Innovation at the Periphery - A Caribbean Perspective

Reprinted from The Innovation Policy Platform (

The expression "Innovation at the periphery", has become more popular in the last few years and perhaps even over-used in several contexts. It describes technological innovations in seemingly remote geographical regions. It promotes the "skunkworks" innovation that takes place within an enterprise, but outside of mainstream R&D centres. It highlights indigenous frugal innovations that emerge out of developing country contexts, whose global adoption reverse the accepted convention of North-South technology transfer.

Each scenario emphasizes the contrast between the establishment at the “Centre” and a “Periphery”. The mainstream Centre is structured and well-resourced, while an informal Periphery is less-resourced but more agile. These peripherial conditions allow for more unconventional and often startlingly ground-breaking innovations to emerge.

The Caribbean region presents an interesting dichotomy between Centre and Periphery. The region exists at the geographical centre of the continental giants of North & South America, but often languishes in the periphery of geo-political and economic development interests. The common reference to "Latin America and the Caribbean" often feels like an afterthought of convenience. There is little recognition of the distinctive and differentiated political, economic and linguistic circumstances that differentiate us from our southern neighbours. Nevertheless, in spite of decades on north-bound migratory patterns, we share far more in cultural disposition with our soccer-mad, musically-immersed, carnival-infused neighbours to the south.

I have, for some time, struggled with the seeming inability of our region, our countries and our leaders to generate sustainable and pervasive innovations that can help to lift our economies out of the low-growth, poverty-inducing cycles in which we’ve become mired. Like our Caribbean siblings, Jamaicans are a remarkably creative people by nature. This is clearly manifest in the tremendous influence that creative output from Jamaica has had on global popular culture. Just think about the significance of Reggae music and Rastafarianism around the world.

Culturally and creatively, we punch way above our weight. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report has ranked Jamaica as a highly entrepreneurial country. They suggest that “despite adverse economic conditions, Jamaicans continue to use their creativity to develop entrepreneurial ventures that are used as means of job creation and self sustainability.” However, there is little comfort and no sustainability in entrepreneurship without innovation. Furthermore, there is a wide gulf between innovation-driven entrepreneurship and necessity-entrepreneurship more popularly known as “hustling”. Intuition suggests that there is a quality of desperation to much of the entrepreneurial activity in Jamaica.

I’ve recently become intrigued by the writings of Celso Furtado, a renown Brazilian economist. His elegant analysis of the phenomenon of "underdevelopment" coined the phrase the "inadequacy of technology". It describes a perversely self-sustaining cycle of inappropriate and mis-directed technological adoption. In this system, the consumption patterns of the minority at the center of marginalized societies create a persistent cycle of income concentration and low-growth at the expense of the development of the societal majority in the periphery. Although Furtado’s philosophical outlook is more than 3 decades old, it resonates with the current circumstances of many developing contexts. It also underscores the critical role of deliberate and well-considered government intervention in order to provide a catalyst for innovation at the periphery of our societies.

The World Bank Institute recently delivered a 6-week online course called "Introduction to Innovation Policy for Developing Countries". The course brought together over 70 participants from 38 countries. The participants engaged in a robust exchange of opinions, perspectives and experiences on the realities of innovation potential, approaches and failures in resource-constrained environments. Several case studies provided real-world, tangible illustrations of the concepts discussed throughout the course. While we are often preoccupied with the visible success of the outcomes of innovation, the case of South Korea demonstrates that innovation policy formulation and interventions are part of a dynamic and adaptive process. This requires political will, capacity building, and institutionalized processes to "steer" innovation on a consistent and sustainable path over the course of decades.

The WBI course showcases the metaphor of the “Gardener” to characterize the essential role of Government as an enabler of innovation. The Gardener provides an excellent illustration of the necessity for governments to partner with other actors such as banks, private sector companies, universities, and venture capitalists to craft coherent innovation policies and interventions. Very often it appears that innovation policy is viewed as a synonym for Science & Technology, and there seems to be little coherence between STI policy, industrial policy, education policy and other policy initiatives such as tax reform.

I enjoyed working with my colleagues in the course to apply these concepts towards crafting an innovation policy strategy and action plan for Trinidad & Tobago as our group case project. Within this plan, we envisioned that “By 2030, Trinidad and Tobago would become a developed, innovation-driven economy within a knowledge-based society and known as a distinctive tourism destination that combines a unique cultural ‘joie de vivre’ with a disciplined, progressive civil society". This could very well be the innovation rallying cry for the Caribbean region as a whole as it emerges from the periphery to become a central actor in the global economy.