July 3, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

The Missing Ingredient: Capacity Building’s Role in Developing Responsible Innovation Systems

This is a guest post by Patrick Backhouse who is an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter Business School. Patrick has been studying responsible innovation as part of a module led by Dr Katie Ledingham. This blog post is based on an essay that he wrote for this module.


Responsible Innovation (RI) is a concept that has been used in developed countries to invigorate public involvement in research and innovation for about fifteen years. Successful applications of RI can be found in geoengineering and nanotechnology. Efforts are now being made to also use this research and innovation process in the Global South in order to stimulate more responsible innovation in science and technology, ensuring technological developments are appropriate for these populations. There are various obstacles to the deployment of RI in the Global South which I’ll discuss in this post. The presence of these obstacles draws on the critical role of substantive capacity building in this space.

“It is inevitable, it is progress, but it is socially destructive”

The quote above from world-renowned academic Stephan Hawking offers an explicit warning about the impact of technological advances in exacerbating global inequalities. Technological progress in low and middle income countries is often accompanied by a ‘breathless enthusiasm’ with a belief that it will relieve poverty and foster economic prosperity. Yet, innovations are often not the ‘panaceas’ they are thought to be and developing nations have too frequently been plagued by the transfer and implementation of technologies that not only fail to deliver intended benefits, but exert a detrimental impact on the world’s poorest populations.

As technology oriented collaborations between the Global North and South grow, supported by new infrastructures including the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), it is imperative that these approaches do not repeat the failures of the past and that diverse perspectives from different regions of the world are heard and acted on in order to deliver appropriate technologies.

Responsible Innovation: A Western Philosophy with a Missing Ingredient

Responsible innovation (RI), presents itself as an elixir to mitigate against inappropriate technology in the developing world, calling for upstream engagement with multiple stakeholders to create innovation trajectories that better serve the needs of society. The principles of RI are still in flux but its central tenets include an Anticipatory, Inclusive, Reflexive and Responsive approach to innovation.

Attempts to implement RI in developing countries are underpinned by a number of key challenges, emphasising the problematic reality of this philosophy and its largely Western foundations. For policy makers in the developing world, RI and its conceptual ancestors have been described as a ‘luxury’, available to high income nations who can afford to place risk assessment before economic reward.

An alchemist I am not, but if RI is to be the magical potion that it is often presented to be, the continuation of inappropriate technology transfers in the Global South reveals a missing potent ingredient– capacity building. The concept of capacity building has previously been linked to a training and education revolution to expedite the advancement of science and technology agendas set by narrow interests. Yet, a more radical approach to capacity building, directly catering to the advancement of RI and the realities of low and middle income country contexts is required. The development of these new capacities will give actors the ability to overcome the barriers to engage in responsible practice, whilst also remoulding the institutional norms that currently place technologies for the poor as a second order priority.

Understanding Power Realities

Established power differences between actors within the innovation system in the Global South represent a substantial barrier to the implementation of RI. These power asymmetries have resulted in those sitting in the upper echelons of society dictating innovation trajectories, turning public deliberation under RI into a merely tokenistic practice.

Challenges to implementing RI in developing countries can, in part, be placed down to historic inequalities that have left these nations with a continual desire to be recognised as an equal player in technology and innovation spheres. These unequal global relations have been vital in dominating an innovation trajectory that sees the politicians of these nations striving for gestures of technological progress and development, in place of promoting a review of these technologies through a responsible lens.

Political will has often usurped the interests of local publics within developing countries, demonstrated by the government backing of GM mosquitoes in Brazil, favouring an opportunity to harness political capital over the interests and concerns of the local population. More recently, the creation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development by the African Union recommended that Africa should invest in the development of gene drive mosquitos to tackle Malaria. Despite stating the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to implementation, the narrative on capacity building is focused on science and research capacities which serves only to advance a pre-defined technology trajectory rather than opening it up to multiple voices and alternative trajectories.

Tackling these power differences requires mechanisms which can bring the voices of publics to the table in meaningful ways and dismantling established hierarchies of expertise. The use of innovation brokers is one such mechanism to mitigate against these huge power imbalances, acting as an intermediary to foster interaction between various actors in an innovation system. Innovation brokers, including NGO’s, can pave new avenues of communication amongst groups of stakeholders, whilst also strengthening the persuasive competencies of the most marginalised groups. Rebalancing power in this way is essential to enabling the implementation of RI discourses including greater anticipation and reflection, endowing local citizens with the potential to truly influence technology trajectories to suit their needs. However, questions must be asked about how mechanisms such as innovation brokers will work in practice, their sources of funding and where subsequently their allegiances will lie.

