Saturday, July 16, 2005

Technology Transfer and Indigenous Peoples: The Diffusion of Advanced Biotechnologies and Maori Horticulture

The role of technology in any society is difficult to isolate. First, it is all pervasive: no society lacks technology (although some certainly lag in their attempts to acquire specific technologies). Secondly, it is constituted of tangible innovations – pots, metal implements, buildings, computers – and intangible knowledge – pottery, metallurgy, architecture, programming. Innovative technologies are indicators of ‘civilisation’. They are also integral to contemporary development, now promoted in terms of a ‘Knowledge Economy’.

The sheer pace and scale of technological change has meant that although technology is ‘intentionally and systematically’ put in place, it is now experienced as a somewhat ‘alien and uncanny force’ (Rapp 1981: 2). The very ‘success’ of certain technologies (revealed in their comprehensive diffusion) is implicated in threats to the sustainability of various communities and even humanity itself. How can sustainable technologies to be diffused in order to ‘avoid, remedy or mitigate’ adverse effects on the environment?

In this phenomenon, indigenous peoples are almost generically described as ‘laggards’, that is slow to adopt new technologies. While remaining the originators of (acceptably quaint) traditions, indigenous peoples are incessantly targeted as potential receptors of new and therefore beneficial technologies. In this paper I present data from a research project revolving around the innovation of sustainable biotechnologies to Maori horticulturalists. These technologies are distinguished from unsustainable technologies in a number of ways, not least the requirement that they be comprehensively diffused in order to ‘work’.

Inputting this data into a classical diffusion model reveals the phenomenon of ‘reverse cascade’ diffusion where innovation can be observed diffusing from Maori growers acting as case studies and/or collaborators. This flow contributes to the academic standing of a Centre of Research Excellence; ultimately it is to contribute to the Centre’s ‘financial independence’. Subsequent innovations will therefore be mediated by neo-liberal market forces, further hindering the vital diffusion of sustainability on to Maori land.

Keywords: technology transfer, diffusion of innovation, sustainable Maori horticulture, Maori bioprotection.


This paper treats innovation as any idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new: it can also be the rediscovery of an idea, practice or object. Adoption is the singular decision - whether by an individual, institution, firm or other ‘adoptive unit’ - to take up an innovation. Diffusion is the process whereby the adoption of an innovation is transferred through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.

The technology has been identified as the very human activity of positing ends and procuring and utilizing the means to them (Heidegger, 1977). This description is echoed by Rogers (2003: 12) who considers technology to be the “…design for instrumental action that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome” (Rogers 2003). Technology has been variously posited as the means to improve productivity and reduce uncertainty in economic development (Schumpeter 1928), as the cause of uncertainty in more broadly ascribed development goals, and as solution to these concerns.

Given the absolute importance of diffusion in the ultimate success of any technology, the lack of diffusion of sustainable technologies, where they exist, speaks of their failure regardless of their efficacy in isolation. This fact must be kept in mind during the following discussion.

The Diffusion of Innovations
The diffusion of innovations exhibit a number of empirical regularities (Brown and Cox 1971). Of these, one of the more commonly acknowledged is that such diffusion can be represented on a graph where an item’s diffusion can be expressed as a cumulative level of adoption whereby it will approximate an S-shaped curve. It seems to have been initially promoted by French sociologist Gabriel Trade (1903) who saw the task of the sociologist as tracing “…the curve of the successive increases, standstills or decreases in every new or old want and in every new or old idea, as it spreads out and consolidates itself, or as it is crushed back and uprooted”. History for Trade “…is a collection of those things that have had the greatest celebrity…those initiatives that have been the most imitated.” (cited in Katz, p 149).

The relationship of indigenous peoples to modern technology is commonly treated as a development problem - how to transfer appropriate technology to indigenous groups - or an ethical dilemma where indigenous culture is somehow threatened by new technology and yet cannot be wholly protected from its influence (Grim 2001; Stephenson 1994). In the words of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research report (2003) “A common feature…of all successful economies is the degree to which innovation – in the widest possible sense – permeates everything people do.” This report goes on to say that Maori openness to innovation may be constrained due to the “…strange influence of traditions, culture and spiritual values.” The inference is that Maori are slow on the uptake and hinder the uptake of new technologies in general. The diffusion of innovative crop protection methods through the ‘social system’ that is Maori horticulture is critically evaluated in this paper.

