Toward A Theory on the Reproduction of Social Innovations in Subsistence Marketplaces

Toward A Theory on the Reproduction of Social Innovations in Subsistence Marketplaces

Toward A Theory on the Reproduction of Social Innovations in Subsistence Marketplaces

Laurel Steinfield and Diane Holt

Originally published: September 8, 2019 (PDMA JPIM • Vol 36, Issue 6 • November 2019)
Read time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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Social innovations and their diffusion are critical in bridging the multiplicity of deprivations experienced by those in subsistence contexts. Yet they often do not diffuse as expected. To better understand this prevalent problem, this article develops a theory of diffusion that explains the reproduction (duplication) of social innovations in subsistence contexts. The theory utilizes a bottom‐up perspective that considers what attributes of innovations and capacities of actors matter to reproduction, particularly for subsistence user‐producers. Adopting an inductive, case‐based approach, the authors draw on examples of social innovations in sub‐Saharan Africa. Based on the authors' research and extant literature, this article builds a typology that captures different modes of reproduction. The typology delineates three archetypes of reproduced social innovations: mimetic, facilitated, and complex, and notes how frugal innovations can emerge from these archetypes. These archetypes are based on the interactions of: (1) a product's resource and knowledge complexities, and (2) the knowledge capabilities or resources of various actors, including subsistence user‐producers and bridging agents. The typology thus illuminates the conditions under which subsistence user‐producers might independently reproduce a social innovation (mimetic innovations), when they need assistance from bridging agents (facilitated innovations), and when the mix of resources and knowledge are beyond their capacity (complex innovations). Moreover, by exploring reproduction experiences of subsistence users, this article recognizes the implications of low literary, close social networks, and physical limitations. By examining who controls the knowledge and resources imperative to reproduction, the authors go beyond a focus on the social benefits of innovations to consider how intellectual property and profits matter to different actors. This article pulls together these various insights and identifies key implications that social innovators and intermediaries should consider when working to reproduce social innovations in subsistence contexts and with subsistence user‐producers.

Practitioner Points

  • The article develops a theory of the reproduction of social innovations (SI) from the perspective of subsistence producer‐users, noting how literacy, closely linked relationships, physicalities, and access to resources and knowledge can affect the reproduction process.
  • A typology is created to help practitioners understand why SI do or do not “go viral” through reproduction and when bridging agents are needed. (Un)Successful reproductions hinge on whether subsistence user‐producers can feasibly acquire/manage two intersecting dimensions of SI—complexities of resources and complexities of knowledge.
  • Three archetypes of SI are proposed. Complex: subsistence users may consume but will likely not produce (e.g., MPesa). Mimetic: subsistence users can readily produce on their own (e.g., simple solar cookers). Facilitated: subsistence users require bridging agents to enable reproduction (e.g., water ponds).
  • Practitioners need to consider the heterogeneity in subsistence users' resources, knowledge, and physical capabilities, train for the “know‐hows” and the “know‐whys” in reproduction, address subsistence user‐producers' potential risks/costs, support bricolage behavior, and recognize trade‐offs in the competitive accrual of social and economic benefits.

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