May 3, 2016

The Ecology of Innovation

by Susan Delson


I n the summers of 2013 and 2014, Gita Surie, Ph.D., professor in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, went to India on a Fulbright Fellowship. The focus of her research was renewable energy and its potential for supplying the needs of rural villages without access to power or other essential services.

“India has been growing fairly rapidly in the last decade,” she explained, “and the need for energy is increasing. Per capita energy consumption is much lower in India than in other parts of the developed world.” In her field work, Dr. Surie examined the ways that biomass and new types of biofuels were being deployed, and the new technologies that were being implemented to make renewable energy available to rural populations largely off the power grid.

In the process, Dr. Surie’s observations sent her research in an interesting direction.

“What I found,” she said, was that in developing a rural market, “you basically need to create an ecosystem.”

An “ecosystem,” in Dr. Surie’s terms, is a network of different types of organizations and agencies, including governmental sectors and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). To some extent, it is a question of scale: Large businesses and corporations are often less flexible than smaller organizations and find it difficult to provide services to remote, off-the-grid villages.

To Dr. Surie’s increasing interest, her research pointed to the NGO sector—“which I had never paid much attention to in the past”—as a prominent component of the supportive organizational ecosystem. “They’re the ones who actually provide the outreach to villages,” she explained. “They’re the last link to the rural market.”

In her writing, Dr. Surie has emphasized the importance of this organizational support. Her paper on “Ecosystem Creation and Organizational Form: Insights from Renewable Energy in Rural India” was presented at the 2014 conference of the International Association for Management of Technology (IAMOT), and her paper for the 2015 conference focused on the organizational diversity required for a successfully supportive ecosystem. She is a guest editor on a forthcoming special issue of the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, focusing on National Systems of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship.

“It’s not just one thing that drives the adoption of innovation,” Dr. Surie said. And that, she suggested, is an interesting finding in itself.

This article was published in the 2016 issue of Erudition magazine. 

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