Innovation for development: three considerations to expand mindsets

03 September 2020 GCRFInnovationNewton Fund

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With the endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 by UN Member States, the recognition among governments and development organisations grew that more, and better, innovation is needed to address the world’s most urgent and complex challenges. Innovation has played an important role in international development and humanitarian assistance over the past decades. It catalysed breakthroughs in delivering vaccines to half a billion children, advanced digital financial inclusion systems such as M-Pesa in Kenya and enabled access to improved seeds for small-holder farmers, among many other examples.

So what works to advance impactful innovation for international development? Which factors enable governments, development organisations and grassroot movements to make good ideas happen? In pursuit of answers, the OECD kickstarted a peer-learning exercise on development innovation last year and published in June 2020 the report ‘Innovation for Development Impact – Lessons from the OECD Development Assistance Committee’. The authors introduce a simple, yet compelling framework and identify clear gaps in strategy, governance, management, co-ordination and processes – along with lessons on what works. A key insight, however, concerns aspects beyond formal arrangements, strategies and processes and instead points to the importance of culture and mindsets.

Inspired by peers and private sector players, a growing number of governments decided to:

  • host internal idea competitions
  • launch dedicated labs
  • recruit specialised staff
  • design bespoke guidance and
  • integrate innovation skills in leadership and staff training programmes.

This is to name a few interventions. They all have the potential to advance progress. They all require a risk to position innovation as a compelling element that happens in addition to the core business, often in the lab – rather than embedding innovation mindsets, approaches and methods in strategic portfolios.

The OECD DAC report calls for maturing different forms of innovation and to embed innovation in portfolios with a strategic intent as inter-related experiments that advance learning and ultimately progress. It also calls on leadership to further invest in shaping organisational cultures that nurture innovation and along with it, inquisitive mindsets.

But what constitutes a conducive mindset to advance innovation for sustainable and inclusive development?

Here are three considerations for senior management and staff, proposing a pivot from the current mainstream. They reflect ongoing work in the UK Department for International Development, now to be continued in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

1) Think about innovation beyond win-win scenarios: The way Silicon Valley works has had a big influence on how people think about innovation. From development practitioners, those affected by development challenges, to politicians from donor countries as well as from low- and middle-income countries. Particularly the notions that advancing social change is best pursued by starting a business, that Government should exercise minimum influence and, importantly, that through innovation social change can be a constant win-win scenario.

If we broadly define innovation in our context as changing the status quo through novel methods, technologies, business models and governance systems, then development organisations and governments need to embrace a mindset that welcomes innovation to advance struggles, shifts in power and privilege, and structural change.

This means that at times, powerful companies are not the right allies, transformative change cannot be achieved through for-profit models, and governments need to increasingly play a part in shaping the direction of innovation. This means abandoning the long-held assumption that new technologies automatically deliver public benefit and addressing the exacerbating effects of innovation on inequalities and environmental sustainability. For example, the FCDO-funded Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) research programme is assessing how low-tech manufacturing could develop high-impact technological solutions that minimise environmental impact. It pursues regional circular economy models and the success of these will most likely result in the loss of revenue and power for companies currently profiting from the carbon-economy.

Innovation can help create win-win situations but to address the world’s toughest challenges, deep transformations are needed and many of these will entail struggles and shifts in privilege, power and changes in who benefits.

2) Design for 2130 and learn better from experiments: The public sector and development cooperation overall might indeed work at a slower pace than various private sector players. Innovation methods can help speed things up and infuse much needed dynamics and energy in advancing development goals. The pace of change, particularly driven by technological progress, requires structures and mindsets that ensure governments understand changes in its external context. That said, there needs to be greater clarity on the opportunities of innovation to generate quick results and the role of innovation and related mindsets to ‘innovate as if the future matters’. In development and humanitarian affairs the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra was never appropriate.

In its inception phase, the FCDO is seeking inspiration for its organisational culture in initiatives such as the Long-Time Project, offering strategies and tools to infuse inter-generational thinking across policy and programme considerations, way beyond the dominant SDG deadline of 2030. Furthermore, it builds on planning processes that incorporate foresight and horizon scanning as integral parts along with inspirations and lessons from policy innovations such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act from Wales.

To advance inclusive innovation with intergenerational justice and sustainability objectives, organisations need to cultivate mindsets that combine future-thinking with methods that speed up progress and advance learning. This entails decommissioning a binary perspective on successes vs. failures and seeking to design single-point solutions. As Niki Wood, from FCDO’s Stabilization Unit states: “in complex contexts we are not ‘solving’ the situation with a binary sense of certainty, we are making the most evidence-informed decisions we can to contribute to meaningful change.”

3) Decommission the beneficiary lens: Words shape reality and ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’ as George Orwell stated in an essay from 1946. Labelling and viewing people affected by development challenges as beneficiaries risks to distort notions of agency and seeing the potential to innovate. Arguably the dominant mindset framing development innovation efforts to date situates the innovator either in a high-income country or in a lab in a low-income nation’s capital. This translates into investments that provide support and funding to innovators from affluent strata of societies, often neglecting the immense potential of grassroot activists and frugal innovators. The OECD peer-learning exercise found a “lack of genuine and sustained engagement with the global South” and recommends to “make inclusion of end users and Southern actors a key criterion for assessments”. In fact, it suggests to regard innovators from low- and middle-income countries as peers, alongside other donor organisations.

This requires a mindset adaptation and respective practices. For example funding to identify positive deviants such as this recently launched data-initiative by GIZ, UNDP and UN Global Pulse and lead-user innovations such as the FCDO-funded #COVIDAction initiative. It seeks to identify local innovators and production capabilities for essential health equipment, based on lessons with a first global ventilation challenge which was launched earlier this year. Lessons from this challenge showed the need to further invest in exploration and structured support for local solutions.

There is immense opportunity to augment the relevance of international development efforts through innovation. This requires governments and development organisations to:

  • invest in their own strategic innovation capabilities
  • instigate constant reflections of our own biases and position in the systems we seek to influence
  • appreciate multiple forms of evidence and better value local knowledge and innovation capabilities;
  • embed innovation at the heart of portfolios, bringing its potential ‘beyond the lab’.

As the OECD-DAC report suggests, the key elements are mindsets: embracing politics and struggles, exploring new paradigms, and shaping the direction of innovation, R&D and science investments - as well as reframing who innovates and notions of aid and solidarity. If you are on a similar journey, please reach out via Twitter @bkumpf.

By Benjamin Kumpf, Head of Innovation at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.