How to enable inclusive innovation

June 22, 2018
5 mins

In a perfect world, development would be inclusive. The innovation system would meet the needs of every person. Inadequacy or inaccessibility should not constrain people’s innovative ability. Considering how difficult it is to achieve this perfection, we strive for an equally worthy goal of continuous improvement—to generate economic growth that is socially inclusive.

What is inclusive innovation?

Inclusive innovation is any innovation that leads to affordable access of quality goods and services creating livelihood opportunities for the excluded population, primarily at the base of the pyramid, and on a long term sustainable basis with a significant outreach.” (Dr. R A Mashelkar, President, Global Research Alliance) At the at the base of the pyramid (BoP), you have people who comprise the poorest socio-economic group.

Foster and Heeks (2015) define it this way: Inclusive innovation is the means by which new goods and services are developed for and by marginal groups (the poor, women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, etc).” Here, the excluded groups are both producers and customers of innovations. Innovation for inclusive growth will target specific demographic groups to improve economic outcomes for them.

How can inclusive innovation help address inequalities?

Through inclusive innovation (sometimes called grassroots or BoP innovation), we ideate and implement ideas to create new opportunities to boost economic and social well-being. This concept is closely related to inclusive growth, market-based solutions, sharing economy, creative capitalism, and creation of value.

Look at the defining characteristics of successful inclusive innovation:

  • Provides access to low-income populations; extensive outreach
  • Promotes the sustainable production, distribution, and absorption of the innovations
  • Produces quality goods and services
  • Is affordable and scalable
  • Reduces social exclusion
  • Is agile, collaborative, and empathic
  • For/by people not typically a part of the development mainstream

(To determine if an innovation is truly inclusive, read about the Ladder of Inclusive Innovation outlined by Heeks, Foster, and Nugroho.)

It is evident that the inclusive innovation approach proposes enhancing the quality of life for resource-poor groups (e.g. smart agriculture, education) while furthering economic empowerment. Businesses, government, and other leaders have been trying for years to draw up a robust framework that promotes an economic growth model that is secular and fair.

To understand the concept better, visit these examples of inclusive innovation:

Who are the agents of inclusive innovation?

Conceptual framework for inclusive innovation

Source: OECD

According to a World Bank report, “a coherent inclusive innovation strategy would complement frontier innovation efforts by improving access to essentials and increasing the purchasing power of the resource-poor while also enhancing income-generating opportunities for BoP members.” Many governments across the world — such as Mexico, Uganda, India, Thailand, and Brazil — have ongoing inclusive innovation programs. Quite obviously, the government can create a broad environment to enable such innovation (e.g. support with expertise, provide knowhow through events on needs of the poor and market size, offer fiscal incentives and grants to subsidize research, strengthen IP, and train indigenous innovators).

However, the private sector has a key role in promoting it through working with public agencies, research institutes, universities, NGOs, and innovation challenges. The report calls it a great business opportunity for the private sector: “BoP markets remain under-developed and under-satisfied,” and this “is increasingly seen as evidence of a lucrative potential.”

Companies operating inclusive business (IB) models aim at a market entry into the underserved global consumer market of the base of the pyramid (BoP). To do so, they try to integrate the BoP into their business models, which is possible on two sides: demand and supply. On the demand side, the BoP is integrated as customers gaining access to essential goods and services. On the supply side, the IB models generate opportunities for income and formal livelihoods as the BoP serves as employees, distributors or suppliers of goods and services. (The Inclusive Business Action Network)

Furthermore, innovation should not be confined to the select realm of organizations from developed countries. In developing countries, innovations have so far been addressing high- income consumers or have been for export. Their challenge is to better the scale and impact of inclusive innovations and mitigate failures in BoP markets.

How can we include people in the process of innovation by hacking isolation?

Innovation initiatives must encourage participation from people who will be impacted by the innovation. They must be part of generating ideas and building solutions to ensure the goal of inclusive innovation is achieved. The target group will typically be short on resources. Then, the next step is partnering with relevant nonprofits, development banks, UN organizations, or science communities who work in these fields to develop actual solutions.

