Grassroots ICT4D Innovation

Innovation – especially that associated with ICTs – has often held to a rather traditional R&D model, with the innovation being undertaken in laboratories and research centres based in rich, urban locations.  Viewed from the perspective of those based in the world’s poor communities this is a top-down, outside-in approach.  ICT4D developed this way can often fail because of large “design—reality gaps“: design requirements and assumptions are inscribed into the technology which mismatch on-the-ground community realities.

A common solution to the problems of “laboratory innovation” has been “collaborative innovation”: research outsiders and community insiders working together in some way to develop a new ICT4D application.  Many donor-funded ICT4D innovations work in this way.  A key issue will be the nature of the collaboration and participation of community members: something that does not always run smoothly.

But the steady diffusion of ICTs and ICT-related skills into poor communities has enabled emergence of a third model.  This is “grassroots innovation”: innovation from within the community itself; akin in some ways to the patterns of user-led innovation identified by Eric von Hippel.

The design—reality theory of grassroots innovation is a positive one.  By creating innovation by and within poor communities, their design features will match community realities.  These innovations are therefore more likely to be successful.

That’s the theory, but what about the reality?  Where are the grassroots innovations in ICT4D?

These are questions that I’d invite you to comment on with pointers.

Some anecdotal ideas I already identified in writing about ICT4D 2.0 were:

  • New processes e.g. beeping (or flashing) that allows a message to be communicated without the call being completed.  Street vendors use this to receive free “I want to buy now” messages from known customers.
  • New business models e.g. use of airtime as currency has allowed mobile phones to metamorphose into mobile wallets.  Those who own phones in poor communities have therefore been able to use them for payments or for receipt of remittances from distant relatives.
  • New products e.g. back-street rechipping of phones.  Informal-sector enterprises are emerging that strip and resell the circuitry from high-end phones, replacing it with basic calls-and-SMS-only functionality.  They then sell the resulting high-end-body-with-low-end-organs as a unique hybrid for those who want the latest look but lack the budget to match.

The 2009 IDRC PAN-ALL conference in Penang threw up another new product: the “wokbolic” which can dramatically increase the range of local wi-fi hotspots using a wok, a PVC tube, and some tin foil; doing the job of a parabolic antenna for around one-twentieth of the price.  See: (Google Translate will make its usual “close but no cigar” job of changing the page from Bahasa Indonesia into English.)

These examples raise a couple of questions:

  • How scalable are these innovations?  Beeping and airtime-currency have spread like wildfire; but others may be more limited.
  • How grassroots are these innovations?  Some uses of mobiles that one sees are clearly developed by the individual users; but others like beeping are viral and came from who knows where originally; others still – such as the story of Pak Gun and wokbolic – are developed by those working with or within poor communities, but who themselves are not (or are no longer) members of those communities.

Nonetheless, as innovation goes hand-in-hand with diffusion, we can look forward to ever-more examples of grassroots ICT4D innovation.