How can grassroots innovation improve democracy?

Mike Childs

28 November 2016

In this thinkpiece for Friends of the Earth's Big Ideas Project, Professor Adrian Smith and Professor Andy Stirling explain the importance of grassroots innovation and innovation democracy that helps, rather than hinders, sustainablilty.

Innovation has more of a transformative change on society than governments and laws – that's the subtext of a think-piece by 2 professors at Sussex University for Friends of the Earth's Big Ideas Project.

Yet, argue professors Adrian Smith and Andy Stirling, it doesn’t have the same democratic oversight.

That's why they celebrate grassroots innovation not just because of the positive role it can have for the planet and for people, but because they see it as part of a necessary form of grassroots democracy.

Download grassroots innovation think-piece (pdf)

But before we explore how grassroots innovation can be important for grassroots democracy, here are 5 great examples of grassroots innovation in practice:

  1. Makerspaces, hakerspaces and fablabs: these are what they say of the tin, places where you can go and use kit to make stuff, with a focus on collaboration and shared learning. The kit they have will vary but could include 3D printers, laser cutters, automated machine tools, soldering irons and even sewing machines. Not only do they increase access to these tools, as part of a sharing culture,but they actively encourage ideas and innovations to be shared freely. In the UK there were around 100 makerspaces in the UK, according to innovation gurus Nesta.
     
  2. Incredible Edible: started as an idea by Pam Warhurst and friends in Todmorden to get people to start thinking more about the space in their town and get them active in reclaiming space through planting shared vegetables and fruit. Now repeated across the world it is, as Pam says, revolutionary in outlook, creating community and democratising space.
     
  3. Open-source software – in a world seemingly controlled by Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook, the idea of advert free open-source software is hugely attractive, especially if we want to keep our data private. The global grassroots community of open-source software writers are a shining light of hope. Every year opensource.com provides its top 10 of the year.
     
  4. Loomio: inspired by the Occupy movement for inclusive decision-making, Loomio is a free digital tool to help people make good decisions together when you can’t meet with all the stakeholders and interested parties. More than 75,000 people have made more than 25,000 decisions on Loomio.
  5. Community energy: grassroots innovation in Denmark kick-started the renewables revolution back in the 1970s. In Germany and Denmark there are now over 1,000 energy co-operatives in each country, and in total almost 3,000 across Europe. According to a study by Friends of the Earth and others, over half of EU citizens could be producing their own electricity by 2050, in what Friends of the Earth calls energy democracy.

    The next big step for community energy innovation is likely to be in energy storage. Options for energy storage include the fast-falling cost of batteries but also utilising existing storage solutions such as hot water tanks, as Great River Energy cooperative is pioneering.

These examples illustrate that grassroots innovations are political, in that they are trying to reshape the world to some degree.

They are also community-based, bringing people together to tackle problems and generate solutions. It is a very different philosophy than an individualistic mindset.

As Smith and Stirling say in their paper, using the example of a water-powered renewable energy project “the community group will have to constitute itself and attract members. They will have to learn about the technology options, and begin the demanding task of raising funds and securing permission to develop a suitable section of their local river. Throughout, they will need to reinforce commitment, maintain solidarity, and have the emotional stamina to keep going.”

Grassroots innovation is therefore community-building and is more likely to develop value-sets that go beyond just making money.

Grassroots innovation isn’t always straightforward. In trying to do something different it will come up against the barriers – often rules and regulations but also mindsets – that have been designed to protect incumbent technologies and ways of doing things. Grassroots innovators therefore soon become, and have to become, advocates for change and therefore politically active.

Important to Smith and Stirling is how grassroots innovation can expose the injustices of current systems both through innovations emerging from marginlised groups – such as the disability movement winning the battle for tactile paving and lowered curbs – and/or through innovation infrastructure being accessible to all (such as makerspaces, etc).

The challenges we face if we want to give future generations the conditions to thrive therefore not only requires grassroots innovation to be a massive, largely untapped repository of ideas and knowledge, but also the process of grassroots innovation must be important for shaping communities and values.

For example, grassroots innovation can lead to healthier and more vibrant democratic impulses through individual participants needing to show openness about their intent, the need to negotiate common approaches (and therefore understand the motives of others), and more fully considering how the innovation may be seen by others different to themselves.

Smith and Stirling identify 5 main areas for action, if grassroots innovation is to reach its potential. These are:

  • Culture. We need an innovation culture that is open-minded and capable of listening to and understanding the needs and aspirations of communities. Currently too much innovation is profit-driven with too little regard to these needs. Greater use of deliberation methodologies at an early stage of innovation would help shape innovation toward societal needs.

    The synthetic biology deliberation aid developed by Friends of the Earth, Forum for the Future and BBSRC is just one example for how a culture of deliberation and reflectiveness can be supported. But more fundamentally, a culture of open-source innovation needs championing. Far too often grassroots innovations with a clear social purpose are readily snapped-up by patent-loving giant corporations and moulded for other purposes.
     
  • Infrastructure. Cities in particular, because of their density of people, have a great potential to develop a new public infrastructure for the 21st century through the provision of spaces as innovation hubs, such as makerspaces, fab-labs, etc. But there are also already underutilised facilities that are closed to local communities, for example university or private sector laboratories. Opening these up to communities could be transformational.
     
  • Training. Elsewhere in the Big Ideas Project we have been highly critical of education systems that do not engage and prepare students to be political engaged citizens (pdf), or that stifle creativity through focusing on testing and squeezing out space for the arts and exploration (pdf). Here it is clear that separating out academic subjects and practical projects is wrong-headed as it is the melding of knowledge in groups that leads to innovation.
     
  • Investment. Crowd-funding offers new opportunities for innovators. It emerged in part because banks were conservative in their thinking and had a mind-set that favoured incumbents. But state funding can also help; for example in India the National Innovation Foundation which works with the Honey Bee Network of grassroots innovators to identify projects to fund.
     
  • Openness. Grassroots technologies often come-up against barriers which preclude their success or hinder their ability to develop and grow. Often these may not be deliberate barriers. For example in the community energy field in the UK the ability to sell electricity to customers could make a huge difference to finances. According to New Leaf Solar, while this isn’t explicitly forbidden, it needs legislation to make it simple and affordable. Governments therefore need to be open to rewriting the rules to create an enabling framework for grassroots innovation.

There is one clear message from the think-piece by Smith and Stirling: if we want to pass on a decent future for the next generation, we need to champion and support grassroots innovation.

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Big Ideas Change the World is a Friends of the Earth project. It seizes the biggest ideas out there for enhancing our lives, preventing the mass-extinction of species and looking after the planet.

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