Bringing the Environment back into our Understanding of Inclusive Innovation

Robyn Klingler-Vidra and Rex Lor

May 20, 2021

The SalikLakbay Series is a collection of blogs and stories about Inclusive Innovation in the Philippines.  The objective of the series is to bring to light the different ways in which innovators address their challenges with a combination of creativity and resourcefulness, how ecosystem enablers provide an empowering environment for innovators to flourish, and how policy makers are rethinking the future of inclusive governance in innovation in the Philippines.  In this blog, the authors explore the importance of the environmental lens in the inclusive innovation discourse, because:

We need to continue to causally connect the relationship between green (or blue, when speaking of the oceans) efforts and their distributional consequences. It is not either or.


Inclusive innovation: Inclusion in social terms

Inclusive innovation has been understood in social terms since the term was coined by economist Mark Dutz in his 2007 report. Inclusive innovation has to do with the pursuit of innovation that has social aims at its heart. Inclusion is said to have different meanings, but all within the social realm. For instance, in the 2017 OECD paper on inclusive innovation policy, there are three ways of conceiving of inclusion:

  1. In demographic terms, it refers to the need to ameliorate the exclusion or underrepresentation of individuals according to demographic characteristics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and/or disability status;
  2. Inclusion is also conceived in spatial terms with efforts made to increase the innovation activities of regions. Often, it is rural areas and socio-economically disadvantaged places that are targeted by such approaches;
  3. Industrial dimensions are also considered with the aim of applying  research and development as well as innovation mindsets into more traditional sectors.

Inclusion is also thought of in terms of dichotomies around whether the aim is to direct innovation from a consumption standpoint or in terms of the production of innovation.

While there is a rich and advancing understanding of inclusive innovation in these various social dimensions, engagement with the environment has been neglected. Inclusive innovation seems to be advancing as an approach that is distinct from “greening the recovery” or climate change.  However, the focus on social is not consistent with how the antecedent to inclusive innovation emerged.

The Appropriate Technologies Movement and the Environment

The Appropriate Technologies Movement, which is the lexicon and ideological predecessor to inclusive innovation which began in the 1950s, made the case for innovation that was context relevant, socially beneficial, and not environmentally damaging. The appropriate technologies movement, along with the work of Schumacher on Small is Beautiful (1973), argued that local inputs - particularly abundant labour - should be employed in innovation activities. Rather than emerging economies inheriting technological innovations that flow from the US and Europe, and thus were primarily designed for rich-world consumers, innovation should solve local challenges, leverage local resources, and benefit the environment. Small scale but contextually impactful and environmentally considered, innovation was the thrust of the movement.

The premise was one of understanding the reality that society and the environment are inextricably intertwined, and so innovation that is aimed at benefiting the local populations’ need to keep environmental consideration at its heart if it is to deliver on societal aims. In practice - in the Philippines and elsewhere - there are already nature-based innovative solutions evolving. The present-day challenge is to adequately acknowledge these efforts as inclusive innovation, so that they obtain the recognition and support they deserve.

This is because environmental degeneration has societal implications and, in particular, affects society’s most vulnerable.  In a United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) report published in 2014,  the Philippines is most vulnerable to the impact of climate change owing to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean’s typhoon belt, its level of development, and environmental degradation.  This has exposed the most vulnerable to flooding or droughts, public health risks, threats to biodiversity and food security, loss of livelihoods and human life, among others. Furthermore, innovations around green technology and nature-based solutions stand to offer a wellspring of new green jobs. Retraining and reskilling for the post-COVID-19 context will involve competencies around developing and disseminating to both green technologies and nature-based solutions.

Our call is to explicitly re-establish this link between nature-based innovation and inclusion by going back to this well-established relationship in the Appropriate Technologies Movement. And, concomitantly, to underscore the role of COVID-19 as offering an opportunity to rethink our understanding of inclusion, so that it is about innovating for the benefit of wider society and the environment.

Bamboo straws a product made by Bambuhay as a solution to curb the use of platstic straws. Photo courtesy of @bambuhayph on Instagram.

Greening Inclusive Innovation in the Philippines

Innovations developed by socially-oriented entrepreneurs often combine the twin aims of alleviating the problems facing the most excluded and underserved members of society by focusing on environmental sustainability.

In the Philippines, the explosion of green, sustainable, and nature-based solutions has offered both green jobs and opportunities for social enterprises to flourish. Bambuhay, Rags2Riches and Wala Usik (Zero Waste) are social enterprises in the Philippines that have created alternative green jobs that provide enhanced wellbeing that reflects one’s relationship with both the environment and one’s livelihood.

Bambuhay, a UNDP Philippines #TawidCovid Innovation Challenge winner, is seeking to address the twin problems of plastic waste and low incomes in the farming community by supporting the farming and development of bamboo-based products, which is a biodegradable and reusable alternative to plastic.  Rags2Riches is a fashion and design house that partners with local artisans and women’s groups in order to create eco-ethical fashion and accessories out of upcycled overstock cloth and indigenous habi, or weaves.Wala Usik Tianggeseeks to create an alternative zero-waste business model for small community stores in order to prevent the use of single-use plastics.

