Why innovation and technology should be a bottom-up approach at the service of communities [Opinion]

Innovation should target local communities but attract global support. (Image via Pexels)

This article is an extract of the UN-ESCWA report entitled 'Community-based innovation and technology for improved social well-being' presented at the 'Expert Group Meeting on Innovation and Technology for achieving the 2030 Development Agenda'.

“In an age where community involvement and partnerships with civil society are increasingly being recognized as indispensable, there is clearly a growing potential for cooperative development and renewal worldwide.” (Kofi Annan, 2002).

The accuracy of this statement echoes in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Goal 11, that describes cities and human settlements as potential cultivators of innovation and drivers of sustainable development.

With each industrial revolution, many predicted that it will lead to better conditions of living for the masses. However, as time goes, we have seen that the gap and inequalities are bigger between the haves and the have-nots. Today, as we are talking about the fourth industrial revolution, many are threatened to stay behind, leading to more severe global problems. Therefore, innovative approaches are needed to solve the new emerging problems. Enhancing the skills, capacities, and knowledge of communities is the starting point to a sustainable society. Putting people of concern at the core of policies and actions is another key factor for achieving sustainability and social well-being. It is not impossible to live in a healthy world where poverty is eradicated; with increasing equality, pollution is at its lowest levels, cities are inclusive, conflicts and violence are eliminated, and people trust accountable public institutions.

In general, innovation is the implementation of a new way of achieving objectives and producing work. It can be completely new, a change into a current system, or something that already exists elsewhere and is implemented for the first time in the local context. This idea can be a product, service, policy, program, or a process. In the context of a community, the focus of innovation is on bottom-up approaches, such as grass-roots innovation, crowdsourcing innovation, social innovation or citizen innovation, stemming from the community, its members and civil society. It is rooted in the perception that the community has the local knowledge, understands the problem and knows which issues are the most pressing. Community-based innovation, can lead to the development of new, innovative solutions for the community, or to the adaptation of existing solutions to local conditions.

Context, context, context

Community-based innovation is grounded in community needs and aims to achieve a positive change for the community and particularly its most vulnerable members. Any alteration in a specific community should take into account its cultural values and base any intervention on them. From this, innovation must be based on the unique values of each community and aimed to preserve them. Such projects mobilize the resources of the community for the greater benefit of its members.

HarassMap for instance, was launched to engage the Egyptian society to create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated. Created in 2010 by four women, this initiative is a response to the problem of sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt, where very few cases were denounced. Using Ushahidi’s crowdmapping system, HarassMap allows victims of sexual harassment to pinpoint the location of the incident on a Google Map and describe the assault anonymously. This is a revealing example of how technology can be used and customized to our societies and cultures.

Innovation in times of crisis

Looking at our part of the world, we cannot turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by the internally displaced populations (IDP) and refugees. In such a context, we are seeing a shift from the traditional humanitarian aid, towards initiatives that are cash-based as it empowers and gives choice to the vulnerable populations.

More participatory approaches are being used to involve stakeholders and beneficiaries of aid in determining their own priorities and coming up with solutions that are context-specific. In the past decade, given this paradigm shift in tackling humanitarian crisis in dealing with beneficiaries of aid, a number of community-based innovations have surged aiming to tackle problems within camp settings, but also for host communities and for refugees in urban settings. For instance, in response to the crisis in Syria, initiatives have been created by local organizations and at the local level to support refugee integration into their new environment.

Startup Refugees is a community-based initiative in Finland, welcoming refugees and supporting newcomers’ ideas and transforming them into successful startups. In Germany, where over 50,000 IT jobs are available for grab, ReDI School of Digital Integration was created in 2015 to accelerate the refugees’ integration into society. In Jordan, UNICEF supported Zaatari Innovation Lab, which was created to mobilize youth and women in the refugee camp and help them innovate to serve their community.

