Moving into the real world

8 Jun

It’s all en vogue right now for aid organizations to have staff or maybe even whole departments and teams devoted to “innovation.” Like “Child Survival” in the 80s, “Household Livelihood Security” in the 90s, and “Harm Reduction” or “Peacebuilding” in the 00s, “Innovation” is the magik bullet that, if gotten right, we believe will sort out everything that’s wrong with aid.

I do get this. I also get that of course finding more effective and more efficient ways of delivering relief and development interventions is hardly a “bad thing.” And yet, for all of hype and energy and even (substantial) funding around innovation, the vast majority of what comes across my desk as ideas for “innovation”, in fact aren’t. They very often are not innovative, nor will they make aid more effective or efficient. And even when they truly are innovative and truly have merit, they are very often impossible to move into the real world.

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Five principles for moving humanitarian innovation into the real world.

Know the history. Depending on which web dictionary you want to believe, “innovation”, by definition, builds on past learning. Innovation in the context of relief and development needs to be based on specifics of what we know already. Call me elitist, but someone who doesn’t know the history, the current state, or the existing best practices, by definition cannot innovate. Someone who doesn’t understand the humanitarian industry already can brainstorm and float ideas.  And who knows? They may even get lucky by inadvertently coming up with something workable. But they will spend the vast majority of their time feeling frustrated by, and also annoying the real relief and development practitioners around them, not because they’re not nice or smart, but because their “innovative ideas” are very often just irrelevant in the humanitarian context.

Good innovation is built on a nuanced understanding of the past and present.

Focus on the right things. Many, many of the ideas for humanitarian “innovation” that come to my attention are not particularly bad ideas. But they don’t address what I see as the real core needs of the aid world. They’re attempts to solve problems that don’t exist or that just are not very pressing in the context of everything else (kind of like solutions in search of problems). If it’s your job to promote “innovation” within an aid organization, you should anticipate pushback when you’re pushing new products and technology. Why? Because we don’t so much need new products or technology.

There are so many T-shelter options out there, for example, that we really don’t need any more. Figure out land rights, though, and I’ll be impressed. Or another expensive online program management information “dashboard” that will matrix-harmonize data across all program sectors and support functions? Honest-to-god, with a few very specific exceptions, the knowledge management needs of the aid industry can be handled by Google docs. But figuring out an innovative way to keep internet access constant… now that would really be something.

Good innovation focuses creative effort where creative effort is truly needed.

Follow good process. Innovation has to follow good process, just like everything else in aid. Very often when it comes to innovation in the humanitarian sector, the attitude of the innovators seems to be, “ohmygod this is so totally awesome, we have to drop everything and reallocate every dime of our undesignated revenue to integrating this innovation across our global network… now!!!” And then they feel hurt and pissed off and accuse the real aid workers of being “obstructionist” when we’re, like, “er.. no.” For innovation to work, it has to exist in the context of actual relief and development work that is itslef based on actual needs, and that is properly planned, implemented and evaluated.

Good innovation is subject to the same rules as good aid.

Proportionality & incremental change. Very often when it comes to innovation in the humanitarian sector, the attitude of the innovators seems to be, “ohmygod this is so totally awesome, this is “game-changing”, this is going to REVOLUTIONIZE HUMANITARIAN AID!!!”  Whether from the standpoint of persuading cynical aid workers to try something new, or simply being truthful, it is important scale the language around the idea(s) and innovation in general to reflect the actual likely effect.

It is important to realize that the humanitarian aid industry will most probably not be revolutionized. As with change in the communities where we work, so our industry does and will continue to change incrementally. And so it is important to make our expectations and descriptions of the effects of innovation reflect that reality. In the classroom or boardroom, fuel-efficient stoves and carbon offset credits sound like an outstanding, innovative way to reduce global warming (‘cause just making fewer cars would never do), and the language used to describe both of these is predictably superlative. But in the real world it is incredibly difficult to measure the real effect of fuel-efficient stoves on the environment…

Good innovation neither tries nor claims to bring massive, sweeping change.

Results make the decision. At the end of the day, the actual results need to be what make the decision about what innovations work, which innovations are “good”, and which do not and are not. And yet, it seems somewhat ironic that this may be the very hardest part of innovation in the humanitarian sector: accepting when or where an innovative idea needs to be scrapped. Particularly with gadgets or technology, it can be very hard to understand and accept that innovation X works great in community Q, but is totally rejected in community R. My innovation colleagues very often come to the conversation with the perspective that “this product is much better than what people currently have, and so they should want it.” And while I do not diss them for wanting to give those we say we want to help the best thing possible, it is important to understand that people very often have very good reasons for wanting a supposed inferior product (see also #aid101 #4).

Innovations in water purification technology are a great example. There are products out there now (I get flooded with these offers at every big disaster) that near miraculous in their ability to turn black sludge into drinkable water. They are amazing and in many ways far superior, technologically, to most of what has come before. Yet, around the world, we find that some communities just will not accept them. They have their reasons, some of which make sense from a Western perspective, some of which do not. But to me, the main point is that if the people we say we want to help don’t want the thing, then it doesn’t work.

Good innovation is only good innovation if it works and it is accepted.

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11 Responses to “Moving into the real world”

  1. David Week 8 June, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    “Good innovation is only good innovation if it works and it is accepted.”

    That’s true by definition.

    Many people conflate innovation and invention. Invention is coming up with new stuff. An invention is only an innovation if people will pay for it.

    INVENTION: New scientific or technical idea, and the means of its embodiment or accomplishment.

    INNOVATION: The process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay, or something that results from this process.

    Many think they’re being innovative, when in fact they’re only being inventive. The invention is the 2% inspiration. Being innovative: that’s where the 98% perspiration comes into it.

  2. gailmadoff 8 June, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    I thought similar things reading Kristof’s DIY-aid article. I feel like everyone wants to start their own NGO with some “new” idea – when truly someone else does it, and they know how to do it, and they are better at it and more efficient. There just aren’t many inspirational stories about people who joined an NGO at the bottom and worked their way up by experience and expertise.

    Personally I think there should be a lot less “innovation” and a lot more quality needs assessments, good management, and rigorous evaluation.

    Cheers for your post.

  3. MJ 8 June, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    I have to disagree with you on (1). I think the best innovators tend to be people who are not already immersed in a particular field; they are far more likely to come up with that completely left-field suggestion. But … these ideas do need bouncing off more experienced types pretty quickly.

    Conversely, I do agree with you that too many innovations address problems that don’t really exist, or are not key constraints. So at the very least we need to be pointing self-appointed innovators at what the real problems are …

    … which brings me to my final point: BINGOs have dedicated “Innovation” depts these days? Surely the best way to achieve innovation is at the coal face. A well managed organisation will allow individual projects to innovate according to their needs, and then disseminate any innovations that are successful. But trying to innovate “in the lab” sounds nonsensical to me.

  4. c-sez 10 June, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    >> Personally I think there should be a lot less “innovation” and a lot more quality needs assessments, good management, and rigorous evaluation.

    Yes. This. Like. RT. +1.

  5. Paul C 15 June, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    How do you feel about the Humanitarian Innovation Fund? Right track / wrong track?


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