Giulio Quaggiotto @gquaggiotto
Last week marked the second leg in the journey we initiated with Nesta to demystify the innovation buzzword for UNDP staff. Innovation is a hot topic in development quarters, which is attracting serious investment, research and sarcasm in equal measure.
Seth Godin summarized the debate with the maxim: “Non-profit failure is too rare, which means that non-profit innovation is too rare as well.”
One of the things that particularly stuck with me from last week’s workshop was a provocation from Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s Chief Executive.
“The first thing that Samsung did when the iPhone came out was to put together a team devoted to reverse engineer it. Why don’t we see much more of that in the public sector (and, by extension, in development)?”
What tends to happen is that bureaucracies tend to invest a lot in coming up with their own solutions rather than scanning the outside environment for emerging innovations or proven “winners.”
Yet, as Geoff put it, “the best futurology is careful observation of the present.” What also tends to occur is “isomorphic mimicry” (to borrow Lant Pritchett’s terminology): best practices from a different context are adopted without a critical understanding of how they would work in a new environment.
Reverse engineering could be a way to partially overcome those limitations because it would open up a space to systematically scan the work of other organizations, rip their innovations apart, and reassemble and repackage them into a new service by appropriating those components that seem more likely to succeed.
Take for example, impact investing: we know that many organizations are experimenting with it and yet we haven’t spent that much time internally to unpack the concept, analyze emerging models, understand their strengths and weaknesses and see whether elements of it are applicable to our context.
And the list of outside innovations that we could learn from could go on and on.
The reason why I latched on to the idea of reverse engineering is that it provides a good illustration of how we can try to demystify the innovation buzzword for our colleagues.
Very practically, adopting reverse engineering for UNDP would mean:
- Investing time and resources in systematically scanning the outside environment;
- Looking at emerging examples of reverse engineering in the public sector (according to Geoff, the health sector is ahead of the curve) to learn from their methodology (which presumably differs from manufacturing) and
- Organizing, say, two to three sessions in the next quarter to test the approach. If successful, this could become a routine activity. One might even think of ad hoc reverse engineering teams.
Stripped from the hype and the “eureka moment” stereotype, innovation then comes down to a set of tools and methodologies – and investment decisions – that we can institutionalize (or at least, try to!).
Nesta’s innovation toolkit provides a good starting point. Those interested in the topic might also want to check out the recently launched Capacity to Innovate site by the Rockefeller Foundation and UNICEF’s Innovation Labs do-it-yourself guide.