The phenomena of innovation and diffusion have been described by James Blaut as being associated with core/periphery relationships that originate within European imperial strategies (Blaut 1993). Blaut notes that ‘cross-diffusion’ is also evident, by which he means that the ‘core’ (e.g., Britain) benefits from peripheral (e.g., New Zealand) innovations.

In this paper I examine the transfer of sustainability to Maori land by utilising the model of hierarchic diffusion. This occurs through a sequence of institutions and/or hierarchies. Such diffusion is generally assumed to be ‘downward’, for example from large to smaller cities and towns. However examples of ‘reverse cascade’ occur where innovations diffuse ‘upward’, from smaller to larger centres.

Case Study: The National Centre for Advanced Bioprotection Technologies
The data on which this paper is based has been gathered from within a network established for the innovation of agri-biotechnologies. The National Centre for Advanced Bioprotection Technologies (NCABT) won funding set aside for the establishment of Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) in the 2002 NZ government budget. This Lincoln-based CoRE is comprised of four themes: Biosecurity, Biocontrol, Agri-biotechnology and Matauranga Maori Bioprotection. This last theme is to be conducted in accordance with Kaupapa Maori and Participatory Action research principles (Environment Society and Design Division 2004; Harris 2003; The Royal Society of New Zealand 2003). The transfer of NCABT technologies - promoted as ‘sustainable’- is an explicit objective.

Recently the NCABT released its first commercial innovation (commercial innovations being an important goal of government-funded research of this type). The product is an organic fungicide (‘Sentinel’) designed to protect grapes from botrytis. It is marketed by Agrimm Technologies of Christchurch (Collins 2005).

The NCABT proposal was quite explicit as to where innovation was to originate with respect to Maori:

Research at the border between Maori science, matauranga Maori, traditional ecological knowledge and Western science will lead to innovation, the creation of new knowledge and a new paradigm – one that is better equipped to deal with many of the issues confronting agricultural and horticultural development in NZ.
(CoRE Fund Application Number 02-LIN-501, p. 22; emphasis in the original).

Innovations involving Theme 4/matauranga Maori Bioprotection in the first two years of operation of this CoRE are noted below. They are taken from publications, presentations, the CoRE website, and participant observation.
• Kaupapa Maori/Participatory research practices.
• Databases that will include archiving aspects of ‘matauranga Maori’ such as maramatanga and other Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEKs) relevant to horticulture.
• Intellectual Property
• Novel foods (notably taewa or Maori potatoes)
• tertiary education (including ‘staircasing’ for Maori students and two doctoral scholarships).

Maori are now returning to the proactive adoption/diffusion practices of the 19th century. In health (Durie 1998), education (Simon 1998; Walker 1996), and business (New Zealand Institute of Economic Research 2003), Maori as individuals and groups are seeking new ways of doing things. A willingness to embrace innovation in horticulture is also evident (Lambert 2004; Roskruge 2004). Historical precedents exist for this adoption of agricultural and horticultural innovations that involved interacting with government and private institutions and individuals. This ubiquitous development strategy now involves increasing collaboration with new research institutions, such as the CoREs and their strategic positioning of matauranga Maori themes.

An examination of the operation of the NCABT from the perspective of innovation reveals Maori – as individuals and groups – are actually the source of a number of important innovations. This includes criteria to satisfy the controversial requirement for ‘responsiveness to Maori’ in the government research funds (see Benfell 2003; The Royal Society of New Zealand 2003).

Approaches to Maori in the context of ‘partnership’ and ‘responsiveness’ have positioned Maori as collaborators and participants in a manner quite distinct from historically racist research programmes which sought to study indigenous peoples as passive subjects. Maori will originate as well as adopt innovations. However where funding and research priorities are to commercialise the resulting technologies – especially those designed with sustainable development of land-based industries as a goal – they are ultimately placed on the global market for such technological innovations. This method of diffusion has never been easy for indigenous peoples to access. Where such technologies are supposed to enable sustainable production on Maori land, the risk must be that diffusion is delayed, consigning Maori land-based production to extended unsustainable production.

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