While Malaysia is celebrating its 66th National Day on 31 August 2023, it is the time for all Malaysians to look back on how inclusive our national development agenda is.
Malaysia has embarked on grandiose science-based development plans, but it is an important question to ask on how effective our public investment in innovation (including research and development) has been in benefiting Malaysians in all geographical areas – urban, sub-urban and rural.
Specifically for rural areas, how far have Malaysia’s innovation programmes impacted these communities, and have their innovations been recognised as a part of the national success story?
Undeniably, in the era of industrialisation and economic catch-up – while being constrained by monetary, human capital and infrastructure resources – our mainstream national innovation agenda has to be outcome-based and designed to deliver promising return on investment on the resources allocated for innovation.
Innovation becomes exclusive to firms, researchers or individuals who have shown promising ideas and track record – normally perceived in terms of impacts to business, quality of life and advancement in technology. But these actors are the mainstream of innovation actors and have better access to the resources made available in the national innovation system – as opposed to marginalised groups living outside of the urban centres.
Coming back to the fundamentals of inclusive development, are we really practicing “innovation from all, by all” in our national innovation agenda? If you are taking this question in the perspective of the rural communities, we believe that a very straightforward answer to this question will be no.
The case for the Malaysian version of the Honey Bee Network
This stimulates our interest in investigating how innovations from the rural communities can be included as a part of the national innovation agenda.
The works from Professor Anil Gupta, the founder of Honey Bee Network, who have identified and promoted grassroots innovations particularly in a form of indigenous and traditional knowledge from rural and remote areas in India can be a good lesson to learn by our policymakers and stakeholders.
In fact, Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM) under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) has been working closely with Anil Gupta and adopting the grassroots innovations framework which aims to create a transformative impact on how society perceives and supports grassroots innovations.
This includes projects scouting and mainstreaming grassroots innovations in the rural areas from the very beginning. Such hard and laborious efforts are commendable.
However, it will be hard to sustain if there is no strong will and commitment from the top policymakers to maintain the continuity of resources allocation to sustain these efforts.
If money invested in techno-economic driven innovations is a ‘patience’ money that doesn’t promise immediate return on investment, investment in rural grassroots innovations even requires a greater level of patience and tolerance.
Towards a Malaysian definition of rural innovation
To revisit the national innovation agenda that encompasses rural innovation, we should begin with the definition.
Datuk Ts. Dr. Ramzah Dambul, the Chief Executive Officer of Institute for Development Studies of Sabah, emphasises on the importance of having a clear working definition of rural grassroots innovations that can serve as a guidance in executing the innovation development programme, and able to differentiate rural grassroots innovations from other actors of social innovations such as those from universities, corporates, social enterprises, etc.
He defines rural grassroots innovations as solutions by the rural communities themselves, which the process of ideation is based on local knowledge and local resources, and is not so much driven by scientific knowledge including knowledge access from publications/journals. To him, normally grassroots innovations are based on creativity, traditional local knowledge, and local wisdom.
Based on this stand, we only look at what are the problems they are trying to solve and who is establishing that innovation. The central actor is the grassroots innovator, who lacks support from the government or institutional ecosystem. These actors are typically in survival mode and transfixed by their local economic issues.
Rural grassroots innovations are commonly radical innovations that are less impressive and not attractive to the majority policymakers and stakeholders. They are slow and tinker with simple local know-how. In most cases, support for rural grassroots innovations requires more support in the form of expertise as opposed to finance. They require more networking opportunities and support ecosystems. This could be in the form of co-working spaces, opportunities for market entry, mentoring and other facilitations.
Steps to formalise rural grassroots innovations can be a means to recognise the accumulated local wisdom of the community.
By institutionalising local know-how within the knowledge of the government’s ecosystem, this allows better strategize public interventions by the ministries and their implementing agencies such as YIM.
Again, Dr. Ramzah sees the importance of formalisation of rural grassroots innovation in upscaling successful or award-winning rural innovations for greater impacts and recognition.
In fact, Institute for Development Studies, Sabah is currently in the process of mapping the rural grassroots innovations in Sabah. With the establishment of a database on rural innovation in Sabah, this allows a more targeted support to be introduced and facilitated by the State to support rural innovations.
In a nutshell, we cannot have a one size fits all policy in driving our national innovation agenda. In this specific case of rural innovations, we require a more in-context approach in designing policy tools and actions, which fully understand and appreciate the nature of rural innovations.
Those policies should be in terms of fostering awareness and mainstreaming rural innovations that can flourish the innovation culture. Innovation, in such a setting, will be a true societal culture and enterprise that engages and benefits all Malaysians regardless of their geographical and socio-economic backgrounds. To end this, it will be good for us to reimagine indigenous and local knowledge as one of the sources of national innovation wealth.
It is about our national heritage if it is not all about its economic value. Let this become the driver in revisiting our inclusive development agenda in this wonderful Merdeka month.