Innovation is about gathering, generating, adapting, and deploying ideas in performing jobs better—consequentially, creating economic value. Hence, innovation is not limited to formal R&D laboratories, the corporate world, magical products, and well-known startups. People at the bottom have been frequently generating and rolling out ideas to meet their urgency with limited resources. Grassroots innovations belong to the ideas of shaping and connecting matured technologies for implementing intuitive mental configuration with craftsmanship to perform jobs better. Such innovative activities are either performed by users themselves or nearby customized solution developers. They tend to begin with intuitive knowledge gathering, the urgency of performing jobs better, available technologies, and craftsmanship abilities.
Hippo Roller, a huge plastic drum that brings all the water a family needs in a day back in one trip by rolling it, is an example of countless grassroots innovations. For sure, this idea is far better than carrying 60 liters of water over your head or under your arms, every day, on three round trips. Like it, there have been many more grassroots ideas in action. Furthermore, many more are being rolled out every day. For example, as opposed to pouring water from a plastic bottle to plants, the idea of turning the bottle into a sprinkler through craftsmanship does the watering job better. Similarly, retrofitting an electric motor and battery to a rickshaw increases speed, productivity, and earnings. In rural South Asia and Africa, there have been thousands of such examples.
Despite a flurry of grassroots innovations— highly innovative people remain poor
As we know, the idea is at the root of creating wealth out of natural resources and labor. Hence, the density of ideas in performing jobs determines our quality of living standards. But if we carefully observe the way households in less developed countries have been performing their jobs, often, we will encounter their ideas in action. Despite the burst of ideation and immediate implementation at the bottom of the pyramid, the quality of living standards has not been improving at a rapid pace.
On the other hand, a few ideas have created large industries and huge high-paying jobs in some advanced countries. For example, a single idea of the automobile, credited to Carl Benz, has created a $3 trillion industry. Germany alone generates more than $500 billion from automobiles. Similarly, ideas of the camera, mobile phone, light bulbs, and many others have made a remarkable contribution. Such reality raises a vital question—why cannot grassroots innovations keep driving the economic uplifting of less developed countries, increasing their income and quality of living standards, making them high-income countries?
Origin of grassroots innovations—an inherent gift
In the preindustrial age, all innovative activities were grassroots innovations. Our ancestors used to rely on innate abilities of observations, analysis, memorization, synthetization, and experimentation for knowledge gathering. Like us, they also had the endless urgency of performing their jobs better. They were also as creative as us. In some cases, perhaps, they were more creative as we have lost a bit of it due to reliance on imported ideas and smartphone addiction.
They used to feed intuitively gathered knowledge and urgency to their creative process to produce ideas. Those ideas used to get implemented by craftsmanship. Often, end users themselves used to generate, implement and deploy ideas. In certain cases, the neighborhood blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, or glass blowers were used to implement, and generate ideas for them. Even today, farmers in rural South Asia and Africa visit their neighborhood blacksmiths to make purpose-specific tools to do their farming jobs better.
Hence, grassroots innovations are our by-birth gifts, through which we started the journey of increasing our quality of living on this planet. It’s our innate ability to extract value from natural resources and labor. Hence, by increasing the flow of ideas, we succeed to extract increasingly more value from the same amount of ingredients and labor.
Importance and limits of Grassroots innovations:
As explained, our ability to extract economic value from natural resources and labor started as grassroots innovations. Still today, many households in the less developed part of the world constantly coming up with grassroots innovations for addressing their challenge of survival. For example, to deal with the increasing water level, Bangladeshi farmers are finding floating gardens highly relevant. This is an example of the role of grassroots innovations in dealing with the water level rising, due to climate change effect. Similarly, fisherwomen of India have found grassroots innovations for vertical Oyster farming a useful means of increasing their income level.
But despite being a fertile ground for grassroots innovations, neither Bangladesh nor many other less developing countries are finding scalable economic growth paths from them. Hence, boys and girls have been deserting their parents’ journey of grassroots innovations for pursuing factory jobs in sweatshops. For example, as high as 4 million rural youths are now employed in export-oriented garments-making jobs in Bangladesh. Such a scenario is common in many other less developed countries. The plain and simple reason for such migration is comparative economic opportunities.
Despite the merits, numerous grassroots innovations are failing to cope with the economic value creation race. But how come advanced countries have been succeeding in outperforming all other means of economic value creation out of innovation? For instance, USA’s Silicon Valley is a remarkable example of creating economic prosperity out of innovations. Why cannot less developed countries turn their grassroots innovations into vibrant ground for driving economic growth?
Lack of scalability is weakening the prospects of leveraging grassroots innovations
Despite the role of grassroots innovations in creating wealth out of ideas, they are not scalable. Those innovations remain stuck. Furthermore, imported ideas, in the form of industrial products, are taking over them, resulting in the disappearance of craftsmanship jobs. For example, imported electric three-wheelers are taking over the jobs of rickshaws or bullock carts. Similarly, Oysters produced by precision-engineered vertical farms in the Western world are reducing demand for the export of Oysters grown by Indian fisherwomen. Similarly, craftsmanship-based floating vegetable gardens are failing to compete with the production of precision framings.
How to scale up grassroots innovations?
Many great innovation success stories, fueling high-income countries, are the scalability effect of grassroots innovations. Starting from the light bulb and steam engine, to the telephone, there have been countless examples. The difference is that they did not keep relying on intuition, matured technology core, and craftsmanship. Instead, they focus on the scientific method for discovering knowledge for creating a flow of ideas for incremental advancement and reinvention. They also kept replacing craftsmanship with increasingly precision engineering. For example, Edison’s light bulb started the journey of intuition-based experimentation and craftsmanship-based implementation, lasting just 3 hours. Incremental advancement through material science and mechanical engineering kept increasing its economic value creation ability. Subsequently, higher quality engineering and change in technology core led to CFL and LED—making them increasingly capable of driving prosperity. For leveraging grassroots innovations, we must scale them up.
Hence, less developed countries should link their science and engineering education to scale up grassroots innovations. Instead of gaining STEM competence just to work on operating and repairing imported machinery, less developing countries should focus on scaling up grassroots innovations. For example, the performance of floating gardens may scale up through sensors, software, and actuators. Instead of just focusing on importing ideas, scaling up grassroots innovations should get a focus. They could be the starting point for less developing countries to create increasing wealth from the flow of ideas,. It could be beginning of creating an idea economy.
...welcome to join us. We are on a mission to develop an enlightened community for making the world a better place. If you like the article, you may encourage us by sharing it through social media to enlighten others.