Theory of green grassroots frugal innovations



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There has been a considerable confusion created by many scholars who have not used the terms carefully and therefore, have made the task of cumulation of knowledge difficult.  Honey Bee Network has used the term grassroots innovations for last 25 years in a particular context of informal sector.  For the growth of knowledge, comparative research and theory building, it is most necessary that we use different terms precisely and with conceptual boundaries clearly defined. Theory of Grassroots Innovations refers to the framework of endogenous, unaided innovations by common people at community level [farmers, artisans, pastoralists, workers, fisherfolks and others] without any experience of working in organised sector or assistance from the formal sector.   Since these individuals and/or communities have to face high transaction costs, use much less external materials, most of the innovations they develop invariably happen to be frugal.  However, not all grassroots innovations are sustainable.  Majority of these are sustainable because of low external inputs, lack of irreversible impacts on environment and closer connect of th communities with the nature.

Therefore, we will need three different terms to characterise the innovations at, for and from grassroots.

a.  Grassroots innovations: Innovations by common people having no professional degree or diploma, self-employed, working in the informal sector and driven by unmet social needs.  These innovations have been tried by people without any outside help.  These may address one’s own needs as well as that of the third party.  Sometimes, grassroots innovators address larger regional or national unmet needs out of their strong empathy for the disadvantaged people, sector and regions.

b.  Innovations for grassroots:  These are the innovations developed by individuals or organisations for improving the socio-economic conditions of the communities and/or individuals at grassroots, i.e., in the villages or urban areas particularly disadvantaged areas / communities.
c.  Innovations at grassroots:  The innovations may be developed jointly by NGOs, formal sector or individuals in the informal sector or unattached professionals, companies in collaboration with local people [not necessarily local innovators].
We should distinguish corporate contributions from individual or non-profit organisations in category b & c.
It is desirable that formal sector [public and private] R&D organisations or corporations or govt departments work with grassroots innovators to take their ideas forward.  So long as original innovation developed at the grassroots level and without outside help, it will be a partnership between formal and informal sector.
I realise that in developed countries and transition economies, there may not be much informal sector.  Therefore, we may have more of the innovations in b & c categories.  We should make a note that many retired scientists, teachers, professionals or other workers from industrial sector or government may go back to the communities [rural or urban] and try to solve local problems as individuals.  Since they have been part of formal sector, we will treat them as professionally designed innovations for grassroots by individuals.  We will not include them under grassroots innovations because the relative difficulties faced by a person who has never been part of formal or organised sector cannot be compared with those who have experience of formal institutions.
These distinctions are important both conceptually and operationally so that the policies and institutions designed to overcome the transaction costs of various actors can be appropriately designed keeping in mind the respective strengths and weaknesses.
By mixing up these categories, we are confounding the literature and also making the task of future scholars more difficult because they will not be able to cumulate the knowledge with ambiguous, overlapping and sometimes confusing categories.
There is one more category [d] which is innovations in traditional knowledge by grassroots individuals/communities.  So long as innovative form, feature or function can be distinguished from the traditional knowledge and these innovations have emerged at grassroots level through the unaided efforts of communities and/or individuals, we can include them under grassroots innovations based on traditional knowledge.
If formal sector uses the knowledge of the communities [traditional or contemporary] to develop solutions for wider social use, it will be a case of asymmetrical, non-reciprocal innovations for grassroots.
I hope that with these definitions,  the future research can be sharpened.  Innovations by students of school developed by children can still be included as grassroots innovations if these are unaided. But innovations by college students will not be considered as grassroots innovations because of the superior access such students may have to the formal sector facilities besides having professional inputs in their education and mentoring.
The circularity [cradle to cradle] approach of zero waste and sustainable use of resources is often embedded in grassroots green innovations because of the tendency to use second hand components or bio waste in an affordable and sustainable manner.  But, by definition, one cannot exclude non-sustainable innovations by grassroots communities or individuals.  The clear distinction has to be made between innovations that have sustainable impacts and the ones that have not.  The frugality of innovations cannot be discussed in isolation of sustainability of products and services as well as the supply chain involved therein.  Mere affordability cannot define the frugality of innovations.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place

1 Comment

  1. Gaurav

    Very clear and informative information Sir esp the distinct features of the terms – Grassroot innovation, innovations for grassroots and innovations at grassroot – with simple examples. I also liked the example of school and college innovation.