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Biocultural innovation: innovating at the intersection of the biosphere and ethnosphere

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Scientists, economists and politicians increasingly recognize that Indigenous peoples possess invaluable knowledge and practices that have the potential to drive innovation to solve critical global challenges. Indeed, thousands of important drugs––including lifesaving cancer treatments––have their origins in centuries old Indigenous knowledge and practices. Similarly, Indigenous practices have fueled the fast-growing regenerative agriculture industry that is able to yield windfall profits while sequestering carbon and enhancing biodiversity. Referred to in policy circles as biocultural innovation––a form of innovation that occurs at the intersection of the biosphere and ethnosphere––hundreds of diverse examples from a wide array of industries have been documented outside of the innovation literature. However, innovation scholars have yet to recognize or embrace biocultural innovation. We argue that this major oversight hinders practice and leaves untapped potential for solving issues such as slow or unsustainable economic growth, ecological decline, and inequality. To address this gap, we provide a clear definition of biocultural innovation, differentiate it from other innovation domains, and establish its conceptual foundations. Informed by economic theorizing that views the ethnosphere and biosphere as assets, we propose that these assets share four traits: functionality, potentiality, vulnerability, and inseparability (‘FPVI shared traits’). Due to their immense biocultural diversity, we assert that these assets carry an “option value” representing enormous innovation potential that can be converted, conserved or constructed to solve global challenges (the ‘3Cs’). We conclude by identifying promising avenues for future research on biocultural innovation and a call for action on how to unlock economic and social value while supporting biocultural assets and Indigenous rights.



biocultural innovation, biosphere, ethnosphere, Indigenous peoples

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Journal of Product Innovation Management

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