Building Better for a Greener Future

On March 26th 2021, the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines ran a “Building Better for a Greener Future” webinar that offered a tangible link between inclusive innovation and green recovery. Speakers from the Central Bank and the Department of Finance, in particular, emphasize their commitment to advancing policies that encourage (sustainable) finance for small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) and micro SMEs (MSMEs) in order to boost their investment in green futures. Some of the policy developments that were presented and discussed in the webinar includes the:

  1.  Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE), which was passed into law on March 26th, modernizes the tax incentive system to provide tax discounts to activities aligned with the Philippines Development Agenda;
  2. Philippine Sustainable Finance Roadmap, a Green Task Force or the Sustainable Finance Inter-Agency Council; and
  3. The National Integrated Climate Change Database and Information Exchange System (NICCDIES) – primary enabling platform of the CCC in consolidating and monitoring data and information on climate change and climate action.

In the webinar, the presenters and panelists alluded that COVID-19, despite all the suffering and disruption that it has wrought, also serves as a critical juncture – a chance to adjust systems – as it has raised public consciousness of the need for adjustments, particularly with respect to the socio-economy and the environment. COVID-19 provides an important chance to rethink who is conceived of, and supported, as an innovator, and how to promote innovation based upon the social purpose of the activities. It stands as a chance to ask what we mean by inclusive innovation that has “social purpose” at its heart.

In the webinar, Mercedita Sombilla, the Undersecretary of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Regional Development Group, explained that a core aim is to achieve a “better, greener and smarter recovery from COVID-19.” As inclusive innovation becomes a more widely used lexicon, and more understood aim, in the Philippines, inclusion can refer to demographic, territorial and industrial participation in innovation, but also, the extent to which innovation is improving, or worsening, livelihoods on account of its environmental impact. In this sense, NEDA’s Philippines action plan for sustainable production and consumption is already well-aligned with our call for a greener understanding of inclusive innovation.

Yemesrach Workie, a Senior Policy Analyst at the UNDP Philippines, similarly made the case for this greener notion of inclusive innovation. In her presentation, she noted that “the social co-benefits of carefully designed green policies can include significant improvements to health outcomes, reductions in the costs of energy, and increases in food security, as well as more, safer, and better paid employment opportunities,” making the case for converging the aims of green and sustainable efforts with that of inclusive innovation.

There are challenges in integrating the environment into our understanding of inclusive innovation in the post-COVID-19 context. As of now, there tends to either be an emphasis on green, sustainability, and climate or on social distribution. We need to continue to causally connect the relationship between green (or blue, when speaking of the oceans) efforts and their distributional consequences. It is not an either-or situation.

In Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, mangrove forests provide ecotourism services and alternative livelihood to locals. Photo courtesy of Small Grants Programme Philippines

Green Technologies and Nature-Based Solutions in the Philippines

The advancement of green technologies and nature-based solutions can have a profound impact on local communities, in alleviating societal challenges stemming from climate change and environmental degradation.  The following are examples in the Philippines:

  • Community-based Resilience Solution. In the Typhoon Haiyan-ravaged province of Leyte, a community supported by Wetlands International realized the need to restore mangroves as a resilient intervention that will mitigate storm surges in future typhoons. This nature-based solution has restored the natural protection in coastal villages from storm surges, promoted eco-tourism, restored biodiversity, and more importantly, raised the level of resilience in the coastal villages across Leyte.
  • Innovative Green EV Technology. Edmund Araga, President of the Electronic Vehicle Association of the Philippines (EVAP), reported in the March 26 webinar that the Philippine national government has been proactive in providing an enabling environment for these green technologies to flourish.  The Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the UNDP Philippines, supported by the Global Environment Facility, has also been pushing this agenda forward through the Promotion of Low Carbon Urban Transport Systems in the Philippines and aims to create an enabling environment for the commercialization of low carbon urban transport systems, such as mass public electronic transport vehicles like e-trikes and e-jeepneys. The Department of Energy has already completed the distribution of 3,000 e-trikes and e-trikes have been essential in ensuring accelerated public service delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Proactive Mapping of Nature-based Solutions.  The Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development Program of the Department of Science & Technology (DOST-GRIND) has been capturing grassroots innovations in Mindanao communities with the support of the UNDP Philippines through the SalikLakbay Solutions Mapping adventure.  DOST-GRIND have focused their search on nature-based solutions, indigenous agricultural tech, crafts and ethnobotanicals with the objective of providing support and funding so these can be linked to the market. By mapping the innovators and their innovation, DOST hopes to identify the science behind the innovations, improve upon it, and scale it up in other communities.

We have seen how COVID-19 extenuates inequality; the exposure to climate change has a similarly distributional nature. Let’s re-invigorate the need for “inclusion” to take environmental concerns at heart when thinking about distribution, representation, and exclusion. Inclusive innovation – as the Appropriate Technologies Movement did in the 1960s and 1970s – needs to be inclusive of more than societal distribution. Social challenges necessarily include nature-based solutions and the environment. So, too, should our efforts for inclusive innovation.