Special issue on IT innovation in emerging economies
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- Rai, S., Harindranath, G. & Liebenau, J. J Inf Technol (2013) 28: 261. doi:10.1057/jit.2013.24
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Information and communication technology (ICT) innovation research has concerned itself with researching industrialized high-income regions of the world, with specific reference to large organizations and their innovative abilities. Emerging economies/developing countries have not been considered as a hot bed of innovation. Researchers have preferred to focus on economic and institutional structures in higher income regions that enable innovators, entrepreneurs, growth generating organizations and institutions to become more efficient through the application of innovative ICT systems. The prescriptive narrative for emerging economies has been to get their economic systems in order, then think of innovations. The logic has been that unless basic economic systems and institutions are in place, innovation in emerging economies or developing countries cannot have a major impact on economic growth.
Many emerging economies are characterized by inefficient, poorly run, weak infrastructures and populated by low-income industries with poor productivity co-existing with high quality, sometimes world-class, firms. These conditions have also fostered major growth and transformations of ICT, and imaginative applications stimulated by dynamics that differ significantly from leading developed economies. The overall purpose is to show how innovation research can be applied to the study of ICT innovation in emerging economies and to learn from the insights gained from experiences under those conditions.
Further, the call noted that, ‘Much of ICT innovation concerns demand side effects, focusing on market creation within constraints, implying an important role for ICT in enabling innovation for the creation of opportunities for the delivery and development of goods and services in both the public and the private sectors.’ In this special issue, we would also like to learn about how such innovations become an enabler of market effectiveness in emerging economies. Such studies can provide showcases of the innovative and entrepreneurial capabilities in these countries.
‘With this special issue we are seeking a nuanced understanding of ICT innovation that combines knowledge sharing, transfer and capture issues, with ideas linked to the sustenance and management of innovation, with alliance building, and with domain as well as technology perspectives. Any nuanced understanding of ICT innovation requires a broad as well as an in-depth understanding of how social systems, cultures, organizations, institutions and management combine resources and skills to persist in ensuring sustainable innovation in emerging economies … Submissions should focus on how ICT innovation is transforming emerging economies. The emphasis should not be on classical approaches to diffusion and adoption per se but on how entrepreneurs, governments, large enterprises, NGOs and other bodies are engaging with ICT to bring about innovation.’
This special issue aims to provide encouragement and recognize ICT innovation research in emerging economies. However, all too many of the papers submitted in response to our call for papers were more a product of a mindset that attempted to re-interpret the experiences of IT in terms of existing innovation theories, thus missing the opportunity to discuss new articulations of what ICT innovation in emerging economies might look like. This could be because of a genuine lack of rich material or insights or it could simply be the problem of path dependencies in theoretical framework generation pertaining to ICT innovation in emerging economies.
There is a deeper question that needs to be addressed. If economic legacy, organizational structures and institutional frameworks use yardsticks from what is well known or well understood from research endeavors carried out in the rich economies, and these have been replicated in the emerging economies for aligning emerging economies markets to global markets, then it would follow that innovation would be conducted in exactly the same way that experiences of innovation have been recorded or articulated in wealthier regions. Hence, what is the big difference when emerging economies are merely replicating the organizational structures, institutional frameworks and governance mechanisms that are well-known? How can innovation or entrepreneurial innovation be different in emerging economies?
The papers in this special issue start from a different premise in that they take the economic structures as given and try to explain innovation within these frameworks. The papers represent a re-interpretation of mature, well-researched innovation insights within new contexts. This is because there are not sufficient independent theories of IT innovations to adequately explain innovation in emerging economies. Xiao, Califf, Sarker, & Sarker provide a comprehensive framework of existing research on ICT innovation in emerging economies. They also highlight the gaps that have been left behind, and provide specific guidelines to future researchers, including a research model summarizing the salient issues that need examination. They provide a very useful resource for future researchers. In their review of the literature, they remark that ICT innovation research based on innovation models from rich world contexts into emerging economies delivers limited insight in relation to emerging economies but is useful in relation to how existing models could be applied. The challenge we faced during our reviewing of 27 submissions was to identify which of the submissions had the potential to provide greater insight than the simple one-to-one application. Furthermore, note their observation that there is very little research being conducted on ICT innovation in emerging economies. This is not only an indictment of how we are conditioned by our legacy but the way we see innovation as an extension of existing innovation theories.
