Alternative technology niches – some reflections

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Twelve years ago I wrote an article that set my first, tentative bearings for embarking upon research into the actual and potential roles innovative grassroots activity might play in sustainable developments. The article has recently been re-published as part of a retrospective issue by the same journal. More interestingly, the editors also asked me to write brief  reflections on my research since then, and which I share here.

What seems important after a decade of study is the importance of interaction and contestation between diverse approaches to innovation for sustainability. Rather than looking for general models and best practices for sustainable innovation, research can fruitfully understand interactions and exclusions between diverse approaches. Without radical idealists, for example, the appropriable novelties available to institutionally constrained business would be fewer; and without problematic co-options within the mainstream, the idealists would have no ‘other’ against which to innovate. Since my 2004 article, I’ve been trying to trace and understand this more dynamic view of a plurality of contested innovation approaches. The importance of diverse values and approaches in innovation is critical. The more marginal, countercultural approaches introduce important diversity – but not exclusively.

Innovation needs subversion in order to thrive, and grassroots innovations can contribute spaces for being subversive. By this I mean providing opportunities to challenge dominant visions and values, to suggest other arrangements that are counter to the prevailing institutional orders, and to disrupt particular patterns of domination in society. That does not mean anything goes. Disruptions that are socially unjust and contrary to principles of sustainable development need to be guarded against, which is where diversity and interaction come into play again. Undertaken critically and reflexively, research that sheds light on these dynamics can hopefully inform a more self-aware and democratic innovation politics.

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