Social Entrepreneurs and Innovation Crucial to Electrifying Remote Villages

Social Entrepreneurs and Innovation Crucial to Electrifying Remote Villages

Disseminating new technologies to underserved populations necessitates building a new innovation ecosystem involving complex networks of essential components, says Gita Surie, Ph.D. Her research, focusing on renewable energy technologies in India, uncovered multiple interconnecting elements needed to develop such a system to serve remote, off-the-grid locations.

“The adoption of new renewable energy technologies in rural villages requires thinking about commercialization strategies, how to get the technology to users, and encouraging this population to adopt the technology,” says Dr. Surie, chair of the Department of Management and professor of strategy and innovation in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business. “Users in rural villages represent a totally different type of target market than users in developed areas, so a different approach is needed.”

In her paper, she described a conceptual model of the mechanisms necessary for forming an innovation ecosystem to diffuse renewable energy technologies to underserved populations. The core research question explored how social entrepreneurship fosters development of an innovation ecosystem for renewable energy within the larger context of the national innovation system of a developing economy. A national innovation system encompasses institutions and subsystems for developing and diffusing technologies.

“Creating the Innovation Ecosystem for Renewable Energy via Social Entrepreneurship: Insights From India” was published in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change. The research was supported through a Fulbright fellowship.

The role of social entrepreneurship in creating an innovation ecosystem for renewable energy and fostering demand among poor populations in developing countries had not previously been studied. Renewable energies are an emerging sector in India, which thus presents an ideal environment for such an investigation. Electrifying rural villages is vital to their economic growth and poverty alleviation.

“A social entrepreneurship organization is an organization with a social mission, and is entrepreneurial and self-sufficient,” explains Dr. Surie. Social entrepreneurs are crucial to technology dissemination and diffusion in underserved areas, because large firms are seldom interested in small, decentralized markets such as rural villages.

Dr. Surie employed concepts from research on national innovation systems, social entrepreneurship, complex systems and natural ecosystems in developing her framework for an innovation ecosystem in renewable energy. She collected case-study data through more than 55 interviews over a period of two years with business executives, government officials and renewable energy researchers, plus on-site visits and published materials.

Her work revealed that building a new innovation ecosystem for renewable energy involves action at multiple levels. Needed at the national level are governmental initiatives to build an infrastructure including new institutions to spotlight the importance of renewables, favorable programs and policies including financial incentives, and support for linkages among the various players to facilitate access to resources and knowledge exchange. Needed at the local level are social entrepreneurship organizations, new technology platforms, and linkages to local and national organizations to facilitate collaborations and access to information and resources.

Players include government agencies, academic institutions, research institutes, public-sector organizations, state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit and for-profit ventures. Complex linkages among all the players, and to external resources such as industry associations, international institutions and foundations, help drive the ecosystem processes.

Various facets of an ecosystem may not exist at first, but must be incorporated for eventual success. “All the elements need to be included because, without them, we cannot have a system that works. Each element has a specific role to play,” Dr. Surie says.

This framework can be applied with other new technologies or in additional developing and industrialized countries, she says. “Lessons can be learned from this research for other kinds of new technologies or in new regions. Similar kinds of ecosystems can be developed to make the technology diffusion successful. Putting an ecosystem in place is important. My paper explains the mechanisms necessary to make it work.”

Dr. Surie is continuing her case-study research in renewable energy ecosystems serving populations in underdeveloped economies, focusing on measuring results and mapping their performance.

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