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.


8 thoughts on “Grassroots ICT4D Innovation

  1. I believe there are two types of innovation: the first is inventing some new product, service, process, etc and the second is finding alternate use of current tools for new purposes. I believe what you are describing here, in your article, can all be categorized into the second type.

    How these innovation arises I think is very dependent on the community social, economic, cultural, and education level. If a community thinks a technology is useful and can bring benefits to them, and when they encounter obstacles in using them I believe they will find creative ways to use them.

    Further example of this in Indonesia that I have seen is ojek (a motorcycle version of a taxi), motorizing rickshaw (becak) with old/unused motorcycle engines, students cheating on exam by texting their questions/answer to friends, creating video arcades using xbox/playstation/wii boxes, etc.

    I think inventors should have an open mind on how their invention will be use by their users. This is especially true for ICTD since most of the inventors/initiators are from developed countries while their users are in developing countries that might have totally different academic, cultural, economic, and social background.

  2. I feel enjoy to write and comment on such issues.

    I believe the modern society has been developed from the learning and practices of our ancestors. Modern skill and knowledge have been transfer from generation by generation. During the process of evolution of communities’ human tribe is a step ahead to store and distribute knowledge for their benefits. This process later on changed on modern school and universities. Unfortunately because of many reasons most people in this earth can not access those stored knowledge from the school (Access of education), since started the first step of becoming poor in knowledge and skill. This gap has been rapidly widening day by day since many hundreds of years. Now the world is divided in developed and developing world.

    So the root reality of development is from the innovation of communities. Furthermore modern development in the communication media has increased more potential opportunities for an innovation in poor communities. Also the lack of resources is another pressure for finding alternative solutions towards to making life enjoyable in the mountain to use technology.

    For example the communities of Nangi village have received second hand computer parts donated from abroad organization. Since we did not have cashing box. It cost 25$ for one computer cashing box and even we didn’t have fund for this propose. So we think wooden box can be an alternative. Now most of the communities’ school in our project area has wooden box computer. Being me a technical personal, theoretically wooden box can not be use for heat sinking propose and is not a solution. But these wooden box has been using by poor communities since 2003 without trouble (the temperature in mountain almost remain below 10 degree centigrade).

    So I agree with the point – In ICT – how end user (poor communities) use the technology is important point.

    Also we have much experience during the connection of wireless internet in mountain villages. There are lot’s of lab tested theories and methodologies recommended during implementation of wireless networking are not available in mountain. For this propose we have found our own ideas and alternatives for enabling wireless internet connection.

    During talking with this innovation issues I have one incident!

    In our project area we are providing VoIP phone services connected through the wireless internet services. Since the tele-centers are located in the middle part of village. Most of time villagers send their cattle (buffalo, Cow, Yak, sheep) in forest far from the village. The communication between herdsman and villager is an important. Since those headsman does not keep cattle in one place they are mobile so fixed wireless network is not solution for them. So we think about mobile VoIP services.

    I search in internet and found few devices from Korea. We tested them unfortunately those devicess can not work more then 400 meters far from our wireless base station having 2.4Ghz frequency.

    In 2008 I was in Tokyo and saw e-mobile devices from IIJ which can connect wi-fi network in longer distance. I thought it can be used in our wireless network. I explained my requirements to the technical person of IIJ but they said my idea is stupid because my requirements and needs are not matching with the theoretical concept of mobile technology as well as their business need and requirements.

    Although the discussion with them became fruitful for me. Because I get an idea of connecting wi-fi card USB card with the short distance wi-fi mobile and make one single integrated long distance VoIP mobile. It might not be important business tools for many developed countries but it is becoming an important tool for the farmers working in forest where they can access our wireless signal.

    In summary all alternatives that have been carried by rural communities will not be innovation but have lots of potentiality toward innovation.

    So theory and reality is very different in grassroots.

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