Demystifying innovation for humanitarian assistance
For aid agencies facing a range of internal and external pressures, explicit appeals on the need for innovation have become common.
For those working to respond to humanitarian crises and disasters – the area of focus for the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) – there has been particular interest in innovation, both to achieve incremental improvements in performance, as well as to bring about the more transformational change the system needs if it is to remain relevant.
This interest and enthusiasm should be welcomed, particularly where it challenges a culture that has for too long bemoaned the inadequacies of the international aid system, without being prepared to take the risks needed to bring about radical change. But as innovation rapidly becomes the latest buzzword, there is also a real risk of overheating and disillusionment.
It is in this context that we must welcome the launch of the DIY toolkit, seeking as it does to equip those interested in developing novel ideas with the practical tools that will help them navigate the innovation landscape. Importantly, it also serves to help demystify some of the components of successful innovation processes, and move away from the notion that innovation is dependent on the sprinkling of magic dust by highly paid experts.
Common sense approach
For many practitioners glancing at the DIY toolkit, a number of the tools will be familiar. The use of SWOT or stakeholder analysis is of course not new for humanitarian or development agencies, while discussions of Theories of Change as a method of planning go well beyond innovation. This doesn’t however detract from their appeal, but rather underlines the common sense notions that underpin successful innovation processes – in this case that clear analysis and planning are crucial when thinking through new ideas.
Other tools may provide new insights into areas which have for many years been of concern to aid agencies. The need to engage affected populations in the design and delivery of assistance is one such example, with the recent ALNAP meeting in Addis Ababa demonstrating the continued interest from within agencies. Many theories and approaches to participation and engagement have developed within the aid sector, not least those stemming from the work of Robert Chambers on participation. It’s crucial that as we explore new tools and approaches the value of existing work isn’t lost, but it is also important to recognise the potential to link this established thinking to innovation tools such as Storyworld or the use of Personas, in order to ensure that as new products and services are developed, they remain grounded in the needs and challenges of users.
Some tools will be less familiar. Remaining stuck at the pilot phase is a recurrent issue for many new ideas, and the Business Model Canvas for example has the potential to help individuals and organisations to think about potential pathways to growth and scale from the outset. Yet this tool will be new to many working in the aid sector, where feedback loops between organisations and their customers are often broken.
And this speaks to the larger challenge of drawing the value out of toolkits such as this – ensuring the tools get into the hands of those seeking to address the problems they face in their everyday work, and then helping them to see the benefit of their use. It is reassuring then that there is a network emerging to support the dissemination and use of these tools, and the HIF will be working to share them with the projects that we fund. It will be exciting then to see cases of use emerging, and ensuring the increased interest in innovation result not in a proliferation of hype, but in demonstrable improvements in performance and results.