When we were in Delhi a few weeks ago, we listened to a talk by Professor Anil Gupta, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedebad, and founded the Honey Bee Network -- an organization which collects and disseminates traditional knowledge and helps facilitate and spread grassroots innovation throughout India and elsewhere. We've been aware of Honey Bee's existence for a while (they began in 1990) but watching Professor Gupta's presentation offered a much clearer picture of the brilliance and sheer number of local inventions emerging in every pocket of the network's growing honeycomb.
The Honey Bee Network is supported by SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institution), which maintains the network's database of innovations, and offers logistical assistance in protecting Intellectual Property Rights for grassroots innovators and drumming up venture funding for their inventions. Professor Gupta shared some of the materials and papers developed over the life of Honey Bee, which includes an informative position paper detailing the motivation and mission behind the project:
The developmental paradigm has been dominated for at least half a century by the idea that the role of the state or civil society is only to provide what poor people lack. i.e. material resources, opportunities for gains in skills or resources or employment. Strategies fail to build upon a resource in which poor people often are rich: their own knowledge. So much so that the developmental lexicon in the last decade has adopted a term with great alacrity: ‘resource poor people’ – As if knowledge is not a resource, or as if poor people have no knowledge.
The knowledge systems that enable economically poor people to survive, particularly in high risk environments, have involved blending secular with sacred, reductionism with holism, short-term options with long-term ones, specialized with diversified strategies in individual or collective material, or in non-material pursuits. The environmental ethic of these communities has also reflected these.
The higher the physical, technological, market, or socio-economic stress, the greater the probability that disadvantaged communities and individuals generate innovative and creative alternatives for resource use (Gupta, 1988, 1991). These innovations, whether originating in tradition or using modern awareness, are evolved by communities as well as by individuals...Innovations in technological, cultural or institutional subsets often remain isolated and unconnected despite an otherwise reasonably robust informal knowledge network in existence. An extensive knowledge network that connects innovation, enterprise and investments in an institutional context is what appears to be the most viable approach for sustainable development in future.
So how does Honey Bee link the rural innovations that have for so long remained "isolated and unconnected"? It's not too far off from the process of the actual honey bee...while the later stages of the network involve plenty of modern technology, it all begins outdoors and on foot, when Professor Gupta and a collection of allies traverse the Indian countryside visiting villages and talking to "barefoot inventors" about their homegrown products, then cross-pollinating the ideas. Once found and linked, those solutions can be distributed and commercialized for use elsewhere with careful attention to protecting and recognizing the work of the originator.
Some of the projects Professor Gupta highlighted include:
Bicycle Hoe: This agricultural tool combines inexpensive bike parts and common farm implements to kick up the efficiency and ease of tilling and weeding soil. The initial design was a manual cycle, the efficiency of which was largely determined by the strength of the person in the seat, but a newer version attaches a moped engine to increase coverage even further.
Micro-windmill Battery Charger: This is a small portable wind turbine that can generate enough power while carried by an individual to charge cell phone or laptop batteries.
Pedal-Operated Washing Machine: A young girl from Kerala invented this human-powered device, which tumbles clothing in a sealed box without the need for electricity.
The highlight of Professor Gupta's talk was a series of short clips which were made in conjunction with the Discover Channel as brief features on grassroots inventors. The videos are fantastic mini-narratives that put clever TV style over simple innovations to form entertaining and touching vignettes. I am going to try to get links or files of a few of them and post them here, so check back. They're worth a watch -- each about 30 seconds. Meanwhile if grassroots innovation is your bag, the organizations that form Honey Bee's family (including SRISTI, National Innovation Foundation and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network) have abundant interesting material to dig through.
The pioneering work done by Prof Anil Gupta has a cascading affect not only on the grass root innovators but also on policy makers.Diversified India needs diversified instruments to tap the creative potential of billion people.
mmm ---- this is a countryside model; it doesn't seem like it would either stem the movement toward the cities, or solve city kinds of troubles.
I am very much impressed by this article. I particlualry like the idea about poor people's knowledge, which is no knowledge to many in the system. In fact their knowledge are so resourceful and innovative that is less comparable to 'academic' or 'professional' knowledge. If we can only value their knowledge we can make real changes in the world.