Innovation for Sustainable Development


The sustainable development problem

The existing global innovation system fails to meet the need for innovation and access to technologies required to meet sustainable development goals. (We adopt Harvey Brooks’ (1980) definition of technology as "knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way." We use the term "innovation" broadly to encompass not only the processes by which new technologies are invented, but also the processes by which a pool of inventions gets narrowed down for further development, produced, initially adopted, transitioned into sustained use, and then becomes either adapted so that they are better-suited to end-user needs or retired in favor of another technology.) In general, for systems of innovation to support sustainable development, they must do more than promote invention. Technologies and their benefits must be also accessible and well-adapted, particularly for use by the poorest or most vulnerable, and they must ultimately be integrated into local contexts that will vary economically, politically and culturally.

Institutions at the global, national and local levels all play a role in shaping the extent to which technological innovation actually delivers improvements in well-being. (We define institutions as sets of formal and informal rules, norms, decision-making procedures, beliefs and expectations that govern interactions between actors (North 1990; Ostrom 2005).) In the past, innovation has been fostered through public and private mechanisms (such as patent laws, public research grants, subsidies for end-users, and research networks), primarily operating at the national level in a handful of industrialized countries and a few international organizations (Amsden 2001; Nelson 1993). Such efforts have had widely varying levels of success in terms of meeting global sustainability needs, but have proven inadequate overall for the purpose of advancing sustainable development (Juma and Yee-Cheong 2005; InterAcademy Council 2004).

This pattern of uneven and insufficient innovation is due in part to several distinct dynamics. First, many technologies provide positive externalities that transcend the control of firms or individual nation states, and are therefore subject to free-rider problems that lead to under-production by both markets and national innovation systems. Second, in comparison to industrialized countries, developing countries tend to offer smaller market incentives to private inventors and have weaker national innovation systems to encourage domestic invention, leading to fewer or poorly-adapted technologies for use in such countries. Third, incentive systems for innovation can reward inventors, but at the cost of end-user access—for example, high prices for inventions can impede access for the populations most in need of new technologies, such as medicines, off-grid energy supply or water purification devices.

Addressing these problems requires effective institutional arrangements at local, national and global levels. In recent years, these challenges of harnessing technological innovation for sustainable development have begun to be addressed through a variety of "interventions" in the global innovation system. Examples include financing arrangements, networks of scientific researchers, priority-setting processes, measures to facilitate sustained use and widespread access to a technology, international aid and trade agreements, and feedback loops connecting end-users and inventors/adapters. In general, these interventions have altered the rules, norms, resources or organizational configurations that shape the behavior of major actors, including governments, private firms, researchers and end-users. While the past decade has seen a number of new system interventions piloted in a wide range of sectors, they are generally poorly described, little known beyond their respective sectors and therefore not contributing as much as they might to understanding or strengthening the global innovation system for sustainable development. Knowledge of what is most likely to work is either insufficient, or fragmented across different sectors, such that the global innovation system continues to underperform relative to its potential or the scope of sustainability needs.

Research questions

How can the potential of science and technology be maximized to help reach sustainable development goals, including meeting the needs of present and future generations for clean water, food, health, energy, and manufactured goods? How can the need to incentivize and reward innovation be balanced with the need to ensure widespread, equitable access to SD technologies? How can the global innovation system be strengthened to facilitate sharing of information and knowledge, accelerate the invention process, and ensure that research efforts serve the needs of all?

Solving a practical problem of sustainable development

The project will guide the development of policies that facilitate the invention of technologies needed to meet sustainability goals, and ensure equitable access to such technologies, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable. It will do so by carrying out a systematic research effort across a broad area of technologies relevant for sustainable development (paying due regard to variation in the characteristics of the technology, of the area of need, and of local contexts), constructing a coherent unified conceptual framework that helps to illuminate why we are collectively failing to maximize the potential of science and technology for sustainability, and extracting from this research concrete policy recommendations to strengthen the global system. The practical outcome of these efforts may be that more and better technologies are developed to meet sustainable development needs, that such technologies are better adapted for use in the contexts in which they are required, and that widespread equitable access is ensured to those technologies and their related benefits. Down the line, in more practical terms, a strengthened global innovation system may mean that more people are healthier; that the negative health and environmental effects of manufacturing are reduced for current and future generations, and that food security, access to potable water and clean energy is enhanced.

