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Lessons from Vietnam: inclusive innovation and access to intellectual property

Vietnam – an emerging economy with a large land border with China – has nimbly navigated its response to COVID-19. Though the 97-million person country had its first confirmed cases ofCOVID-19 on January 23, 2020, to date, there have only been 3,368 confirmed cases and 53 deaths. The country has undergone three waves of outbreaks, in which it has effectively ‘flattened the curve’ of each. One key to its success has been the innovations that emerged from the grassroots, by ordinary citizens and businesses, with an inclusive goal in mind: to lessen the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic and lockdown for society’s most vulnerable. It is with regards to inclusive innovation that Vietnam offers a valuable lesson for building back better: open access, especially in the face of a crisis.

In this essay, we distil ideas on open access to ‘inclusive innovation’, based on the Vietnamese experience but relevant to countries all over the world. We understand inclusive innovation as ‘innovation that has social and environmental aims at its heart’. This paper is the result of our interviews – online and in person – with Vietnamese inclusive innovators across the country, conducted throughout the pandemic.

Innovation as a social good

Since Mark Dutz coined the term ‘inclusive innovation’ in contemporary lexicon in 2007, it has been largely understood in terms of including more of society as producers or consumers of innovation. As producers, the idea is to include more demographic groups (by gender, ethnicity, race, age, disability and sexuality), industries and regions as innovators. This has been largely understood in policy circles as a need for the greater inclusion of women and minority groups in work in technological innovation. Policymakers, in order to broaden the range of demographic groups involved in technological innovation, often devise strategies that boost their social capital, through networking, mentorship and role model campaigns. Inclusive innovation, when it is considered in terms of consumption, is akin to the notion of the bottom-of-the-pyramid, such that innovation budgets and human resources should be directed towards the needs of low-income consumers.

However, Vietnamese innovators have underscored a fundamental – but underemphasized – point about innovation if it is to be truly inclusive. Not only should there be more diversity among the producers and consumers of innovation, but innovative ideas themselves (which are often ‘intellectual property,’ or IP) should be accessible without the impedance of price and patents. In academic terms, we refer to the sharing of research results via ‘open access’, so that wider society is able to benefit from research breakthroughs and related publications. Two of the innovators we interviewed in Vietnam stressed how they made a concerted effort to ensure open access to their ideas. They made their IP widely accessible, so that the positive impact could be scaled up rapidly.

Mr Kao Sieu Luc, the founder of ABC Bakery, realized that produce – particularly dragon-fruit – was rotting in containers, since international trade seized up in Spring 2020. Seeing this with his own eyes, he spoke to dragon-fruit farmers, realizing that a new, domestic outlet was urgently needed. He summoned an emergency meeting at his bakery headquarters and got to work developing a recipe for bread and bread products that integrated dragon-fruit as a key ingredient. It took him days of trial and error to complete the recipe, and mass stocks of dragon-fruit. When the first batches of the dragon-fruit bread were sold to the public, Mr Kao was already procuring up to 2.5 tonnes of dragon fruit daily from the farmers; thankfully, his bread then quickly became a phenomenon, with widespread media coverage and troves of customers. But he found that his own efforts were not enough. If he was truly going to offer a domestic lifeline to farmers, bakeries and families around the country must be able to buy dragon-fruit and make the bread on their own. So, he posted his recipe – freely – around city streets and online. At the bottom of the recipe he even included his mobile number, saying to call him if anyone had issues with the recipe. Thus, the ‘pink bakery’ movement began, with dragon-fruit being bought to make bread as well as burger buns, pho, rice paper and dumplings.

A similar mantra was expressed by Mr Hoang Tuan Anh, the creator of the rice ATM in Vietnam. Mr Hoang is an engineer and runs a business selling and installing imported electronic locks to smart home owners and developers. When COVID- 19 hit Vietnam, he noticed that many philanthropists were prevented from holding charitable events to give rice to the poor and unemployed due to community infection risks. He solved this ‘people-connection puzzle’ by building automatic rice dispensers, shaped like ATMs, that combined the electronic locks he was selling, his own lock-testing machinery, a large water container (to store rice) and a smartphone. The rice ATMs were installed outside his shop, dispensing rice donated by friends and families. Mr Hoang’s work attracted philanthropists and the media, and he soon received tonnes of rice donations, as well as requests for use of his ATMs. As of November 2020, 100 rice ATMs had been made, 30 of which were donated to various local authorities, and 10,000 tonnes of rice had been dispensed. Equally important, Mr Hoang made the IP for the rice ATM freely available. The reason given was similar to Mr Kao’s in that his own production scale was limited, but if he made the design readily available in the public domain, many others could join in, so rice ATMs could be used across Vietnam.

Aligning profit with purpose

One could presume that open IP is something unique to Vietnam, either on account of the country’s political economy (a one-party, Communist-led state) or the nature of its market economy (liberalized rather recently, in 1986). Perhaps the combination of government and economy could mean that Vietnamese innovators are less interested or able to reap profits from their innovations, so they are more inclined towards giving their IP away freely. In a fully liberal market economy, so the chorus would go, one would have greater incentives to protect intellectual property.

However, this is not the case. Both Mr Kao and Mr Hoang made their IP available to the public, but also, benefitted from sales and future contracts. For ABC Bakery, sales from the pink bakery were significant, as was the positive media coverage it provided. Elsewhere, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has bought a number of rice ATMs from Mr Hoang, to sell as part of Vietnam’s foreign aid to Africa and beyond.

The lesson, from these Vietnamese innovators, is to build back better by ensuring that inclusive innovators – who direct their efforts towards societal challenges – are incentivized to share their IP so that their advance can be rapidly scaled up and widely disseminated. State support is crucial here, in ensuring that such IP is made widely available and that the innovators are rewarded. Rather than the state focusing innovation policy on top-down support for R&D, responsive mechanisms need to be in place to reward inclusive innovators who develop timely, affordable solutions on their own. So, instead of the state emphasizing their role in the invention stage of the innovation process, the insight here is for policymakers to strive to help inclusive innovators to disseminate – and, commercialize – their home-grown breakthroughs.

Read the whole report

About the authors

Dr Robyn Klingler-Vidra is Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy,

Department of International Development, King’s College London.

Dr Berlin Tran is a Lecturer at the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City.

In this story

Robyn Klingler-Vidra

Robyn Klingler-Vidra

Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy

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