Intrinsic challenges

Challenges confront grassroots innovations from their inception; establishing an initiative requires a particular combination of skills, key individuals and champions, resources and supportive contextual factors. After start-up, the challenge is to survive and keep going, which requires additional skills and people, plus resilience and a resource base. Dilemmas arise over whether to try to commercialise (presenting diffusion challenges, see below) or to engage with government support programmes. Grant funding and voluntary activity, common amongst grassroots innovations, pose significant problems. Funding programmes are often short term, frequently linked to constraining targets, bureaucracy and requirements, and leave little room for core development (support programmes for community renew-ables being a prime example). Frameworks for funding are often imposed by funders, rather than responding to recipients' development. Grassroots innovations can fall between the interstices of traditional social, economic and environmental issue boundaries. Their 'institutional fit' with departmental-based funding regimes can be poor, resulting in difficulty combining and fulfilling the distinct criteria of multiple, single-issue funders.

Experience suggests initiatives spend 90% of their time simply surviving, and only 10% developing the activity (Church, 2005; Wake-man, 2005). This has implications for niche survival. First, they fail to develop robustness and resilience to shocks like funding cuts, key people leaving, turnover of volunteers, burn-out of activists, shifts in government policy. Secondly, short-lived initiatives frequently leave no formally documented institutional learning. The skills and learning are tacitly held within people, rather than being consolidated in readily accessible forms.

Niches at the grassroots level are interdependent upon technology developers, and provide sites where emerging sustainable technologies find application and development. Yet grassroots innovators, like others, are technology takers initially, and can struggle to identify and obtain appropriate sustainable technologies. This interde-pendency could be made more effective by opening participation in technology development to grassroots innovation. The challenge is considerable, especially where technology development is transnational. Appliance recycling initiatives, for example, reveal considerable insights into design for repairability and remanufacture, but this needs conveying to the product development decision-makers of manufacturers whose headquarters may be in a different country.

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