Organizing grassroots innovations: Examining knowledge creation and sharing practices for technological innovation at the grassroots

Prashant Rajan, Purdue University


Grassroots innovations are creative technological solutions for problems occurring in local communities. The present study explains how individual members of local communities organize the design and development of technological solutions at the grassroots despite being severely limited in their access to technological, scientific and economic resources. The actors, sites and practices associated with grassroots innovation present unique opportunities for researchers interested in: (a) studying technology design for the purpose of achieving development; (b) understanding how knowledge is performed, created and shared outside and at the interface with formal organizational and epistemic boundaries; and (c) investigating the ethical premises on which individuals choose to contribute private effort toward the collective good. Contemporary research on the design of technologies for development overlooks the technological capabilities of grassroots community members by categorizing them as users rather than as independent designers of technology. This study addresses the paucity of scholarship on local epistemologies of technology design and use by identifying the ways in which members of grassroots communities collaborate to produce technological solutions for locally occurring problems. Based upon a critique of the literature on the design of technology for development and a discussion of the literature on the social construction of technology and the communicative constitution of knowledge in organizations, I establish a theoretical and methodological framework grounded in the observation and interpretation of practices of participation in technology development as manifest through artifacts, everyday routines and public rituals across multiple geographical sites. Data collection for this study involved ethnographic research conducted in India over three months across twenty five physical sites and two states. During the first phase of data collection I participated in a five-day shodh yatra on foot across 19 rural communities in India with members of the Honey Bee Network—a quasi-governmental organization involved in organizing the development of grassroots innovations. Leveraging the access gained to grassroots innovators and members of the Honey Bee Network during the shodh yatra, I conducted participant observation of eight key innovators as my primary informants. As a participant-observer, I lived with grassroots innovators and learned about the ways in which they develop novel, affordable technological solutions for problems in their local communities. In addition, I interviewed innovators' family members, peers and collaborators of innovators, within and outside the local community. Extensive archival data on the primary informants was obtained through the Honey Bee Network which provided access to documents and also organized initial access to the primary informants. Findings indicate that a variety of epistemic practices (Knorr Cetina, 2008) exemplify the situated, empathic and reflexive character of technology design at the grassroots. The development of grassroots innovations is often accompanied by an empathic design process in which innovators leverage their embeddedness in local communities to observe and reflect on users' technology-related behavior in naturalistic settings. Grassroots innovators are active in perceiving and actively seeking to address the needs of others. They generate incremental improvements in the functionality and aesthetics of technology artifacts through active prototyping. The actual design process rarely involves detailed representation or the use of precise measurements and calculations. Instead, innovators tend to rely on oral communication with close collaborators. The frugal use of locally available materials enables a high level of adaptation to the physical and social environment. Grassroots technologies can also be flexibly adapted to diverse heterogeneous use cases. The social organization of grassroots innovations indicates that grassroots innovators are not unaided in their efforts to develop innovative technologies. They acquire important instrumental (e.g., expertise, skills, capital) and relational (e.g., reciprocity, status) resources through early socialization into the family occupation, and participation within occupational communities whose membership is determined by caste and training. Innovation development requires the innovator to make increasingly public claims to important instrumental and relational resources embedded in the physical and social environment. The publicness of innovation depends on the innovator's ability to articulate collaboration with peers and external institutions in the empathic and participative sense of cooperation. Grassroots innovators frequently express the need for innovation in terms of a perceived responsibility toward their local communities. They may even eschew monetary benefits from the protection and sale of their intellectual property. Instead, many grassroots innovators freely reveal their designs to user communities and support the imitation of their designs by others. The preference for sharing knowledge in an open manner is associated with the adoption of an empathic cooperative or instrumental aid-oriented approach to collaboration. The organization of grassroots innovations represents a community-based and user-driven model of innovation based on empathy and social responsibility which problematizes rational, economic models of competitive innovation for profit that are prevalent in the industry and the innovation literature.




Kisselburgh, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Communication|Organization Theory|Sustainability

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