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Development innovation: Taking the high road

Ben Ramalingam
Overseas Development Institute/Institute of Development Studies

Back in March, the first part of Ben Ramalingam’s blog discussed the challenges facing development innovation. This week, Ben suggests how we might take the ‘high road’ to bring about long-lasting and meaningful innovation in the sector.


Be ready to replicate


The future path of development innovation will be determined by how well we deal with the five challenges that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. As I noted, there are three distinct possibilities; a low road where the five challenges are not met and innovation is discarded, a middle road where innovation becomes institutionalised as a new silo in development organisations, and business carries on as usual, or a high road where innovation tackles the challenges and becomes a catalyst for the transformation of the whole sector.


If the innovation movement is to move onto the third, catalytic, pathway, a number of improvements are vital.

1. Better evidence, with a focus on learning rather than accountability

First, we need to invest in better evidence for development innovation. Development research is already a significant effort, with hundreds of millions globally spent each year. A portion of this should be directed toward systematic learning in and from innovation investments. To date, it is perhaps fair to say that many development innovation efforts have spent more time and resources on the ‘doing’ than on the ‘learning’ part of the innovation equation. This is in part because having secured funding for innovation processes, it may seem excessive to also seek funds for assessment of those processes. But ultimately, not doing so makes the ‘fad’ accusations much harder to refute. Investing in innovation without some form of evidence is akin to playing football without goalposts or pitch markings.


Better evidence for innovation means clearer definitions of innovations and a better sense of how specific innovations will add value to what is already being done in development and humanitarian work. This sounds simple, but it is remarkable how many funded innovations fail to pass this simple test.


It also means new methods and tools for validation at different stages of innovation processes Evidence at the horizon scanning stage will look different to evidence in pilots, evidence for ‘proof of concept’ will be different to evidence for scaling, and so on. So we need to make sure that we don’t attempt to hit the innovation evidence nail with the same hammer repeatedly. This means building on the extensive work already underway across the development sector, but also going beyond to learn from how other sectors do their due diligence and validation. Crucially, this also requires innovation donors to be comfortable with new tools and methodologies. Perhaps most importantly, it also means trying to put in place a different culture around evaluation: to move it away from promoting a fear of failure and risk-taking, towards fusing creativity with rigour and engendering a hunger for novelty and learning.


To do all this, we need to embrace a plurality of new approaches and measures, and find new ways of using existing ones. For example, the debate around randomised control trials continues in development circles, but it seems clear that one of the ‘killer apps’ may well be to randomise an existing method or application with an innovative alternative to see which might work best. Development Innovation Ventures, who I flagged last week as a leader in the field, has some great lessons from their work already. They have also learned where RCTs may not be so useful or practical, and have started to broaden their approach to evidence as a result.


We also need to start learning more systematically about what the range of innovation initiatives have achieved and learned to date: what has worked well, and what hasn’t. Development organisations should work with innovation specialists to take up this mantle, and be open and transparent about what they have done well and where improvements are needed. UNDP commissioned one of the leaders in public sector innovation, MindLab, to evaluate their own work and have made the report publicly available.  Nesta will be making an initial step in this area, with the launch of a new research project to learn about the state of development innovation from some of its leading exponents.

2. Stronger information and networks, to bring about stronger ‘open innovation’ approaches

Second, we need better information and networks for development innovation. The various development innovation initiatives may be networked informally, but there are few mechanisms for sharing their work, information and experiences more formally. There is a clear need for some form of good shared information infrastructure. Innovation leaders should be using some of their data savvy-ness and tech capabilities to provide a shared knowledge platform for the emerging distributed movement, to keep track of those seemingly endless pilots, and better collate and manage the evidence base on development innovation work.


While that will work for the information side, the more social and tacit side of innovation knowledge also needs attention. I think we need ‘network conveners’ that can provide a neutral platform, enabling development initiatives and organisations to come together and learn from what has worked and what has not, both operationally and strategically. We need these networks to be diverse, working across sectors, bringing together scientists, technologists and industrialists with aid workers, representatives of governments and civil society, and perhaps most importantly, communities and citizen groups in developing countries.


