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Two methods for identifying local innovators

As part of our series looking at innovators tackling development challenges in unexpected ways, we spoke to Moritz Goeldner at the Institute for Technology & Innovation Management at Hamburg University of Technology, to find out about practical methods for identifying local innovators that they’ve been testing in Indonesia around flood resilience.


Firstly, could you tell us about the research project in Indonesia. How did it come about and what were you hoping to achieve?

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) approached us in Summer 2016, and asked us to implement a search method in Indonesia we usually use to identify innovators in the private sector. The goal was to identify innovations that foster flood resilience in Indonesia. I worked on this project together with my colleague Daniel Kruse and the head of our institute, Professor Cornelius Herstatt.



Your research presents two interesting methods for identifying local innovators – the lead user method and an open innovation contest.  Could you tell us about them and how they are different?

The lead user method is a four-step structured search process that is used to identify innovations that have already been developed and are used by the innovators. The first two steps are about identifying the problem and understanding the needs and trends that are associated with it using expert interviews.


The next steps involved identifying the innovators using search techniques like pyramiding, screening or structured desk research. During this project we approached 210 experts, mostly from Indonesia and neighbouring countries. This search led to 25 lead users and their innovations – five of which we visited during our field trip to Indonesia. Nine lead users presented their innovations during the first Flood Resilience Innovation Conference in Jakarta in February 2017.


In parallel, the IFRC and the Indonesian Red Cross (Palang Merah Indonesia, PMI) set up an innovation contest: an open call to start a competition among participants who aim at finding a solution for a particular challenge (flood resilience in Indonesia). All in all, they received 60 submissions which were evaluated by an expert jury according to predefined criteria. The nine best innovations were presented during the first Flood Resilience Innovation Conference and awarded with a prize.


What were the most interesting findings from this research? Did anything surprise you?

We found that both the contest and the lead user method are valuable ways of surfacing novel ideas with similar quality in the humanitarian sector.


However, after five experts evaluated all innovations in an unbiased way, we found some remarkable differences: innovations identified using the lead user method scored significantly better on the overall quality index. They also scored higher in the single dimensions of use value, feasibility, degree of elaboration and social impact. The overall ‘novelty’ was similar between the two methods.


In particular, the degree of elaboration and social impact dimensions are of high relevance in the humanitarian sector: those innovations are already in use and have a real social benefit to the people. On the other hand, the lead user method is much more time consuming. If the project aims at generating as many concepts as possible without using significant capacities, our study reveals that an innovation contest is the more appropriate tool (60 submissions vs. 25 lead user concepts).


In contrast, if the aim is to surface innovations that have already been implemented, and thus have demonstrable feasibility as well as high social impact, the lead user method is better suited.



Did you find out anything new about the way in which local innovators are developing solutions for challenges facing their communities?

Local innovators are developing solutions for flood resilience in Indonesia. When we took a closer look at the innovations, we found some interesting differences between the results obtained by the contest and the lead user method.


The innovation contest returned mainly tangible products like standalone early warning systems and app-based solutions. Conversely, the lead user method generated more nature-based (e.g. a particular grass that forms a dense, permanent hedge preventing soil loss from runoff) and community-based solutions (e.g. a river restoration movement that involves cleaning the river from waste and education about the consequences of improper waste management). Thus, solutions obtained with the lead user method are more embedded in the local context and hence are more often based on local knowledge.


What lessons can be drawn for development organisations and others interested in supporting local innovators?

As I mentioned above, the results of our study showed that both methods differ regarding the solution categories they reveal. It is important for development organisations to have a clear understanding of what they are looking for. If they aim to identify as many concepts as possible with limited capacities, the contest is the best way to do so. If the organsation wants to surface solutions that are already in use, embedded in the local context, and demonstrable feasibility and significant social impact, our data suggests that the lead user method is better meeting those needs.


What’s next for this research programme?

As a next step, we want to implement the lead user method again for a new problem (i.e. droughts) in a country that is heavily affected by this issue in order to prove the versatility of the method. In parallel, we want to capture our experiences in a handbook that summarises the important steps and pitfalls when implementing the lead user method in the humanitarian sector.

We are confident that this will contribute to a wider use of this innovative methodology across the globe and that it will ultimately help development organisations to better empower local innovators.


Further information

  • Read more about the project in this summary.
  • The Institute’s working paper #101 summarises their work in Indonesia and the comparison of the results between the lead user method and the innovation contest.
  • Further information from the conference is also available on the website of the IFRC.


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