Grassroots innovation is a terminology where many Malaysians have misinterpret as rural innovation, including some of my younger colleagues in Malaysian Innovation Foundation (Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia – YIM), a non-profit organization entrusted to support the development of grassroots innovation in the country.
This misinterpretation might arise due to the incomplete transfer of knowledge about grassroots innovation movement obtained from 2011 YIM’s visit to India’s National Innovation Foundation, a non-profit organization that drives grassroots innovation movement primarily to support rural communities, particularly poor farmers with novel untapped knowledge.
With the starting of current Eleventh Malaysia Plan program namely Mainstreaming Grassroots Innovations (MaGRIs) entrusted to me in my capacity as program director at my workplace, I therefore did a thorough research on this terminology to design the program for optimum implementation.
This program is intended to scout and develop potential grassroots innovations including identification of its commercial opportunities. Along the way, innovators will also be equipped with necessary skills and knowledge to enhance fundamental knowledge of innovation development and commercialization, thus creating more talented, experienced and qualified grassroots innovators for the country.
To have clearer perspectives of grassroots innovation, I first searched for the origin of this terminology and found it first appeared in research reports on Olson, John; Eaton, Sandra, 1986: Case Studies of Microcomputers in the Classroom. Questions for Curriculum and Teacher Education. Education and Technology Series. This is a 12-month research authored by Ontario Inst. for Studies in Education, Toronto aimed to study teacher response to computer innovation in the classroom in order to explore the possibility to start computer studies as a new curriculum in classroom or simply use it as instructional tool.
The second appearance of this terminology that I found is on Odasz, Frank B., Comp.: 1990 Big Sky Telegraph: Telecommunications Guide to Community Action. Originated from Canada and Montana, U.S. respectively, both papers were intended to create educational materials and knowledge by adopting grassroots innovation approach.
Later along the years, more authors became serious about grassroots innovation movement. Some notable ones are Anil K. Gupta from India (1996), Adrian Smith from U.K. (2003) and Dr. Gill Seyfang from U.K. (2007) who are still driving this movement until today. Of course Malaysia jumped into the wagon in year 2011 and one author who wrote about this is MF Hilmi (2012).
So what exactly is grassroots innovation?
There are various views on the term grassroots innovation. According to a Malaysian MF Hilmi (2012), grassroots innovations are innovative product or process created at the bottom of the pyramid, usually due to necessity, hardship and challenges. Whereas for more developed nations like U.K., grassroots innovations are community-led solutions for sustainability that offers promising new ideas and practices, but often struggle to scale up and spread beyond small niches.
To me, grassroots innovations are novel solutions often created in an unconventional settings and addresses issues neglected in mainstream context. It has characteristics of novelty, bottom-up approach and community-focused with the objective to achieve sustainability that respond directly to the interest of local community. Community mentioned here may not necessary have any relevance with rural community. It can also refer to youth, women, entrepreneurs, mothers, nurses, white collars, graduates, hikers, students and many other communities you can think of.
Let me quote an example from an innovation created by one of our Malaysian nurse Puan Rusmira Ramli to solve the problem faced by patients in her ward. The community here refers to the “patients” and the innovator is the “nurse”. We all know our government hospital’s wards are always crowded. Regardless of whether you are a nurse, doctor, patient or even visitor, somehow or rather you will need to take extra care when moving around the ward with so many equipment blocking the way. Patients often encounter the hassle to drag the drip stand along when moving around, therefore Rusmira innovates a “portable drip hanger” to ease patient’s convenience but also indirectly allow more space inside the ward.
The solution is novel (can register for intellectual property), community-focused (focus on patient’s inconvenience), created in an unconventional setting (in hospital and not lab) and developed with the interest of local community (patients in her hospital). But the question is “can this innovation sustain”?
Because it is so easy to copy the design, it poses greater challenge to widely commercialize her innovation. Investors may not be willing to adopt this technology as the risk of being copied is high. Without element of sustainability, it fails to fit in my personal definition of grassroots innovation. I am not saying it is impossible to achieve sustainability, but it may require more time to make this happen – or perhaps a business innovation need to be developed.
Like the word innovation, sustainability is another buzz word used by many in the 21st century. Everything that we do should conform to sustainability in all aspects. It is basically explained as the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. However, solely defining sustainability as something “indefinite” is not sufficient anymore.
Sustainable development is defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” by The World Commission on Environment and Development’s. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Some categorized sustainability into 3 pillars consisting of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. To me, sustainability is a balancing act. It is all about balancing between hierarchy of importance of 3 pillars while meeting the needs of the unmet. Debates always arise when there is a conflict between these pillars, therefore the art of balancing plays a significant role on deciding which pillar(s) of sustainability your grassroots innovation should deliver.
With Malaysia moving towards developed nation by year 2020, it has never been so pressing to achieve technology commercialization to increase wealth of the nation. But can grassroots innovation really creates wealth?
Let us look at the case in India’s National Innovation Foundation which has accumulated a database of over 225,000 technological ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices, file over 743 patents and 193 ideas received Micro Venture Innovation Fund. By looking at this statistics, it may indicate less than 0.1% of the ideas are commercially viable. Despite received over 950 product inquiries from 108 countries for various technologies, it only announced the successful materializing of 89 technology licensing cases. This further implies not all grassroots innovations can create wealth.
To materialize more wealth creation through innovation, business innovation has to step in at the early stage of development. It can be as early as idea stage so a structured innovation development model can be designed to meet both social and commercial purpose; without sacrificing the need to solve intended problems.
In MaGRIs, we instill innovators with business mindset in the early stage of development. Throughout innovation development process, all innovators are required to attend business coaching to gauge commercialization fundamentals. Of course, I wouldn’t say this model is 100% viable but it definitely adds some booster to achieve commercial success.
There is an imperative need to change the perception of Malaysians about grassroots innovation to allow expansion of the movement beyond rural communities. I believe there are still many innovators who live among their communities and innovate, where some may not even know their solutions are novel. Therefore, it is important to spread the word of this movement to motivate, protect and reward them should there arise any income generated from commercialization of their knowledge.
Grassroots innovation is a continuous journey and it might be the solution to future sustainability should the nation starts embracing it. I urge all Malaysians to share this article to inspire more novel knowledge providers to come forward with their innovations and make Malaysia the hub of grassroots innovation.
(Content posted here is my personal opinion and does not represent any organization)