Looking beyond the role of innovation brokers, building capacity in the social sciences realm will be crucial in ensuring that engagement with stakeholders is not instrumental but substantive. Funding of the social sciences in these low and middle income contexts, will be vital in reorienting social science actors which have frequently been used as a source of legitimising technological advances, which has restricted their power to open up and initiate technology debates.

Overcoming Material Realities

The intangible barriers to RI demonstrated in power asymmetries must be accompanied with a recognition of the physical constraints to implementing RI in low income country contexts. The presence of material barriers has hampered participatory approaches to technology development. Inadequate roads and communication systems have increased the cost of interactions with the poor, obstructing the ability for sufficient anticipation and inclusion, further promoting a harmful technological lock-in. These infrastructures have been well established in high income country contexts, with new mechanisms to open up technology debates such as online collaboration forums currently conducted by the European Food Safety Authority.

In the Global South much of the infrastructure spending has been used to improve scientific expertise, again demonstrating the role of institutional norms that favour a deficit model over responsible approaches to innovation. Crucial to overcoming these material barriers is to ensure the appropriate infrastructures for multi-stakeholder platforms for collaboration are in place. However, the expensive nature of these platforms coupled with the economic disadvantages of developing nations has resulted in futile, short-lived attempts to engage the wider public. This calls for international aid organisations, including the GCRF, who have traditionally supported the large technological fixes, to revise their thinking on how best to improve the lives of the poor through supporting the necessary infrastructure for effective stakeholder platforms.

Bridging the Gap between Inclusivity and Transformation

The radical advancement of globalisation has resulted in global innovation networks that transcend national borders. The global reality sees private sectors organisations as developing the majority of technologies, leaving them as a salient actor in the innovation systems within the Global South. The emergence of the 10-90 gap[i] in research of disease epitomises the role of market profitability dominating the trajectories of current innovation systems. This approach to technological development has only been further encouraged by the institutional arrangements of innovation systems in developing countries which, with a focus on economic competitiveness, have often sided with corporations over the interests of the local public.

Bridging the gap between inclusivity and transformation will require the development of new tools and mechanisms to ensure meaningful and equitable collaboration. The greater use of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) could also offer a mechanism for businesses to engage in responsible practice. By mixing with a range of actors within the innovation system, private sector organisations can engage with the interests of the poor, whilst themselves benefitting from increased adoption and profitability of new technologies better suited to a wider population. Product Development Partnerships are one type of PPP that have been successfully used in the healthcare arena by combining local perspectives with global product development in order to deliver pro-poor healthcare technology.

PPPs encourage private organisations to adopt a responsible approach for the production of technology, gaining insights into local contexts, further helping them to reflect and anticipate its potential impacts on these populations. They also enable a clear sense of reflexivity, enabling large multinationals to separate themselves from the path dependencies which see them failing to meet the needs of the poor. The effective co-design of mechanisms such as Public-Private Partnerships will be an important facet ensuring a step change in the institutional arrangements of innovation systems in the Global South, that will allow for the more responsible approach to innovation.


The capacity to engage in RI is currently absent from the innovation systems in the Global South which has resulted in the fruition of technology’s “socially destructive” potential. There is a need to ensure that discourses of ‘inclusion’ and ‘responsibility’ are accompanied by meaningful practices. While ‘experimentation’ and stakeholder dialogue might be advocated in RI practices in high income country contexts, there is a need to address material, power and corporate realities in others. This requires for greater consideration of the kinds of mechanisms that might enable RI to be realised in diverse contexts. For example, through implementing innovation brokers, relevant infrastructure and PPPs, actors in innovation systems may be able to overcome barriers to implementation. On a more profound level, the capacity to overcome such barriers will offer a pivotal step in changing the institutional norms that have dictated technologies that neglect the interests of the poor.

Using these tools will allow new interactions between stakeholders to emerge, unhinging corrupt power structures and empowering multiple publics to ensure the development of socially relevant technologies. It is the reorientation of these institutions that will enable the utilisation of RI to go beyond infrequent one-off projects, instead becoming truly embedded into the norms of innovation systems in the developing world.


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[i] The ‘10-90 gap’ reflects that less than 10% of research, development and funding caters for diseases that affect 90% of the global population.d

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

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