How Social Goals Can Drive Innovation Policy


Innovation can be a powerful tool for tackling social issues, but it’s not a switch policymakers can simply turn “on” or “off.” It requires years of investment and nurturing, which can be difficult to maintain with limited resources and competing priorities.

Brazil, however, has been doing it for decades in their fight against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), a public health issue that affects millions around the world. Since the 1970s, the country cultivated new knowledge networks, which include domestic and international organizations, with the goal of improving their innovation capabilities in healthcare. And these efforts could provide a blueprint for other nations hoping to accomplish something similar.

The World Health Organization identifies 25 major conditions as NTDs, such as malaria and dengue. In 2020, it was estimated that everyone living below the World Bank poverty line was infected with at least one NTD, which equates to at least 10 per cent of the world’s population. These ailments can be debilitating, painful, and carry a strong social stigma. They can also be fatal. Ten million people per year die because of these ailments, said Perez-Aleman.

“Addressing these diseases is central to global health,” said Paola Perez-Aleman, Professor of Strategy and Organization at McGill University, in an interview on the McGill Delve podcast. She co-authored a study that examined Brazil’s knowledge networks and innovation capabilities in their fight against NTDs.

Despite the prevalence and public health impacts of NTDs, only one per cent of R&D investments in public health goes towards treating them, said Perez-Aleman. And this investment usually comes from wealthier, Northern countries, who pass down their innovations to emerging economies in the Global South.

Brazil’s approach to fighting NTDs, however, flips the script. Instead of depending on external actors, Brazilian policymakers prioritized building their own healthcare innovation capabilities. This is a non-typical approach to fostering innovation, said Perez-Aleman.

“Typically, we think of these two realms as separate: social policy and innovation policy,” she said. “What the Brazilian case demonstrates is how social goals can drive innovation.”

Brazil’s approach involved strengthening local research and development organizations (like universities and research hospitals) and fostering more equitable collaboration with multinationals. This helped strengthen Brazil’s knowledge networks, allowing for the exchange of expertise and knowledge between diverse local and international actors. Perez-Aleman said collaboration like this is essential for the invention and implementation of sustainable public health solutions in Brazil.

To learn about Brazil’s approach to building innovation capacity, read Professor Paola Perez-Aleman’s study or listen to her interview.

This article was written by Eric Dicaire. This episode of the Delve podcast was hosted by Sabine Dhir and edited and mixed by Eric Dicaire. Saku Mantere is Delve’s editor-in-chief.

Delve is the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Subscribe to the Delve podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple podcasts and Spotify, and follow Delve on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Paola Perez-Aleman
Associate Professor, Strategy and Organization