Innovation is increasingly popular in international development. The last ten years have seen new initiatives, funds, and pilots aplenty. While some of this involves genuinely novel and experimental approaches, we have also seen – perhaps inevitably – some re-branding, spin and posturing. This has led to a degree of justifiable backlash and cynicism – even the Financial Times weighed in, describing international development as having caught ‘an innovation fever’.
As one of us suggested last year, new movements for change tend to head in one of three directions: they become quickly discarded fads, they are institutionalised as unthreatening silos or – in a small minority of cases – they become genuine catalysts for transformative change.
The end of April saw the publication of our new open-access book, Innovation for International Development, published by Nesta. While Nesta has been building diverse partnerships, insights and knowledge about innovation in development in recent years, this is its first publication on innovation as it is undertaken, supported and facilitated by international development organisations.
We set out to capture, distil and synthesise diverse perspectives from the work of over 20 champions working at the frontline of the innovation for international development movement: from bilateral donors to philanthropic foundations, from development banks to NGOs, from global alliances to social entrepreneurs. They reveal how individuals, organisations and networks have navigated the challenges of funding, organising, collaborating and scaling innovations.
Four big picture messages stand out:
Show me the knowledge
Of course, patient and flexible sources of money help when it comes to trying out new ideas. But ideas, experiences and networks matter just as much – if not more. USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures has since 2013 provided technical assistance to help grantees think through growth strategies, cost projections and evaluation approaches. This has proved invaluable for initiatives such as MPOWER, which provides cheap, reliable off-grid electricity to low-income and rural individuals by allowing them to pre-pay for electricity via mobile banking. Support from Development Innovation Ventures helped MPOWER to demonstrate the economic viability and scalability of the approach, and reach more than one million households, each one saving on average $186 annually in energy costs.
Break the rules – with tact and diplomacy
Organising for innovation is as much about breaking the existing rules for how things get done as it is about doing new things. This means challenging ingrained assumptions and practices and simultaneously instituting new methods systematically for managing innovation better and anticipating future needs. Interestingly, many successful innovation in the sector are not even talked about as innovations. Some successful examples were framed as ‘transforming what we do’ or ‘achieving much better impact’ or ‘reaching many more people’. In doing this, many of the core principles of innovation – of searching, of testing, of iterating, of disseminating – do get applied. But it also seems – from the experience of Oxfam, UNICEF and others – that the principles are far more important than the language.
There is much talk in innovation about the importance of diversity– and this is no doubt vital for everything from generating new ideas, through to disseminating new approaches. But this diversity is not something that comes easily – genuine innovation requires careful brokering of common ground between very different actors and mindsets. Facilitation can take you some of the way, but you won’t be able to complete the journey without hard-nosed, hard-headed, negotiation of how to meet different and often competing interests. This is especially important given development donors’ growing focus on private sector partnerships. As IKEA Foundation’s work with the Better Shelter initiative highlights, to achieve sustainable innovation it is not enough to ignore the profit motive, or hope it can be navigated through principles of ‘corporate social responsibility’. Instead, hard questions need to be asked and answered: Who gains from innovation? By how much? In what ways? And with what development implications?
Don’t replicate solutions, change systems
Simply replicating novel practices is just one route to impact and scale, and can underpin very narrow, limiting, and singular views of innovation success. Achieving scale often means innovators have to broaden their focus from making the idea work to changing the wider system of which that idea is a part. Think about the motor car – it lagged behind horse-drawn carriages until there was a wider system of roads, traffic management, driving schools, legislation, and so on. This is arguably the case for all truly novel approaches. So innovators need to better see and understand whole systems, envision new models for how they might work, and work to navigate the power and politics of change. And of course all of this needs to happen in ways that give prominence to national and local ownership.
The GAVI case study is remarkable for its rapid expansion of vaccine coverage globally through better innovation, contributing to the immunization of an additional half a billion children since 2015 (yes, you read that right). But making this sustainable in the long term means GAVI has moved onto focus its innovation not just at the level of products (e.g. new vaccines) but also at the level of overall vaccine delivery and health systems. This means focusing on novel approaches for everything from strengthening national leadership to data and information systems and equipment and maintenance. This comprehensive approach underpins their refrain: ‘the system is the innovation’
Where next for innovation in development?
Given the breadth and depth of work that is under way, we feel reasonably confident in saying that innovation for development is a movement that is here to stay, and is more than just a fad. But whether the movement will deliver against its promise – to be come a catalyst for change rather than a siloed activity – is still an open question.
The one thing we are sure of is that transformative success will only happen if we make serious efforts to understand and learn about the ups and downs of innovation for development in an open, systematic and transparent fashion, and make sure the effort focuses on genuine development opportunities and needs. We hope that this book, and the contributions within it, provide a useful step in this direction.
And just because it’s ages since we had a poll, here’s your chance to vote: