Enemies of Innovation

Dr. Calestous Juma's new book, "Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies" (2016), explains that this is a book Dr. Juma has wanted to write since his early engagement with innovation. That includes his founding of the African Centre for Technology Studies in 1988, being a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and co-chair of the African Union's High-level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and his current role of Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard. He is an avid Twitter user, for anyone interested to follow his work.

For some readers, this book is bound to be cause for (critical) self-reflection. For example, Juma opens with the introduction of mobile phones – technology that has potential health risks, yet has been universally adopted and enabled additional innovations in a range of sectors, from banking and health to education and communication. He contrasts that with biotechnology and transgenetic crops, which also has potential health risks, but "has been marked by controversy that resulted in international treaties negotiated to regulate trade" (p. 2). Juma explains that the book "argues that technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order and stability" (p. 5). The book is about technology and innovation, but also the socio-cultural and economic structures that enable or deter innovation, and why these exist.

The book covers a range of different technological innovations (farm mechanization, printing press, coffee, margarine, electricity, refrigeration, recorded sound, transgenetic crops, and genetically engineered salmon). The focus is not for or against, or weighing costs and benefits, of technologies, rather it is the broader context within which these innovations exist that Juma focuses upon: "Many of these debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety. But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged, socioeconomic considerations. This book demonstrates the extent to which these factors shape and influence technological controversies, which specific emphasis on the role of social institutions' (p. 6).

Juma concludes each chapter with lessons learned about each innovation, ranging from policy to regulation and politics and economics. As such, it may have appeal to a range of audiences. Consider this reflection: "Margarine represents one of the best examples of incumbent industries using legislative instruments to curtail or extinguish new technologies" (p. 117). Or, "the case of refrigeration shows that, contrary to popular belief, regulation can serve as a stimulus for innovation. In this case, many of the advances that made it possible for consumers to access safe and mechanical refrigeration resulted from regulation and new standards" (p. 198). The historical cases are less contested, as the debates have long since ended. I found the last two examples Juma presents (transgenetic crops and genetically engineered salmon) particularly interesting as they are yet to be settled. While the presentation of the issues and Juma's broader work situates his own positionality, these two chapters explore multiple sides of the on-going debates (not only the pro/con positions, but also the challenges faced by regulatory bodies and economic impacts related to export markets). On these on-going debates, Juma concludes that as "the world leader in biotechnology research, innovation and commercialization, the United States could set an example in the regulation of biotechnology innovations to ensure that society derives the highest possible benefit from these technologies in the safest possible way" (p. 277-278).

One component of the argument that Juma do not entertain in much detail is that of choice, and here an interesting analogy could also have been drawn to transgenetic crops. For those opposed to GM food crops, one of the key issues is choice, and thus advocacy for labeling to have the option to purchase GM or not. Embedded within this debate is that GM crops cannot be contained entirely, and spread (and therefore entire bans are advocated). While there are important considerations to be addressed regarding these concerns, it is interesting that mobile phone technology was not given as a parallel: one can choose not to purchase a mobile phone, but it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to electromagnetic radiation because of societal choices (the level differs, as it would with labeling options that allow for a small percentage of GM to be present in non-GM items).

The book concludes with notes on leaders and leadership: "The next frontier of leadership will focus largely on how society is prepared to respond not only to global grand challenges but also to new social problems generated by technological advancement and engineering applications. Leaders will need to be more adaptive, flexible, and open to continuous learning. They will be called upon increasingly to take decisions in the face of uncertainty and amid controversy" (p. 285-286).

  555 Hits
555 Hits

2016 UN Momentum for Change Awards

Applications are being accepted from 19 February to 25 April. Spearheaded by the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, Momentum for Change shines a light on the most innovative, scalable and replicable examples of what people around the world are doing to tackle climate change.

Who: Organizations, communities, cities, businesses, governments and others that are taking concrete action on climate change can apply to have their projects recognized as a 2016 Lighthouse Activity.

Why: If your project is selected as a winning activity, you will receive a wide range of benefits, including fully covered attendance to the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco; access to policy makers and potential funders during the conference; public recognition by the UN Climate Change secretariat; public relations support and media training; high-quality promotional videos and podcasts; a dedicated page about your project on our website; and graphic assets such as infographics and professional photography.

  567 Hits
567 Hits

NGO Lessons from Oshinsky’s (2005) Polio: An American Story

NGO lessons from Oshinsky's (2005) Polio: An American Story. Not a summary or review, but some thought provoking quotes:

Strategic planning and framing of the issue:

  • "No disease drew as much attention, or struck the same terror, as polio. And for good reason. Polio hit without warning. There was no way of telling who would get it and who would be spared. It killed some of its victims and marked others for life, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, breathing devices, deformed limbs. In truth, polio was never the raging epidemic portrayed in the media, not even at its height in the 1940s and 1950s. Ten times as many children would be killed in accidents in these years, and three times as many would die of cancer. Polio's special status was due, in large part, to the efforts of a remarkable group, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis [known to most as the March of Dimes], which employed the latest techniques in advertising, fund raising, and motivational research to turn a horrific but relatively uncommon disease into the most feared affliction of its time." (p. 5)

Being open to innovation from wherever it arises:

  • "The best idea, however, came from deep down within the ranks. In the late 1940s, several March of Dimes chapters had tried simple house-to-house solicitations, with encouraging results. Volunteers raised funds quickly by knocking on the doors of the people least likely to turn them down - their neighbors and their friends. In 1950 the local chapter in Maricopa County, Arizona, took this idea a step further. On January 16, at exactly 7:00 P.M., the city of Phoenix came alive. Sirens wailed, car horns sounded and searchlights swept the sky. Women appeared carry shopping bags and Mason jars. Their job was to canvass each neighborhood in the city, targeting private houses, apartments, even at the downtown hotels… advertisements had been placed in newspapers and in store windows, on billboards and on radio… Thus was born the Mothers' March on Polio… Why was the idea so successful? One reason, chapter officials noted, was that it appealed to the movement's natural constituency… Another reason was simplicity… The National Foundation took notice. Within weeks, it had announced plans for a countrywide Mothers' March in 1951, based on the Phoenix model but controlled from the top." (p. 87-88)

Identifying the institutional barriers, and a willingness to reinvent the model:

  • "Weaver saw polio research as applied science – seeking a specific solution to a particular problem. For him, the solution to polio lay in a successful vaccine, and the problem in developing on lay in the foundation's obvious failure to lead. For years, its grantees had been inching along on disparate, often esoteric projects, ignorant of each other's findings, and painfully slow to challenge the accepted truths about the disease. Not everyone fit this mold, but there were too many who did, Weaver thought. It was time for a change." (p. 113)

The legacy of errors:

  • "More than 200 polio cases were traced to six contaminated lots of vaccine. The victims included 79 vaccinated children, 105 family members, and 20 community contacts. Most were severely paralyzed; eleven people died. The rules for producing polio vaccine were quickly amended… The additions proved remarkably successful. There would be no more Cutter incidents. The Salk vaccine was safe and would remain that way, though public confidence was slow to return." (p. 237)

On leadership and vision:

  • "Bold leadership by a single philanthropy, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, would turn the fight against a cruel, if relatively uncommon, children's disease into a full-fledged crusade against an insidious public enemy, with the Foundation employing the latest advances in advertising, fund-raising and public relations to help guide the way. Bold leadership would bring together a band of contentious researchers, provide them with a place of attack, subsidize their efforts, force them to pool their findings, and – yes – favor the one among them who showed the greatest urgency in working toward a vaccine. Bold leadership would direct the largest health experiment in American history, the Salk vaccine trials of 1954, involving almost two million children and several hundred thousand adult volunteers. Bold leadership would give the people what had been promised to them in return for their continued support: a nation free of polio, a safer place in which to live." (p. 286)
  799 Hits
799 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email