Monday, 17 November 2014

Africa: the use and abuse of 'innovation'

No-one wants to be heard to oppose 'innovation'.

It is not fashionable to suggest that the search for new approaches, whether in business or policy-making, can perhaps distract us from honest analysis of why conventional approaches are not working.

While the 'innovation!' cry seems everywhere at present, it is not often clear what it means to foster innovation in any field.

This is so, too, in relation to the issues often covered in this blog: the regulation of responsible business in developing societies, and the governance of public-private development cooperation.

Implicit in that call, of course, is a recognition that conventional approaches are not working. 'Old' approaches (for example, to promoting the rule of law in other societies) are often conceptually sound but face enduring barriers in practice. No amount of privileging innovation over implementation might be able to surmount these barriers. Yet the prevailing 'innovation' rhetoric can hold out the false promise that these barriers might be side-stepped altogether.

We hear a lot about the need and/or scope for innovative approaches to unlocking Africa's potential. I'll call this the 'innovation trend'.

In parallel is current rhetoric around Africa as a continent whose poorer and unemployed millions are best understood as would-be innovators and entrepreneurs. I'll call this the 'innovator trend'.

In development policy circles, the rhetoric of the innovation trend is undeniably positive. It supports a perspective that seeks potentially transformative break-throughs and short-cuts. The innovator trend is equally positive: it has an empowering intent that casts the continent's poorer people as having economic and development agency and potential, rather than as mere passive recipients or observers.

First, the 'innovator trend'. The goodwill that accompanies current portraits of the continent as full of latent 'innovators and entrepreneurs' has an unintended dark side. Many millions of Africa's rural and urban poor are not 'innovating' but simply trying to secure less precarious livelihoods; to cast them as incipient entrepreneurs is less condescending and opens the way for (self-)empowering approaches. But it can also represent a denial of the reality of poverty, and of the political context for addressing it.

I wrote on this recently in something published by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, South Africa: here.

Turning to the 'innovation trend', it is becoming rather skewed. By 'innovation' in African development is typically these days meant technological innovation, and increasingly digital / IT tech-based innovation. The field is attended by what I think is unfounded hype about the transformative potential of IT tech-based solutions.

In particular, much of the excitement around at present is based on unsound analogies that take mobile phone sector trends in Africa and, from these, project that the continent's new dawn is not only at hand and handheld, but is less than a finger-length away. This conversation suggests that if only the right technologies and ap's could be designed and scaled-up, in development and growth terms Africa would soon join Asia, and then overtake Scandinavia... This is not helpful even if it is uplifting.

I noted (or rather, ranted) in a previous post that one cannot necessarily 'leapfrog' all development, governance and growth problems in Africa simply by waving the wand of 'innovation'. Nor are there tech-based solutions to the political, policy and governance issues that are inseparable from refashioning whole economies and societies.

Innovation vocabularies in the African development context have a negative dimension. By placing emphasis on hopes for tech-based quick-fixes to enduring developmental challenges that require conventional reform efforts, the turn to 'innovation' rhetoric might in fact represent a form of fatigue.

If so, championing innovation also smacks of a form of desperation in the face of enduring conventional bottlenecks, barriers, deficiencies and dysfunction.

I am not saying that innovation is easy, only that development is hard...


ps -- here is a previous post, reflecting on how corruption is a form of 'innovation' -- a new way around systems that are not 'working' in the eyes of some who have their own motives. How does a society capture the evident social capital that fosters innovative corruption and harness it for pro-social outcomes?

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