Impact and its social determinants

The social determinants of innovation and its impact are often even more important than the innovations themselves.

Muhammad Hamid Zaman July 28, 2014

Lately, there has been a surge of activity around ‘pro-poor’ and ‘frugal’ innovation in Pakistan. From solar-powered refrigerators that aim at keeping vaccines in the cold chain to bicycle-powered pumps that sidestep the need for grid power, there is a celebration of innovation that is aimed at solving some of our pressing, yet solvable development and health challenges. Despite the celebration and the initial flash in the pan, most of these innovations don’t quite change the status quo. Thus, just as we encourage these innovators, we ought to think about the future of these innovations and why they fail to have the impact that they promise. While a lot has been said and written about the lack of governmental efforts in promoting and sustaining frugal innovation, there are other important factors that also contribute to the lack of impact. While the responsibility of the government as well as the private sector can not be understated, there are other, often understated factors in the ecosystem that hamper the efforts of our social innovators.

The first challenge associated with frugal innovations, particularly in Pakistan, is that of success at scale. There have always been innovators, amongst our students and engineers, for as long as I can remember, who have come up with new tools to solve specific problems. They often use cheap materials, easily available resources and the solutions require little or no technical expertise to operate. Yet, somehow these solutions never catch on. They do not deliver on the grand promises they make. Part of the challenge is that these innovations, while promising at a very local level, have little potential to scale. While they may seem attractive, their performance over longer periods of time, the cost of manufacture at scale, the reliability in production, the precision in performance in harsh conditions and the model to recover the costs does not quite work out, making the impact of these innovations negligible.

The second challenge is associated with the lack of focus on demand creation. Innovators in our engineering and science institutions focus on technology development, and rightfully so, but ignore the needs, appetite, appreciation and demands of the end-user. The end-user — who in most cases is an abstraction of our imagination — is someone who in our minds is impoverished, poorly educated, socially isolated and desperate for our particular solution. The reality may be a lot different, or at least a lot more complex, if we care to look.

Third, in both innovation development and innovation implementation, we lack diversity. Our teams are often all male and represent disciplinary silos. I have yet to see an engineering team that includes a cultural anthropologist, a developmental economist, a local midwife or a local farmer. The business school teams are even worse in their attempted diversity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, frugal innovations in Pakistan do not provide a viable path in the upward trajectory of social mobility. With the lack of investment from the government, poor mentorship in institutions and minimal interest from philanthropists, the incentive to toil in solving some of the grand challenges of our time are just not there. There are little, if any, good career options for anyone who comes from a modest rural background in our engineering institutions, and wants to solve the problems of his or her native village. While he or she may be the best person to tackle the challenges head on, and may be the most qualified to convert innovation into impact, the opportunities for a better life will simply force him or her to seek other pastures.

When we discuss a grand vision for Pakistan, for 2025 or any other time, we have to recognise that higher education, innovation and impact do not operate in a vacuum. The social determinants of innovation and its impact are often even more important than the innovations themselves.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2014.

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