Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social innovation

Turner, J. M. W. - The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken

As the Tales from the Hood blog noted, innovation is en vogue in the development sector. UNICEF’s Executive Board opened last February with a statement on the importance of innovation. USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures is in full steam and the World Bank’s Innovation Practice is often making headlines with initiatives such as open data or Apps for Climate Change.

Challenges such as 3D printing for development are becoming increasingly common practice. Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockfeller Foundation recently declared to Forbes magazine that we are entering “the third phase of philanthropy,” marked by the effort to “seek out innovation on the ground – sourcing ideas from the crowd – and … scale them as often as we look to create them.” And these are only few examples.

So is innovation just the latest buzzword (fad?) in the development discourse (hold off clicking on the yes button, skeptics out there), or is it something we should embrace in an era of dwindling resources? If the latter, how do we move beyond generic aspirations to walking the talk? (As Duncan Green ironically pointed out “has anyone ever asked you to be less innovative?”)

If we are to take the raging debate over open data as an indicator, implementation challenges – once one moves beyond the buzzwords –  are often non-trivial. For instance, should development organizations follow the stand-alone, skunk works model of innovation (which seems to be the favourite mode so far) or opt for approaches that encourage a closer link to operations? Or, what are effective tactics to embed in the organizational culture an appetite for prototyping, away from the comfort of pilots? What are the criteria to judge whether, say, a challenge or a crowdsourcing initiative successful?

These are some of the questions that are very much on our minds as we begin exploring innovation at UNDP. To help us answer these questions, we recently met with Geoff Mulgan, NESTA’s Chief Executive, Gail Davenport from the World Bank Innovation Practice and Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of the UN Global Pulse to discuss “Demistifying Innovation for Development.”

It would be too hard to do justice to the richness of the discussions in a blog post, so let me just focus here on three ideas that stood out for me:

1. Perhaps the most memorable image came from Geoff’s last slide, reproducing Turner’s famous Fighting Temeraire (above) – the ship depicted as it is about to be broken into scrap. At the end of the day, Geoff noted, innovation is about decommissioning and letting go, no matter how well established or respected the old habit was (NESTA recently published a great report on this subject, The Art of Exit).

This got me thinking: when it comes to development organizations, innovation is often seen as a new “activity” or “initiative.” Would a more useful starting point be to identify what needs to be decommissioned? More generally, how can we get development organizations to embrace “the art of exit”? 

2. Our speakers seemed united on rather than trying to identify “our way to do innovation,” development organizations are better off spending more time understanding and analyzing what is already being done and focusing their efforts in providing project managers with tools and approaches they can choose from (this is consistent with the Kafka Brigade’s principles I blogged about recently). The way that NESTA approaches innovation (below) and research provide a good starting point in this respect. (See: the open book on social innovation or the recently launched Center for Challenges Prizes). By the same token, the Global Pulse research on real time and agile development is a must read for anyone interested in new approaches to crisis management (and real time project monitoring).

But there is an implicit challenge here: how can we bridge the gap between the theoretical work on innovation and development practitioners on the ground? A recent Scidev feature on grassroots innovation has some interesting insights on this. (At UNDP, we are starting to think about how best to address this issue for our staff – suggestions welcome!)

NESTA approach to innovation process

3. In my trainings, I often like to use the quote that “it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Hearing Gail’s frank (and way too modest!) account on how the “crazy” idea of open development became a reality at the World Bank confirmed my hunch that learning by doing is the best approach to promote innovation within an organization.

This somewhat challenges the established paradigm that “competence comes before performance” (we send you to a course on innovation before you can actually do it). At a practical level, this means providing staff in the field with support to be able to experiment (as advocated by Owen Barder) and move quickly from ideas to prototype. Failing that, the barriers to implementation will often be perceived as insurmountable or it will always be way too easy to argue that “this is too difficult, costly, time consuming….” This left me wondering: is rapid prototyping the “killer app” for development organizations wanting to embrace innovation?

  • Olena Ursu

    Thank you for the very interesting post, Giulio! I think that depending on how many people you would ask “what innovation is”, that many different answers you would hear. You major ideas really help to think what all this work is meant for

  • Rapid prototyping is like taking rapid shots at a systemic change target. So the targeting is perhaps more important than the speed of fire? 

  • Andrey Ivanov

    A proper name is important!

    3D printing emerges as a
    technology with the potential of turning into a real game-changer. Until
    recently mass production was a precondition of cost-efficiency – but not
    anymore. The new technology has the potential of reshaping the entire concept
    of manufacturing setting it free from the yoke of mass-series and making the
    entire production process more decentralized and (sic!) more democratic!

    Doesn’t it deserve then a better
    name then? The one currently in use is misleading. “3D” is the only part of it
    that reflects correctly the reality; the “printing” is totally off the mark.
    Since Guttenberg “printing” is about mass production – exactly the opposite of
    what the new technology brings in. It is not 3D printing, it is 3D
    shaping – in one or more copies, depending on the specific purpose and the
    free choice of the user/designer/producer! And once the design of a particular
    module is improved, it will be 3D reshaped (and not reprinted).

    Some humble devices
    are about to reshape the world as we know it. So they deserve at least a
    p[roper name – 3D shapers.