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Op-ed by Maureen Penjueli on the current RESET FIJI TV series
Great innovations come when there is great crisis or when we’re faced with complex problems. The pandemic and climate emergency creates that need. Last week's Reset Fiji episode discussed the role of innovation, technology and knowledge in shaping and progressing Fiji in a post-pandemic world.
Central to these discussions are the ways that traditional systems of knowledge and their innovation in current settings still offers tremendous basis for how new technologies and thinking can shore up resilience. As Simione Sevudredre, highlighted, resilience is already ‘preloaded into Fiji's traditions’, there is a need to draw from the past and these traditions, but it must be done in a community spirit to look after everyone.
In Fiji the concept of 'Solesolevaki' has gained significant prominence during the pandemic. As described by Sevudredre, Solesolevaki is more nuanced than is currently understood which means to work together or collaborate for a greater good, using an example from Beqa Island more famously known for its fire walking rather than its old technology of fishing nets. The people who are collaborating are bound by an intrinsic value and they’re also guided by an extrinsic value. It is more than just teamwork, it is something that is valued by the people, identified by the people as a tradition but is reapplied and contemporised for the benefit of the community.
When discussing innovation, it is important to realise that innovation isn’t just about new ideas or new technology, traditional systems are constantly innovating and evolving, refining their knowledge in response to the circumstances. This was also seen last week with the comments from the Naitasiri Women in Dairy Cooperative and extended beyond the adoption of new technologies for calf rearing, mushroom farming and the use of M-Paisa but more significantly to the way that these women are innovating cultural, social and economic norms regarding the expected roles that women have, especially in male dominated industries like dairy whilst making it a viable business model.
Further to this is the discussion of how new technologies and ideas can build on these traditional values and systems. Masi Latianara, an architect with a great passion for social housing, raised the issue of how to properly house Fiji's population in climate resilient housing and proposed a feasible solution in the adoption of bamboo construction into the national building code. Mr Latianara argued that the use of materials like bamboo creates a more environmentally sustainable solution that is cheaper, is climatically suited to be grown within Fiji, and is a material that is not unfamiliar with traditional knowledge.
Another key point that was raised was the need for infrastructure to assist and encourage innovation, while retaining talent in Fiji particularly in the technology field and establish Fiji as the ICT hub of the Pacific. Over 35 percent of people in the field of technology migrate every year for better opportunities and better remuneration, the same for the construction industry. From including bamboo into the building code to fostering an ecosystem to support new technological applications, there are key roles for government and community to facilitate new innovations.
As Kenneth Katafono raised, the key to innovation is people and the need to invest in the young people and institutions to be able to think bigger while not being scared to come up with new ideas. This also reflects comments by Mukesh Lodhia who stated that technology is only an enabler and that it only works with the participation of people.
Having people centred innovation was a common theme among panellists. Many spoke of ensuring that the product suits the needs of the people requiring it, a design perspective of 'user focused design'. While this was not only important in ensuring that there is an uptake in new technologies like cloud computing or apps but also ensuring that all people are included in design decisions. This applies especially to including women and other marginalised groups in design and innovation discussions to ensure that they are fit for purpose but also support those who need it most in ways they need it most.
In this technological age any discussion of innovation must include the issue of data capture and privacy. As Ronal Singh pointed out, the rights that Fijian's have to privacy whilst explicit in the Constitution are being eroded with the sharing of data both willingly and unwillingly. Mr Singh argued that if information is power than the giving away of data must be understood as an act of giving away that power. This includes having a clear understanding of what data is collected, how it is collected, how it will be used in the future and who has the control of decisions made about how that data is shared. A central feature of data collection is trust. All of these questions need to be answered before any decisions are made regarding the sharing of one’s personal data.
People’s personal data and rights to it are important but there is much room for innovation regarding the way that collective data and knowledge is addressed. Whilst social media companies and governments may have access to personal data, some of which is happily given to access that service, the issue of ownership of collective data and its ability to map populations remains highly controversial. Just as personal data is owned by the individual, there is also an urgent need to ensure that group data is owned by the group of individuals. This collective data contains vast amounts of power in the way that it can be used to predict behaviour and thus make policy and funding decisions without consulting people.
Further to this is the issue of how to address the control of collectivised knowledges like those held by communities. As Mr Sevudredre mentioned, intellectual property legislation is inadequate for traditional knowledges as it takes collectively owned knowledge and individualises it to assign the rights to that property and therefore benefits. This is already happening in Fiji (and across the Pacific) where collective knowledge is digitalised and mass produced into medicines, art or fashion designs. Establishing ways to protect these knowledges and ensuring that the benefits are shared with the community who own them is an ongoing challenge for the western intellectual property systems which are largely dominant.
Last week’s panel highlighted how innovation is an ongoing action. It requires support and a conducive environment to be encouraged and shaped by those who are using it. Fiji and the Pacific are faced with yet more challenges with COVID19 and will come up with many innovative ways to deal with this. We have already seen this in the ways that communities are responding to the hardships that the pandemic has confronted them with by creating new networks of support and livelihood creation.
The panellists provided clear examples of the technological expertise that already exists in Fiji but also the in-built innovation and knowledges that exist in traditional systems. While it is easy to portray these as a battle between 'old' and 'new' technologies the reality is that they are in fact heavily intertwined and both carry immense value to the communities. Innovation in the Pacific starts with knowledge and systems built on generations of knowledge, a foundation that has proven itself resilient in the face of continual challenges like colonisation, natural disasters and economic downturns.
RESET Fiji is brought to you by Mai TV, Oxfam in the Pacific, USP and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.
Maureen Penjueli, is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional watchdog promoting Pacific peoples’ right to be self-determining.
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