Who controls innovation?

January 25th, 2016

Innovation is often heralded as the measure of progress of businesses, technologies and even societies. It is through innovation that we create not only new tools or apps, but also how we shift entire systems to new sets of standards, regulations and performance. But the focus and direction of innovation efforts are most often to create new private value – through more business profit – rather than greater social value – through meeting the basic needs of global populations.

System obsolescence

Mobile phone technology

Will older phones soon cease to function?

Partly, this is because the institutions which govern innovation are highly decentralised, lacking coordinated action, but can also often coalesce around particular standards of technology operation. These standards largely arise through the market dominance of a particular innovation, to which all supporting technologies then attempt to adhere. This can be seen in the dominance of Blu-Ray over HDD, resulting in systems and devices which work on this technology, or 4G mobile telephony protocols, to which all modern phones, apps, services and infrastructure are now integrating.

The latter case is particularly interesting, as network operators are beginning to phase out 2G signals. As the surrounding technology ecosystem has evolved, so the 2G network has become both less lucrative (no value-added data bundles can be sold) and less relevant, serving just 19% of mobile users worldwide. But this is only true in developed countries – in sub-Saharan Africa, three quarters of all mobiles depend upon the older 2G network.

Yet governments continue to invest into 4G and now 5G infrastructure and support the development of innovative 3G, 4G and 5G compatible devices, leaving those depending on 2G networks with poor quality, limited and ultimately doomed connectivity. This is compounded by the phasing out this year of the SHA-1 encryption protocol, used by the majority of feature phones owned by mobile users in developing countries, potentially rendering their devices unusable.


So what can be done to ensure innovation efforts are inclusive of the needs of the many, and not just the wants of the few? This is a question we pose in our latest publication, Technology Justice: A Call to Action, which calls upon all actors within the innovation ecosystem to rethink how to best direct innovation, and retool to ensure those involved with innovative activities are best placed to address the needs of the world’s biggest market – the poor. Everyone involved in the innovation ecosystem is partly responsible for shaping the institutions which make up national systems of innovation (NSIs) and govern technology development, and we think each has a part to play to help to achieve Technology Justice.


Governments can be instrumental in shaping the direction of innovation. Funded by public money, government-supported innovation should be seen as a public good, unbound by traditional intellectual property rights (IPR), including restrictive patents. Government support at the initial stage of development can help innovative ideas get off the ground.

Governments can help intervene in the valley of death

Governments can help intervene in the valley of death

Governments can also intervene as innovations plunge into the ‘valley of death’ – an often-observed period in a technology’s development life-cycle which can critically determine its success or failure. By targeting funding at this stage in the innovation system for technologies which serve to create social value, they can be instrumental in realigning innovation.

Intellectual Property Rights

The Private sector is one of the most dynamic areas of innovative activity, with most companies striving to develop technologies and products which will give them a competitive edge over rivals. But often businesses get locked into patent wars and file patents simply to block other competitors from developing technologies. This nihilistic zero-sum approach not only massively stifles genuine market competition, it also prevents technologies which may be of great social value from ever seeing the light of day. Moreover, it drags innovators away from efforts to create advances towards efforts which create blockages.

IPR bodies must act to end this viscous circle of negative innovation by, for example, creating new rules which both put temporary suspensions on patents filed in rapid succession, and also create shorter time-locks on patents which are proven to be unused.


More businesses need to recognise that to be successful in the modern age, thorough considerations of people and the planet cannot be eschewed. There is a strong case for all businesses to act like social enterprises – who largely adopt the ‘people, planet, profit’ business model approach – to ensure the long-term success and viability of their operations, to boost productivity, and to be genuine partners in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Taking a Circular Economy approach is one way of moving towards this aim, creating value through what was previously seen as waste, and innovating in ways which facilitate circular material flows – for example ensuring all technologies can physically – and legally – be opened and repaired.

Disrupting innovation

We can all play a part in helping to redirect innovation in ways which can serve the people of the world, our planet and ourselves better. Open technologies can facilitate innovation by millions of new actors, allowing them to utilise technology in creative and helpful new ways. Circular economy principles can foster new repair and refurbishing value chains and reduce our waste. And recognising the power and potential of the global poor as a market which should be served and empowered, not sidelined, can direct innovation activities to catalyse this.

Please joint the debate and share your thoughts at the Technology Justice LinkedIn group!

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