Challenges

Development and sustainability cannot be achieved in the absence of good governance. Additionally, eradicating poverty and enhancing communal prosperity in the Arab region requires peace and stability. In short, good governance is key for development in any community. Arab countries fall short with accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, and control of corruption leading to civil unrest. Since the public sector is a vital factor in any local change, institutional barriers are one of the major reasons for failure of community-based initiatives. Formal limits are legislation, economic rules and contracts. Informal limits are social principles and codes of behavior.

Some believe that innovation (and technology) until now has pushed the world away from achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) and not closer. Today, the idea of social inclusion and citizen engagement triggered the process of community-based innovation, innovation that involves various ways of utilizing science and technology to achieve social well-being.

However, it is important to note that innovation (including community-based) is not a panacea for all our societal problems. It can be a source of divide, accentuate problems, and might have negative externalities. For instance, in developing countries, access to technology, internet and other services in urban areas, has led in some cases youth to migrate to cities; increased the rural/urban digital divide; and increased inequalities, inclusive within communities. Innovation for the sake of innovation can be detrimental to development efforts.

Social innovations that target SDGs can turn ‘bad’ and even ‘ugly’. Often, social innovations have a very short lifespan, limited interest in transferring them, and some social innovations do more harm than good. Many of the community-based innovations are local and cannot be scaled. So, they last a couple of years and die afterwards, if not sustainable financially. Often, such innovations are driven by one individual in the community, and is dependent on their ability to develop and diffuse it. Social innovations are most often services and not traditional commercial products, requiring a lot of commitment and resources and time to diffuse them and insure their applicability in vulnerable areas. As the impact of such innovations take time, often we find disengagement and reluctance from beneficiaries who are looking for short-term, quick fixes. One of the biggest paradoxes in terms of social innovations and community-based innovation for social well-being is that even proven innovations often fail when transferred to another context, yet for a social innovation to have a real impact and convey change, scaling is key.

The way forward

Commitment by public authorities must be both at the national and local levels. Moreover, collaboration with civil society and the private sector as key players in any community is essential to the success of any initiative. Therefore, mapping all stakeholders and ensuring support from public authorities are key conditions for a successful implementation of any a community-based innovation. A simple and concrete way to do so is to lead the way through social procurement. By buying their products and services from social enterprises and not-for-profits, the national and local authorities are sending a clear message and are helping the most vulnerable populations in a sustainable and cost-efficient manner.

Scaling community-based innovations might be the most important step for impact and where technology can play a crucial positive role. A key step is to study the drivers and enablers that ensure that the initiative will go to scale.

For instance, Baldati-Bi’ati was launched by the Nature Conservation Center (NCC) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2010, with the aim to better capture the social-cultural dimension embedded in nature conservation. What started as a pilot project, is now scaled to 80 participating village communities in Lebanon. Currently, it is undergoing a digital makeover, by becoming an app called Daskara. The app is centered on the local communities and will serve as a tool for everyone who wants to actively engage in conservation and sustainable development

A community-based structure implies that the community members are actively participating and their capacities, skills, and resources are recognized. This bottom-up approach is very different from traditional top-down approaches as it allows for real appropriation. Given the importance of context and the importance of local culture as well as community readiness, a one-size fits all approach to development and innovation cannot take place if solutions and actors are not embedded in the local community.

Given the urgency of the challenges faced by all countries in the Arab region in terms of development and social well-being, it is imperative to put in place mechanisms to encourage community-based innovation as local communities know best their problems and opportunities in their communities. Moreover, public authorities must encourage and support such initiatives and facilitate access to technology in all its forms as it is a key enabler to achieving the set objectives. The use of technology can facilitate and drive the scaling up of successful initiatives.

Finally, public authorities have a key role to play in ensuring local development and community-based innovations should not be seen as a way to transfer the responsibility of social well-being to the local community, but rather as an opportunity to achieve SDGs in cooperation with local communities.

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