Research strategy

The project is carrying out its inquiry in three stages:

First, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the global innovation system requires a more "legible" system – that is, a detailed description of what the global innovation system in sector X (or for technology Y) looks like. The legibility of the global innovation system varies widely by area of technology, with some relatively well-studied and understood (e.g., pharmaceuticals, seeds), and others much less so (e.g., household water purification devices). In some areas, there is a relatively well-developed "global system" characterized by dense networks of actors, rapid information flows, sizeable resources, wide-ranging collaborations, and a set of widely-shared norms governing actor behavior. In others, the "global system" may barely resemble a system at all, with a fragmented set of actors and institutions with few or no networks, limited information flows, extremely scarce resources, and diffuse divergent or conflicting norms. In describing the global innovation system, key questions include: who are the most important actors, and what are the most relevant institutions? How much is invested globally in R&D for a given area of technology, who is investing, who is inventing, how successful is the invention process, and what impact on sustainable development is ultimately achieved? What are the major information and data needs and gaps?

The second stage is diagnosing why the global innovation system is not functioning as it should. What are the most important weaknesses or "choke points" in the system? At which of the various stages of the innovation process (invention, selection, production, initial use, sustained use, adaptation, retirement) do they occur? What are the root causes underlying these systemic weaknesses?

Third, what interventions in the system seem most promising to strengthen the systemic weaknesses or ease the identified ‘choke points’? Such interventions could include the articulation of shared norms and goals, national or international policies, changes in institutional arrangements (such as collaborative agreements), changes to or the creation of new national laws or international treaties, financing commitments and investment strategies, or any other intervention in the current functioning of the system.

The past year (Year 1, Academic Year 2011-12) has focused on developing the conceptual framework, initiating work on the first two stages described above, identifying researchers, and selecting an initial round of promising case studies. We convened a Working Group of researchers to develop a unified conceptual framework to facilitate the study of innovation systems for sustainable development technologies across multiple sectors. The Working Group included lead investigators across the five focus areas of need (water, food, health, energy, manufactured goods), supported by sub-groups of specialists in each sector, who met bi-weekly to discuss concepts, needs, and problems across sectoral and disciplinary lines. This work resulted in a refinement of the project scope and goals, a draft conceptual framework, the development of background papers on each sector that begin to describe and diagnose weaknesses in the system, and the selection of an initial set of cases. The first set of cases will examine: carbon capture and storage systems, indoor cookstoves, micro-drip irrigation, the system of rice intensification, household water purification technologies, drugs for cancer treatment, a global subsidy on malaria medicines, and industrial symbiosis.

In academic year 2011-12 we will focus on carrying out the first set of case studies, using them to test the conceptual framework to refine both our descriptions and diagnoses, and then selecting a broader second round of cases. We will begin synthesizing findings across the cases and across sectors, and developing draft policy recommendations (stage 3). This process will include consulting with other scholars and practitioners to test the framework and tentative conclusions. In 2012-13, a broader second set of cases will be carried out, with ongoing cross-sectoral synthesis and further testing of our draft conclusions. We will also develop a research agenda to guide next steps. The final year, 2013-14, will focus on dissemination within both the academic and policy communities, and discussion of the next research agenda.


Amsden AH. 2003. The Rise of "The Rest": Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, H. 1980. Technology, evolution, and purpose. Daedalus, 109(1):65–81.

InterAcademy Council. 2004. Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology. InterAcademy Council.

Juma C, Yee-Cheong L, UN Millennium Project Task Force. 2005. Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development. London: Earthscan.

Nelson RR. 1993. National Innovation Systems: A Comparative Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

North DC. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ostrom E. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.