During our review, we realized that what we were asking for was ambitious, and that if it was natural for innovation researchers in general to assume that developed world models would apply, then why should IT innovation researchers be any different. Therefore, while we were hoping that researchers would capture this interface between rich efficient structures and the weak inefficient systems and look for innovative opportunities to report from such contexts, most of the submissions told a simpler story of process, product or scaling up from a simple business to a national or international enterprise based on a combination of innovative ideas.
Foster and Heeks, however, present rich analysis of how scaling up takes place in emerging economies. This is a useful angle as even great innovations often suffer from scaling up problems. Scaling represents successful diffusion that ensures sizable impact and earnings from ICT innovations in emerging markets. Practice can still be shaped by dualistic views – innovation vs diffusion, pilot vs scale-up, lead firm vs other actors, technical vs social. Synthesizing the literature that challenges these dualities, this paper creates a systemic perspective that is particularly appropriate for scaling of ICT to bottom-of-the-pyramid (BoP) markets. That perspective is then instantiated through the case study of a successfully scaled ICT innovation that has reached millions of poor consumers: the Kenyan m-money system, M-Pesa. It finds that scaling of this ICT system can be understood as a four-stage process of exploratory, incremental then aggressive growth, followed by (attempted) standardization.
The paper by Ravishankar considers high levels of ambiguity as a relatively enduring and intrinsic aspect of public ICT innovations in emerging economies. Drawing on an ethnographic study of Bangalore One (B1), an innovative public ICT project implemented in Bangalore, India, Ravishankar examines how strategic ambiguity is deployed by key public actors to chart the course of the implementation process and to steer it toward reasonable outcomes. Theoretically, the paper suggests that although strategic ambiguity is a precarious and unsettling condition in general, it can work effectively in contexts that are reasonably tolerant of ambiguous norms. The study’s findings also suggest arguments for why evaluation mechanisms need to be fundamentally reframed in order to assess the extent of implementation success of public ICT innovations in emerging economies.
The paper by Tarafdar, Singh and Anekal is an illustration of how ‘ICT innovations in products and processes impact development at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP).’ Drawing perspectives from the IS and marketing literatures, they analyze how and why ICT enabled innovations in products and processes deployed for market development at the BoP enable developmental outcomes through reduction of market separation. Such enquiries enable a better understanding of the dynamics of innovation, even though the concepts are relatively straightforward applications or replications.
These are in themselves useful and important papers because they create the foundation for the next generation of ICT innovation researchers to push the boundaries by exploring subject matters that fall in between the formal markets and the informal non-market innovations. From that perspective this special issue has partly been unable to create the context for fresh interpretation of innovation in emerging economies. However, what it does, is create a deliberate space where ICT innovation is now being discussed as a legitimate frame of reference within the overall field of innovation research especially in emerging economies. In this respect, this special issue has made an important contribution.
ICT innovation today
ICT innovation research needs to start dealing with the complexities of the emerging economies. These complexities arise out of a dualistic nature of innovative activities. For instance, researchers could benefit from looking at how individuals in emerging economies focus on a need-based innovative approach, implying their innovative endeavor is targeted at a specific need and its fulfillment.
This is innovation, indeed, but the downside of such kinds of innovation is that they do not benefit the larger society, but just that individual who identifies a particular need and creates a solution for it. In many senses such innovative activities are asynchronous, meaning they are innovations in their own right but they are not part of a larger system – no market linkages, no production plans, no process systems, just an independent idea which is innovative. Individuals in emerging economies are busy addressing weaknesses in markets, governance, institutions by creating independent or asynchronous innovations. These innovations at times are picked up by a larger set of people who have the same need. Thus new forms of deliveries, models, service types supported by entrepreneurial activities emerge in that local area. ICT innovation in emerging economies then is a translation of the asynchronous independent innovation into a synchronous system-driven innovation. It is in this transition from need-based independent to multi-channel innovative service delivery that ICT innovation in emerging economies is at its most interesting as a research endeavor. Moreover, it is from this perspective that our selections have made their specific contributions.