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Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Malaysian innovation culture

July 6, 2011

By Dr Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall

The Malaysian government has made innovation and creativity important to the nation’s economic growth and prosperity. The Prime Minister’s establishment of the Special Innovation Unit (UNIK) in his department last year demonstrates the commitment to innovation at the highest level of the government. And it follows on the establishment of the National Innovation Centre in 2009 and the support of Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM), the Malaysian Foundation for Innovation in 2008.

The basis of Malaysia’s innovation drive is the OECD’s definition of innovation as “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization, or external relations.”

This is the standard global definition of innovation. Yet, the definition’s focus on the “new” often requires people to leave behind their old ways of doing things. Leaving old ways behind certainly improved the economic positions of nations such as Australia, the United States, Japan, and China in their various histories. But current studies are beginning to show how economic development under models of the “new” have been detrimental to the personal and social well being of nations.

These studies show that “the new” has displaced processes that supported identity, environmental caretaking, and social cohesion. It has been especially detrimental to the most vulnerable communities of indigenous peoples, rural villagers and folks, migrants, and other minorities in a given nation.

The Malaysian Foundation for Innovation describes grassroots innovation as one of the three areas in which Malaysians can help innovate. The other two are education and industry. Innovation in education is often a significant improvement, because education itself requires a mastery of the old before you can contribute something new. Innovation in industry requires something new because of competitive advantage.

But one wonders if an alternative model for innovation is required for the grassroots innovation of villagers and rural folks who hold a wealth of innovative ideas but come from a different set of values related to social well being? I propose Cultures-Based Innovation as an alternative model.

Cultures-Based Innovation: what is it?

Here in Australia, I have been exploring the process of innovation from the joint perspectives of design anthropology (e.g. the study of people and how they create messages, objects, environments, and interactions) and Indigenous Knowledge (e.g. the ways of knowing of peoples who have a deep holistic relationship to their environments and their social worlds).

Anthropology as a field has always privileged group identities over that of individuals. Design anthropology – which focuses on processes of group creativity – provides theories and methods to understand innovation processes that privilege communities as the sources and beneficiaries of innovation as a means to reinforce social cohesion.

Indigenous Knowledge demonstrates how old ways of knowing are designed to enable communities to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances through practices of social well being that reinforce sustainable economic development and growth. Both fields critique standard definitions of innovation for holding these three embedded values:

  1. The privileging of the new over the wisdom of the old,
  2. The focus on the individual person or firm over the collective group or communities, and
  3. The emphasis on economic benefits to individuals or wider society over economic and social benefits to specific collective groups or communities.

Cultures-Based Innovation is a model of innovation that privileges culture communities as both the sources and beneficiaries of innovation through its processes and outcomes.

What does Cultures-Based Innovation mean for Malaysia?

Malaysia is a nation rich in cultural diversity and a demonstrated commitment to innovation. Just as it has three different areas of innovation (e.g. education, industry, and grassroots), it perhaps requires three models of innovation for each.

Innovation based on the “new” might be the appropriate model for industry, where competitive advantage and intellectual property over technologies is key. But even that model can recognize how old ways of doing things could be “new” to industry, especially those industries based on European, American, or Australian cultural values as opposed to Malaysian ones.

Innovation based on the “significantly improved” might be appropriate for education, where one’s contribution must build upon a well-established field of knowledge and thus one rarely creates something entirely new.

Innovation based on the old ways of cultural communities might be most appropriate for grassroots innovation. This is where the theories and methods of Cultures-Based Innovation could help contribute not just to Malaysia’s economic growth, but also to its national well being.

Dr Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall is Associate Dean of the Learning and Teaching Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.