The Role of Innovation Hubs in Human Development: Insights from case studies in the UK and Zambia

Andrea Jimenez Cisneros

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This research studies innovation hubs as part of a wider phenomenon of innovation for development. Innovation hubs are collaborative spaces for entrepreneurs that include aspects of coworking, incubators, innovation centres and makerspaces. Despite the lack of clarity of what impact they have, hubs have been spreading in the Global North and Global South, funded and promoted by international agencies and local governments as spaces that promote entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. My research critically evaluates the discourses of innovation for development and examines the implications of innovation hubs for beyond the mainstream development perspectives, drawing upon two case studies of innovation hubs in Zambia and the UK respectively.
Innovation hubs provide the resources needed to catalyse entrepreneurship and innovation, yet understanding why hubs are important organisations to sustain and support is unclear. In the broad discourse, innovation hubs have been considered as grassroots organisations, stepping away from the top-down, policy driven push towards innovation. They are, however, mainly funded and promoted by international organisations and government bodies. Consequently, they are expected to create successful ventures, contribute to job creation and innovation development.
This is aligned with the literature of innovation for development that typically sees innovation as a main driver of economic growth and competitive advantage. From this perspective, innovation in the Global North is presented as a hegemonic practice that should be adopted and diffused to the Global South, resembling a catch-up process and a unilinear path towards progress (Massey 2005). Furthermore, where innovation has been framed to include the poor and the most marginalised, it does this by looking at people based on their economic capacity, rather than their freedom to live a valuable life (Sen 1999). By adopting a narrow focus on economic growth and incorporating the poor in the distributive market system, what is missing from these views is an analysis of how individuals perceive themselves in innovation, and how social, historical and structural forces shape these perceptions.
This shortcoming, that I label ‘the invisibility of people’ in the innovation for development discourse, will be addressed by drawing upon three theoretical perspectives: Doreen Massey’s spatial conceptualisation of development, Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach, and situated intersectionality, developed by feminist scholars.
This is a thesis in alternative format, consisting of three academic papers — submitted to journals and conference proceedings — and a short thesis that seeks to conceptualise innovation as a mechanism for development from a human-centred perspective, with potential to expand individual’s freedom and situated agency. Empirical research of the thesis consists of two qualitative studies of two innovation hubs based in London (UK) and Lusaka (Zambia) respectively. Data collection was undertaken between 2014 and 2015 using methods including ethnography, participant observation and semi-structured interviews.
The first paper applies Doreen Massey’s spatial perspectives to argue that innovation for development could be framed from a multiplicity of perspectives that breaks the power geometry and advances a more holistic approach. The second paper continues developing such arguments, and applies Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to explore whether members of an innovation hub in Zambia perceive capability expansion by being part of innovation processes. The third paper applies the concept of situated intersectionality developed by feminist scholars to look at how women members of both hubs experience their agency to innovation as situated in specific socio-historical contexts and framings of innovation that are normally associated with masculinity.
Through the application of these theoretical approaches, I argue that innovation for development is shaped by global narratives of innovation and local sense making. As such, this process follows multiple trajectories and has an impact on freedom and choice expansion, as well as inclusion. Innovation for development then is a process by which people develop capabilities in multiple aspects of their agency and wellbeing.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Zheng, Yingqin, Supervisor
Award date1 Feb 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017

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