Research on the Sustainability of Grassroots Innovation ——Evidence From Chinese Farmer Makers_Tongji SEM Research on the Sustainability of Grassroots Innovation ——Evidence From Chinese Farmer Makers_Tongji SEM
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Research on the Sustainability of Grassroots Innovation ——Evidence From Chinese Farmer Makers

Sun, Feb 10, 2019

QIN Jialiang               Doctoral Candidate

ZHANG Yuchen       Professor of  Tongji SEM, Doctoral Supervisor


National prosperity comes from the general public participation in the innovation process that involves the conception, development and popularization of new technologies and new products, which is independent innovation deepgoing in grassroots class. China’s Premier Li Keqiang once said that we should let grassroots innovation become a trend and blossom everywhere. As a grounded and creative social movement, grassroots innovation can generate solutions to energy, health, food and other problems, making production and consumption more sustainable.

In the process of poverty eradication, many scholars are immersed in the research of the government and enterprises, while ignoring the power of grassroots innovation. Although there is a lot of research on innovation, there is no real academic research on grassroots innovation. Therefore, we take the typical grassroots group — Chinese farmers as the research object, and try to understand the value creation process of farmer makers under the condition of resource scarcity through 10 typical cases of Chinese farmers’ grassroots innovation, and answer what is the form of grassroots innovation.

Grassroots Innovation and Inclusive Innovation

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points out that inclusive innovation is the use of science, technology and innovative know-how to address the needs of lower-income groups. It implies two meanings: (1) to carry out innovative activities aimed at the specific needs of lower-income groups, letting them obtain and enjoy innovative achievements; (2) lower-income groups participate, promote and implement specific innovation activities to play their role and create value in the process of innovation, which is called grassroots innovation.

In order to solve some technical difficulties in production and life, or to reduce the cost of some technologies or products, a series of inventions and innovation activities have been carried out by grassroots groups represented by ordinary farmers with lower income and lower education level, which not only creates economic value, but also brings force socioeconomic benefits. Different from general innovation, grassroots innovation is not market-oriented at the beginning of innovation, but is guided by personal interests or for solving problem in life and work. Secondly, due to lack of strong technical support, it is difficult to protect it with traditional intellectual property rights. Thirdly, grassroots innovation has strong externalities.

As the world’s largest developing country, China’s inclusive innovation covers a wider range of areas and objects. It mainly includes three levels :(1) improving the socio-economic welfare of some social groups, including low-income groups and vulnerable groups; (2) decrease discrepancy between urban and rural areas and between regions by increasing the inclusiveness of innovation; (3) it brings high benefits but also contains great risks..

Research Method and Data

Table 1   Grassroots Innovation Cases of Farmers






Greenhouse Solar   Heater

ZHAO Guoqiang

Guzhangzi   village, Jiangchang county, Liaoning Province


Water chestnut   harvester

MA Suocai

Xinqiao   town, Danyang city, Jiangsu   province


Super rapeseed

SHEN Jiancai   father-and-son

Yangqiao   village, Linli county, Hunan   province


Towerless program   dosing constant-voltage water-supply equipment

FENG Yushu

Xinchang   village, Nanchong city, Sichuan province


Multifunctional   smoke-free oven

LIN Wenzhong

Chongxi   village, Qiaojia county, Yunnan   province


Enhanced waterproof   agent


Guanghua   village, Wanrong county, Shanxi   province


Bicycle respirator

MENG Wenhai

Cuiqiao   village, Anyang county, Henan   province


Banana tree pulverizer for returning to the field


Jinhe   village, Xuwen county, Guangdong   province


Non-pollution   straw-paper making method

ZHANG Chengshao

Shankou   town, Daiyue district, Shandong   province


Mast-type   mechanical equipment combination foundation

ZHAO Zhengyi

Changping   town, Changping (original)  district, Beijing

Referring to the rigorous induction method of qualitative research proposed by Gioia and Corley on the basis of grounded theory,  this paper analyses 10 typical grassroots innovation cases of Chinese farmers, as shown in table 1. The data sources come from all the public information including China Rural Entrepreneurship and Innovation Information Network, Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, innovation database of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research Center of Tianjin University of Finance and Economics, news interviews and reports of authoritative media such as People’s Daily online and relevant documentaries of CCTV10 science and education channel. In the process of case selection, maximum variation sampling method is adopted to consciously select diversified cases to obtain changes in the dimension of interest, and systematic sampling is carried out on various grassroots innovations of farmers, so as to reveal the essence of sustainable innovation.

