Global Systems of Innovation: Water Supply and Sanitation in Developing Countries

Title: Global Systems of Innovation: Water Supply and Sanitation in Developing Countries
Format: Journal Article
Publication Date: September 2008

Innovation is a process of problem solving. In its broadest sense, innovation means doing things in new ways. When conditions change and routines no longer work, humans experiment and learn. In a narrower sense, innovation means developing new ideas into new products or processes. Whether the process happens in the public domain or in the market, the sign of successful innovation is something new being used widely to solve a problem.

Many problems that face humanity today take on global dimensions, and their solutions are likely to involve cooperation as well as competition across national boundaries. Global climate change is the clearest example: human activity has set changes into motion that affect people in various parts of the world in ways that they did not choose but have to work together to address. Disease is another example, in which growing networks of transportation are spreading pathogens faster and wider than ever. No one country can protect its health without joint information gathering and international public health efforts.

To address global challenges, humanity needs to be able to solve problems at global scale. In our research, we aim to deepen understanding of one form of global problem-solving, namely, global systems of innovation. A global system of innovation (GSI) is a learning space (Arocena and Sutz 2000) in which a multi-level network of diverse actors interacts to address a world-level challenge, accumulating knowledge across national borders and developing, testing, and adopting new approaches.

This paper helps to develop the GSI concept using information on responses to global challenges in the household water supply and sanitation sector (WSS).3 In this research, we use a broad concept of innovation that encompasses both new technologies and new approaches, such as community-demand driven systems and privatization.4 The paper reports preliminary observations based on interviews with nearly100 people who work in organizations in the sector, at global, national, and local levels, including intensive interviews in Costa Rica, Mozambique, and South Africa. In addition, we have analyzed the published literature in this area and consulted an extensive set of documentary sources.

The first section of the paper introduces the concept of a global system of innovation. The second section describes how preliminary data from the WSS sector match or modify the GSI concept. The final section raises further research questions and points to possible policy implications.

Related Departments:
  • Other (Non-IAC) Department
  • School of Public Policy