Spanning 12,500 hectares, the East Kolkata Wetlands in India serves multiple purposes, from fish farming, agriculture, and rice cultivation to functioning as the world’s largest wastewater-fed aquaculture system. By employing 60,000 farmers, supplying 15 percent of the city’s fish, providing a home to over 3,000 tribal families, and treating half of the sewage generated by a city of 15 million inhabitants, this human-engineered ecosystem—neither natural nor artificial (or maybe both)—demonstrates a form of social innovation that scholars have often failed to recognize and embrace, what we are calling “biocultural innovation.”

While commercial innovations can be classified as products, processes, or business models, biocultural innovation blurs the lines between extractive notions of innovation and biocultural approaches to conservation. Defined as the application of traditional knowledge to improve intergenerational well-being—while minimizing the depletion of biocultural assets—biocultural innovation begins with an appreciation for the knowledge systems of Indigenous, tribal, and other local communities. Often described as “place-based” knowledge, because it’s rooted in the natural ecosystems in which peoples have lived for centuries, it reflects a profound comprehension of the connections between people and their environment.

Consider these examples. In Australia, the Indigenous Grasslands for Grain project integrates the local knowledge of the Gomeroi people with modern agriculture technology to produce nutritionally superior native grains while regenerating local ecosystems. In the Andes mountains, the traditional floating homes of the Uros people are inspiring low-cost, eco-friendly construction techniques worldwide that can improve water quality and biodiversity. Focused on the Amazon, the Earth Bank of Codes is assembling a genomic library of every species to spur innovation—from new drugs to efficient manufacturing—while promising to share commercial windfalls with Indigenous peoples who care for this immense ecosystem.

While too often overlooked by scholars, biocultural innovation is neither small nor niche, and has grown into a global movement, earning recognition and support from policy makers, practitioners, and various sectors. The United Nations has incorporated biocultural diversity into its sustainable development agenda, IPBES acknowledges the critical importance of traditional knowledge in biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, and UNESCO has established a global network of biosphere reserves to find new approaches to sustainable economic development that foster biocultural diversity, what are essentially biocultural “innovation labs.”

Read the full article about biocultural innovation by Jarrod Vassallo, Sourindra Banerjee and Jaideep Prabhu at Stanford Social Innovation Review.