Through purpose-driven events such as hackathons, workshops, and meetups, people can accelerate inclusive innovation while balancing social and financial return. For example, MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy) awards prizes worth USD1 million to entrepreneurs who will use technology “reinvent the future of work.” The aim of the program is to help people be part of the fast-evolving digital economy and boost their income.

Qeyno Group Founder Kalimah Priforce believes in changing the world one hackathon at a time. California-based Qeyno, an independent urban think tank for inclusive innovation, is committed to downing the “barriers to human potential.” The organization also has a STEAM-focused Hackathon Academy (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) that works with young persons of color to build mobile and web apps to solve the most pressing challenges people face world over. Priforce helps promising “trailblazers” from low-income groups to make fast-growing, well-paying careers for themselves. Pittsburgh (PA) has an Inclusive Innovation Week every year with focus areas being open data, local business, digital divide, clean technology, city operations, and civic engagement.

You also have programs in developing countries such as the Inter Institutional Inclusive Innovations Centre (i4C) in India. It “provides a platform to people with ideas from even the remotest of villages in India to showcase their ideas or prototypes to industry experts, scholars, industrial houses, venture capitalists, and other funding agencies by hosting competitions among educational institutions involving erudite thought leaders of India, industrial houses, and media coverage.” Along with MHRD, Persistent Systems, and AICTE, i4C promotes Smart India Hackathon, a crowdsourcing initiative (now in its second year) to realize the vision of a digital India; participants leverage technology to build solutions that drive sustainability and social inclusivity. The Indian government has also established the India Inclusive Innovation Fund (INR 5500 crore/~USD 800 million).

The private sector is doing its bit too. HackerEarth conducted the Rural Development Hackathon in early 2018. Although research shows that rural India does not fall behind in terms of technology adoption, there’s much to be done about the quality of life. This hackathon to promote inclusive innovation invited developers to enhance rural lives who did not disappoint, creating winning IoT solutions to problems faced by the agriculture, education, and healthcare sectors.

Utrecht-based BoP Innovation Center, a nonprofit foundation, held a hackathon in April 2018 in Africa to promote the use of virtual reality for inclusive business. (Read more about their amazing projects for low-wage markets here.) In 2018, UNDP held a hackathon in Lesotho to encourage product innovations for inclusive financial services. Prototypes for Social Innovation in Chile (online innovation platform to solve regional challenges) and WISET’s Girls Mentoring Programme in Korea (online mentoring) are also other kinds of inclusiveness programs.

These are only a few innovation challenges around the world. There is plenty happening in this space and many interesting conversations around inclusive innovation.


All inclusive innovation initiatives — hackathons, conferences, and other events — focus on meeting the needs of disadvantaged groups and removing social disharmony. Prioritizing grassroots innovation, zoning in on inclusive innovation intermediaries, and formulating principles to strengthen the innovation value chain remain integral to successful implementation and scaling up. Also, as Dr. Alexis Habiyaremye (HSRC) says, “it is only through the power of knowledge that previously excluded communities can be truly freed from poverty.” For a truly inclusive approach, the poor need to be part of the process. Sustainable prosperity depends more on the capacity to innovate in the way we innovate than accelerating technological advancement (Dubé et al., 2014).

Another way ahead is designing collaborative, transparent platforms to create an inclusive culture of innovation. When people see their ideas being actualized, they are motivated to get involved as they begin to believe they can make a difference. These platforms to address challenges will facilitate open discussions and collate critical inputs and valuable feedback while also holding every stakeholder accountable — leading to impactful solutions.

Don’t you want to be a part of this massive change movement?

Write to us if you’re interested in conducting hackathons for inclusive development!

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About the Author

Dhanya Menon
Dhanya Menon is an editor and academic writer. This is her first stint in content marketing, having spent over 5 years in e-learning. Her interests are varied. She likes to lose track of time reading anything from chemistry to Allende, from statistics to Thurber cartoons, from Ruth Rendell to listening to her son's unique take on life.

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