Ultimately these networks should not be just a platform for knowledge exchange, vital thought this is, but should be seen as fertile ground for the emergence of more ‘open innovation’ approaches: providing safe spaces for collaboration and collective action. The future should not be more institutionally branded labs and technologies, more fragmentation and unhealthy competition in innovation, but instead more ways of finding common ground and mobilising diverse capacities in pursuit of shared goals.

3. A focus on capacities and practice, focusing on tacit skills, supporting entrepreneurs, and creating the right enabling environment

Third, we need to think much more about how to use the investments to date to build capacities in innovation management. One of the major challenges the development sector faces in innovation work is a lack of human skills and capacities. Some of this is being grafted in, especially from academia and the private sector, but these new entrants often find it difficult to collaborate with development professionals. At the risk of being provocative, it must be said that the way in which these new actors are introduced has sometimes been clumsy and rather patronising to those already working in the sector, many of who have a good grasp of the limits and possibilities of innovation.


This is crucial because innovation management is not something that can easily be read and understood in a manual: it requires tacit knowledge sharing in the form of dialogue, coaching, mentoring, joint problem solving, knowledge exchanges, collective working, networks, and so on. Nesta’s work with Rockefeller Foundation on the DIY Toolkit is a good initial step to building innovation capacities in the sector – and much more is needed.


The sector also has a notoriously bad record at dealing with creative and entrepreneurial types, many of whom end up outside of the formal system, working as maverick insider-outsider figures. We need better institutional – and dare I say it, emotional – support to these would-be entrepreneurs and potential disruptors. These figures should not be squeezed out of organisations but placed in positions where they are licensed to explore and push boundaries, ideally working with incoming individuals with formal innovation expertise.


The work underway in the ‘doing development differently’ movement – led by Harvard, ODI and others – spells out the needs for more adaptive and innovative at a policy level. The mantra is that development must move away from its top-down, insensitive, mechanistic roots and become more adaptive, dynamic and responsive. This is exactly the shift that is needed for innovation to take root in the sector. Making it happen is harder that talking about it: there needs to be a serious dialogue buy cheap tramadol overnight delivery about how development organisations need to change if they are going to really work on innovation, the hard limits to possible changes, and how these will be navigated.


This means thinking about some of those institutional aspects that may not seem especially exciting or novel, but which can unlock the door to more and better innovation practices. Risk management, procurement and programme management: they sound tremendously dry and far from the frontline of development innovation, but reforms to these areas will do as much as any of the more exciting operational ventures to bring about a more supportive and enabling environment.

4. Better innovation management processes, that are inclusive, user-driven and co-created

Fourth, we need more inclusive innovation management processes. These need to be focused where innovation most matters: in developing countries, as close as possible to, and ideally at, the coalface of the development process.


This is where good, clear innovation processes can and do have the most leverage and impact, by engaging more directly with the poor and vulnerable communities, civil society organisations, government organisations, private sector, researcher and scientists in developing countries.


We need fewer innovation thinkers based in DC, Geneva and London, and more working close to the so-called ‘last mile’ of development work(or should that be ‘first mile’?). There should also be much more work with and by innovation specialists in developing countries. This is important not just because it means that innovation will not become yet another aid export industry, but also because the real process of innovation for development always needs to be grounded in local contexts. Put simply, it is much more important and meaningful to hitch innovative ventures to emergent patterns in local contexts, and makes for meaningful and lasting change, than to try and import ideas and technologies from the outside. If there is any doubt about this, look at how the mobile money system Mpesa became a runaway success in Kenya because it hitched onto and capitalised on existing social dynamics of financial exchanges. It is interesting to compare this to Mpeas’s more nuanced successes in other countries, and to efforts more oriented to technology transfer that have rarely proved sustainable.


Geoff Mulgan’s call for re-positioning design thinking for innovation is worth heeding here. He suggests that design thinking needs to be grounded in a different kind of conversation – away from promoting and showcasing design efforts, and towards mutual learning and dialogue between designers, users and other professionals around new possibilities, aimed at sparking creative insights.


