). Knowledge, in turn, can exist in different forms: codified in words or images (explicit knowledge), as skills or know-how (tacit knowledge) and as socially accepted norms or rules (implicit knowledge). Hard and soft technologies (or techniques) are the products of different types of knowledge, but are also drivers of new knowledge when we use them or interact with them.

It is therefore very important that when we think about market systems, we also consider the transfer and trade of knowledge as a fundamental part of them. We must recognise the sources, intermediaries and users of knowledge - as their ability to produce it, exchange it, access it, adopt it and adapt it to local circumstances determines how innovation happens in market systems and who benefits from it.

Before moving on, it is important to clarify an important distinction between innovation and invention. Whilst invention is the process of coming up with a new idea, innovation is the process of putting that idea into the hands of a large number of users. Innovation cannot exist without markets, and markets cannot adapt and survive without innovation: they are two sides of the same coin.

In practice, the facilitation of more inclusive and “greener” innovation systems (in the context of market systems) starts with the understanding, selection and engagement of stakeholders  who play a part in the production, circulation, adoption and adaptation of knowledge. These may be researchers, local schools, universities, vocational training institutions, local journalists (and the media as a whole), veterinaries and agricultural experts. Market actors who provide information or advice during a transaction (embedded services) can also be important and appropriate sources of valuable knowledge, especially for isolated or dispersed producers. These “knowledge actors” are frequently overlooked by practitioners who focus solely on the transfer of material products within a market system.

“Development does not start with goods; it starts with people and their education, organisation and discipline.”

E.F Schumacher Small is Beautiful p138 (1993 edition)

As an organisation built on Fritz Schumacher’s ideas on appropriate technologies and people-centred economics, it is critical for us to better understand how technology is transferred, accessed, used and exchanged.

The flow of technologies and knowledge in society depends to a large extent on market dynamics and policies. Therefore focussing explicitly on the idea of innovation systems allows us to contribute to the progress of Schumacher’s ideas on appropriate technology from a markets perspective. It allows us to move from the questions of “what technologies and techniques are appropriate in a given context and how development agents can transfer them” to questions like “how can marginalised producers be empowered to identify and acquire the technologies and knowledge they need” or “how can market actors change the market structures and policies to improve access to new technologies or adaptation or techniques more efficient and effective”.

Our experiences in Sudan give us fascinating insights into the importance of Technology Innovation Systems. The Sudanese office of Practical Action has been involved over the past few years in promoting the transfer of pro-poor technologies such as water purification and gum Arabic harvesting tools, through a Technology Network that they established. The approach that they took to technology transfer provided us with valuable lessons about our role as NGO, and the importance markets have in that process – rather than simply using an approach of “trying to get the technology out there”, what became evident was that when it comes to appropriate technology, it is critical to pay attention to the structures and dynamics of the markets linked to a particular technology; to recognise that markets are not just a bunch of economic transactions, but that they are embedded in a complex web of social and cultural norms and subjective perceptions. In other words: appropriate technology cannot exist without appropriate markets.

The case of a drill to harvest gum arabic drill became a particularly interesting example. To reduce the environmental impact of harvesting gum arabic using an axe, a drill was invented that mimicked a long-horned beetle by producing a small hole in the wood that sap could seep from.  We helped the company to develop and promote the tool; however it quickly became apparent through testing that it didn’t work in practice. Despite this, due to the distribution network already in place, a large number of tools were produced and promoted by the company, before it was eventually scrapped. The case highlighted not only the socio-economic and political interests that can affect which products are taken forwards, but also the risks created by an NGO providing technological inputs to a single actor, without a good understanding of the actors and forces in the wider system.

The cases described in the study are useful because they provide examples of the kind of things that can go wrong in processes of technology transfer when we do not use a market systems approach. We documented these as part of our own learning process and to promote reflection amongst development practitioners and those interested in technology and innovation.

Innovation Dialogues

Facilitating the development of market systems where innovation is open to the voices, needs and potential of marginalised producers is not easy, but it is not impossible if we integrate the principles of PMSD and common-sense development thinking and practice into our interventions.

Innovation Systems in Practice

We have been making progress regarding our understanding of how innovation happens within market systems. A recent example of this can be found in Sri Lanka, where a series of workshops and conferences brought together researchers, journalists, practitioners and government officials in the fields of lagoon fisheries and organic native rice, to develop and improve the ways in which market actors access knowledge, and how they use and adapt that knowledge to their needs. They also focussed on how journalists can contribute, by translating the knowledge into something useful and making it available to a wider range of actors. Since the workshops were set up, both fields have seen marked improvements. In the lagoon fisheries, institutional frameworks have been set up to train the fishers to use more sustainable practises, therefore reducing conflicts with the local wildlife authority.

Another example of technology innovation systems in practise can be found in Peru where, to tackle youth unemployment, a team facilitated the improvement of knowledge transfer and accreditation for young people in agriculture by standardising training methods, and certifying their training with recognisable qualifications. As a result, despite this relatively “unconventional” approach to transforming a market system, the young people involved in the study have become more socially accepted, and started to view agriculture as a viable and even lucrative career path to follow. Read more about this case here.

If you are a practitioner, your feedback on Technology Innovation Systems is invaluable to us. What is your experience of using them, and what comments or suggestions do you have? How useful have you found this information, and is there anything missing?

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To contact us please email with "FAO the markets team" in the subject.

Read the report of a training session on how to use PMSD and Market Mapping to assess technology needs and blockages, and to devise strategies to address them. This workshop was commissioned by the UNEP/Risoe Centre’s Technology Needs Assessment programme and it was held in Costa Rica in Feb 2011.

View a slidecast from our former Director of Policy, Andrew Scott, talking about the evolution of technology within Practical Action, and how are moving from NGO-driven technology transfer to innovation systems.

Read a paper about learning capabilities for effective innovation in market systems. This paper proposes a framework to understand what the key basic skills and capabilities are that people need, from a learning perspective, to participate more effectively in the innovation process.

View a slidecast by Raphael Kaplinksi, Professor of International Development  at the Open University workshop on user led innovation.

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