A tale of two perspectives on innovation and global equity

February 13, 2024

Inclusive innovation—the idea of introducing technologies designed for and by the poor to boost economic growth in impoverished communities—often misses the real problems facing these communities and champions solutions that benefit entrepreneurs at the expense of local cultural values.

That’s the argument that Shobita Parthasarathy, a professor of public policy and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, makes in two recent papers on inclusive innovation. The most recent paper, “A Tale of Two Perspectives on Innovation and Global Equity,” was published in the journal Engaging Science Technology and Society in December. An earlier study was published two years ago in the Social Studies of Science. Both are related to a larger book project on the politics of inclusive innovation.

Parthasarathy is a scholar of science and technology studies, an interdisciplinary field that examines the creation, development, and consequences of technology in its cultural and social contexts. While inclusive innovation approaches new technologies as a way to provide economic empowerment and growth, science and technology studies approach innovation more critically, with an eye to how it influences society as a whole.

“Science and technology studies looks at questions about technology and innovation more historically and sociologically,” she explained. “Innovation studies often look at technology in terms of economics and assume that innovation is going to benefit a society.”

Parthasarathy’s research takes a broader look, with the goal of developing solutions that don’t simply bolster economic systems, but also support the social and cultural aspects of communities.

“The goal of my policy work is to move societies beyond solutions that are mediated or prescribed by the market, and toward social equity and justice solutions that actually serve people,” she said.  “I want to make sure innovation really is benefiting society, and especially the most marginalized communities.”

In both papers, Parthasarathy uses a prominent case study of menstrual hygiene management in India to illustrate the strategies and limitations of inclusive innovation. In the case study, Arunachalam Muruganantham, now a famous social entrepreneur, invented a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine to manufacture sanitary pads for less than a third of the cost of commercial pads. The pads were manufactured and sold by women in India, providing them a form of income. And they purportedly allowed women and girls to attend work and school regularly, improving their potential as economic earners.

Murugananthan’s innovation spread throughout India and was lauded across the globe. In 2014, he was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. He was also featured in the movie Period. End of Sentence., which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018.

But his approach might not have been the best one for women and girls in India, Parthasarathy argues. First, the problem of menstrual hygiene management was only identified as a serious problem for women and girls in low-income countries within the past 20 years – and likely from public health surveys oriented toward western cultural values. Then global attention to this problem was elevated by potential technological solutions, she said.

There are plenty of challenges to Murugananthan’s invention. His pads were made of lower quality materials than commercially available pads, so they didn’t function as well. Many of the towns and villages where women used them didn’t have fully equipped waste disposal systems, so the innovation created sanitation problems. And, the machines broke down easily, limiting the economic viability of the small enterprises they were meant to foster.

“There’s a great irony in the fact that we are trying to move to more environmentally-friendly methods of menstrual hygiene management everywhere else in the world, yet when the Indians do it, it’s somehow backward and unsanitary,” Parthasarathy said. “For me, the biggest takeaway is how this technology transformed what we understood a social problem to be. The availability of this technology made it look like an easy solution to a problem that isn’t clearly there.”

Although Parthasarathy’s papers provide a critique of inclusive innovation, she also highlights elements that her own field could learn from this approach. Even though science and technology studies take a grassroots approach to identifying and solving problems, the field would benefit from thinking about global impacts, developing scalable best practices, and working to influence policy-making more broadly.

“While science and technology studies scholars often focus on local contingencies when it comes to innovation, it is important for us to think about what kinds of governance mechanisms might work to ensure socially just technology development across nation-states and even internationally,” Parthasarathy said.

Written by Sheri Hall