Also of importance is Nesta’s work on frugal innovation in India, China and other middle and low income countries. Interestingly while this approach to innovation has energised the global business community – with a new Economist book published recently – it is rather less evident in development circles. This may in part because of the longstanding, but utterly flawed, working assumption of development aid that developing country actors be seen as passive recipients of knowledge.


Additionally, innovation management demands more trust and mutual accountability than is common in the sector. This was brought home to me in conversation with a friend who specialises in information technology, Graham Paul, who remarked that scrum and agile approaches to project management can only work in his field if there is the necessary trust between the actors involved. We often talk about employing agile approaches in development innovation, but without efforts to build trust, these processes become distorted and lose their potential value. There are efforts underway to deal with this in a number of organisations, but the qualifications often made can mean that the old ways of working are subtly – or in some cases, firmly – reinforced. Approaches to innovation that focus on co-creation, as opposed to contractual arrangements that resemble typical development outsourcing agreements, are essential here.

5. Greater political awareness, to overcome technocratic simplifications

Finally, development innovation need to combine its considerable ‘tech smarts’ with much more politically savvy-ness. We should remember that social innovations tip into scale not just because of evidence and networks, but also because the political context is ripe for change. We need to use such an understanding to provide alternatives to the more technocratic narratives of development innovation that currently dominate the sector. Without this, we may succumb to over-simplistic narratives of innovation that tell us little about what it is, how it works, and why it is important.


A change in the innovation narrative is vital if we are overcome what has been described as the ‘Faustian bargain’ of innovation policy: if we want innovation to move from a series of simplistic, technological fixes towards a creative mindset and approach which is more central in development thinking. The Institute of Development Studies has a new programme of work on digital development, which seeks to answer hard questions of ‘who wins and who loses’, and challenge prevailing technocratic approaches, promises to be an important step in the right direction. It will be successful to the extent that it can bring such questions, and the answers, into policy and practice: getting funders and innovators to ask the same hard questions and hopefully dissolve away some of those persistent development innovation mirages.


A less technocratic, more politically and socially grounded, approach is also essential if we are going to have more realistic expectations of development innovation processes. Patience and humility are not especially widespread in either the development or the innovation movements, but both are vital if the two are going to be successfully bridged.


The development innovation movement also should pay careful attention to the ebbs and flows of the wider political debates of the development sector. By doing so, I think that innovation can be more carefully and intelligently positioned within development discourse. The goal should be to continually reinforce that innovation can be a route to transformative change – but only if the development sector itself is willing to undergo change. This is undoubtedly a bumpier, less sexy, approach to development innovation – and may lead to less politically convenient ways of thinking and acting in development – but I think it is also a more honest, trustworthy and sustainable route.

Closing thoughts, on walking our talk

Without concerted effort in these five areas, I fear the development innovation movement risks heading somewhere between fad and silo. In a few years time, we will be looking back and surmising that innovation did not deliver on its promise. And the development sector as a whole will have missed out on a golden opportunity to transform itself to have greater catalytic relevance to the challenges it faces around the world.


The positive news is that none of these areas are radical departures for the sector: some of them are starting to happen already, albeit in a small-scale fashion, and in pockets here and there. We also have the benefit of lessons from actors outside the development sector – from across Nesta’s portfolio of work, as well as the other many actors focused on learning and doing in public and social innovation.


My hope is that all of us involved in the development innovation movement will be able to come together better to move our disparate efforts in these areas onto a more strategic, collective and sustained footing.


Ultimately, this will demand that we walk our own talk, and undergoing a process of significant and lasting reinvention, towards a more courageous and honest approach to innovation in our sector. Let’s see how we do.


Ben Ramalingam is a researcher, advisor and author specialising in international development and humanitarian issues. His recent book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, explores how complex systems thinking can help transform international cooperation. He is Chair of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and holds honorary positions at the Overseas Development Institute, the Institute of Development Studies and the Royal Veterinary College. His work on innovation and systemic approaches to development and humanitarian work has been featured in The Economist, Financial Times, Guardian, New Scientist, The Lancet and Nature.

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