The process of inclusion in innovation: a feminist perspective
Written by GeDIA member Andrea Jimenez // Lecturer in Information Management at the University of Sheffield’s Information School.
In the last five years, innovation has become a relevant concept in international development discourse and practice. One of the most significant moments happened in 2011 when Bill Gates addressed the G20 countries in a speech that said: “I believe innovation is the most powerful force for change in the world."
The significance of Gates' speech is multilayered. On the one hand, it is almost impossible to disagree with him. Innovation is perceived as something good, which we all desire. On the other hand, we cannot be sure that we all understand the same thing when discussing innovation. Nevertheless, innovation is framed as a solution to many of the world’s problems.
This turn in innovation development is evidenced by the generation of innovation principles developed by UNICEF and later adopted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UN Foundation, WFP, UNDP, the EOSG (Global Pulse), and others. It is also evidenced in many initiatives like UNICEF’s innovation labs, UNHCR innovation, a Global Innovation Fund (GIF), a Technology Facilitation Mechanism, and a Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation set up under the SDG process (ODI, 2016).
In academic literature, there has also been a recognition that theories and approaches to innovation are predominantly conceptualised in industrialised countries, and adapting them to other contexts can be problematic.
The problem was identified as an issue of exclusion: innovations from scientific, technological sources were rarely focused on the poor’s needs. Furthermore, people in lower socioeconomic levels were not considered relevant sources of innovation, either as producers or consumers.
This realisation encouraged a proliferation of concepts which sought to reflect innovation activity in the global South. The idea of inclusive innovation has been developed to shift away from innovation approaches that do not consider the poor in both the process and the outcome of innovation.
Inclusive innovation has been defined in different ways, but usually refers to ‘[…] the inclusion within some aspect of innovation of groups who are currently marginalized’. Also, it usually refers to phenomena happening in the global South.
What are the implications of framing inclusive innovation in these terms?
In my recent publication, I explore how women innovators are experiencing inclusion processes in the context of an innovation hub. An innovation hub is a space for people (mainly entrepreneurs) to connect, collaborate, and be inspired in a conducive environment. These organisations have been described as spaces that attract diverse members with heterogeneous knowledge. Their flexible structure and collaborative ethos have encouraged the spread of hubs both in the global South and North.
The paper draws on empirical evidence from two innovation hubs in the UK and Zambia. It uses interpretive research methods (including semi-structured interviews and participant observation) to understand how these women evaluate their work and experience at the hub.
To explore the processes of inclusion, the paper adopts the feminist concepts of situated agency and intersectionality. Situated agency has been developed to understand how human beings are always uniquely situated. Furthermore, given that women experience the world based not only on their gender but also on their race and socioeconomic class amongst other dimensions, intersectionality is used as a lens to understand such “situatedness”.
Through this, I was able to see that female members of an innovation hub in London (UK) felt that the hub had temporarily eliminated the structural constraints they had experienced previously. For instance, women who had previously worked in the IT sector were initially given benefits to integrate into the IT sector (scholarships, free training courses, etc.), as part of a campaign to have more women working in IT. However, after some time, these women experienced a glass ceiling — they were not able to get the jobs they wanted and saw their male peers progressing in their careers.
This is an example of how inclusion strategies fall short if they are framed to only include people in terms of quotas, without questioning the system that was not coded to be inclusive of women in the first place.
Findings were significantly different from the other case study of an innovation hub in Lusaka (Zambia).
The hub represented a space where women were challenging societal expectations of their role by choosing careers that were not usually perceived for them; other women experienced a degree of exclusion. Through an intersectional lens, I was able to see that women who felt welcomed and included at the hub were mainly coming from urban areas. In contrast, women from rural regions felt excluded. It was at the intersection of their gender and socio-economic class that these women were experiencing exclusion.
Based on these findings, I argue that the process of inclusion cannot be limited to temporarily tempering institutional and contextual constraints. Instead, I suggest that a broader structural approach is needed, one which looks at what excludes people in the first place.
In theorising agency’s situatedness through the constitutive nature of gender, race, class, and other aspects that shape our world, we can look at how the inclusive innovation discourse has been gendered through everyday practices and how it is rooted in context-specific socio-political frames of reference.
My paper is important in two ways:
Firstly, it fills the gap of empirical data on inclusive innovation, looking both at the global North and global South.
Secondly, it contributes to the operationalisation of inclusive innovation by adopting the concept of situated agency as an essential component of the social inclusion process, and the role that intersectionality plays in that respect. The paper provides a framework for looking at inclusion processes that go beyond merely including people in the market, and have principles of equity and participation.
For decades, feminists have worked on deconstructing different aspects of society that exclude women. This is an example of how adopting feminist lenses can help understand more about the inclusion processes in innovation for development. For more detailed information on innovation hubs, I suggest looking at the work of Nicolas Friederici, from the Oxford Internet Institute.
[This text is adapted from an original blog post previously published on the SIID website]