Referring to Gioia and Corley’s method, the first step is to have a continuous “dialogue” with the collected empirical data to understand the value creation process of grassroots innovation of farmers, and to obtain and develop first-level concepts from and adapting to the data. The second step is to analyze the relationship between the first-level concepts and organize them together according to common attributes to form a second-level subject which also follows the original data. The third step is to form three clustering dimensions to reflect the dynamic driving force in the process of grassroots innovation of farmers, as shown in figure 1.

Research Reveals:

(1) Resource-driven innovation. Innovation resources are the necessary resources that the innovation subject relies on for innovation activities, including human resources, capital, technology and other necessary resource conditions. Due to the large gap between the rich and the poor, unbalanced distribution of resources is a prevailing phenomenon in China. At the grassroots level, resources scarcity does not prevent farmers from innovation, but urges them to form resource-driven innovation by inventing and adding new functions to daily things. All the cases in this paper show that grassroots farmers can make full use of various materials around them and give these things new meanings, that is also a kind of innovative ability.

(2) Society-driven innovation. Individuals and organizations, regardless of their nature, exist on the premise of providing specific services to the society. Individuals and organizations of different natures must act in accordance with their roles in the society in which they are placed. Grassroots innovation encourages solutions for various social problems, such as the cooking oil and tap water problems in the cases.

(3) Eco-driven innovation. Grassroots farmers create ecologically friendly products and technologies to generate direct environmental benefits or to reduce environmental damage with minimal energy consumption. Environmental friendliness is often at the center of grassroots’ activities focused on innovation and technology development. On the one hand, the concept of environmental protection can provide important ideas for grassroots innovation, and innovation is the driving force for solving environmental problems. On the other hand,  the impact of grassroots innovation on the environment is uncertain, that the level of innovation significantly affects the ecological and environmental benefits.

First-level concept:

Second-level subject:

Cluster dimension:

Local raw material

Material recombination

Production cost reduction

Labor productivity increase

Farmer productivity efficiency improvement

User   cost saving

Easy to   learn T&P

Job creation

Income increase

Practical usage

Professional   problem solving

Farmers’   life problem solving

Agricultural waste utilization

Energy efficiency improvement

Local condition utilization for efficiency   improvement

Lower power consumption

Pollution   derived from original technology

Pollution   decrease with new technology

1. Resource restriction

2. Cost-efficiency driven

3. User usability

4. Economic   growth

5. Economical    and   practical

6. Ecology   efficiency

7.Environmental concern reduction

1.Resource-driven innovation

2.Society-driven innovation

3.Eco-driven innovation

This shows that traditional concepts tend to believe that innovation belongs to the mainstream society and can only be carried out by big companies, governments, universities and other mainstream departments. However, in fact, innovative ideas can come from individuals and communities that master valuable traditional knowledge. Our research shows that farmer “makers” have a strong driving force to solve social problems and influence local people by designing ingenious methods. In terms of value creation, grassroots innovation of farmers can generate huge social value in multiple dimensions, such as efficiency improvement, economic growth and professional problem solving.

In addition, it is traditionally believed that the business paradigm transition to green is led by the business elites in this world. However, through research, we found that this transition can be driven by the multiple, disorderly and mixed approaches of grassroots. “Grassroots scientists” is no longer a mocking word, it has become a praise to  the “individual” folk researchers who are persist in innovation regardless of the origin point.