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Development innovation: Fad, silo or catalyst?

Innovation is all the rage in international development. From national economic growth to small-scale community development, from rapid disaster response to long-term climate change adaptation, innovation is seen as the answer to a dizzying range of development challenges.

Champions of innovation – who include billionaire philanthropists, technology gurus and senior development leaders – make very public and visible pronouncements on its benefits. There has been an explosion of initiatives: social investments, challenge prizes, funds, collaborations, laboratories and seemingly countless pilots. The upsides are not limited to solving development problems: embracing innovation is also seen as vital for revitalising aid policies and practices, making institutions more relevant for the dynamic challenges of a highly interconnected, unequal world.

Predictably, there has also been some backlash, with an attendant rise in cynicism amongst jaded practitioners, all too used to the boom-and-bust of development fads. The premise of this blog is that the cynicism is not wholly misplaced, and that there is a sizeable risk that development innovation becomes a short-lived fad. There is also a good chance that it will become an institutionalised silo of activity, running in parallel to traditional aid activities.

The best-case scenario, that development innovation reaches its catalytic potential, will not happen unless a number of critical challenges are tackled head-on across the development innovation movement. In this think piece I want to spell out what some of these challenges might be, and suggest some ways in which the sector might try to overcome them.


Five challenges for development innovation

1. Incrementalism 

Much of the work labeled as innovation has been within the confines of existing assumptions and operating models, gradually improving the way things work by baby steps. Many practices are widespread more because of the weight of past practice and institutional inertia, rather than because they actually work. This narrows the space of possibilities for new and radical ideas. 

Incrementalism also rears its head in diffusion, with the notable lack of creative destruction in aid. There are few mechanisms for ensuring necessary obsolescence of outmoded practices. Even if the evidence is stacked up in favour of new approaches, they will typically be deployed alongside existing standard operating procedures, thereby blurring the achievements of innovation processes. Radical changes - which seek to redistribute power, transform relationships and ownership – do happen from time to time, but they are often fiercely resisted. Development innovation efforts have not really addressed this bias head-on.

2. Balancing creativity and rigour

Development innovations have in some cases been accompanied with an equivalent investment in research and learning. The innovations that have genuinely changed the sector, such as cash-based transfers, have done so on the back of extensive research, learning and data. But all too often this simply doesn’t happen: there is more resource for doing and relatively less for learning. The emphasis has been more on enabling exciting new projects to happen, and less on assessing their added value in a clear-headed way. There are some exceptions to this, notably the work of the Development Innovation Ventures of USAID, that has invested significant resources into monitoring and evaluation across their portfolio of investments.

More broadly, there is very little strategic learning about development innovation: what do we know about what it takes to manage an innovation venture in development? What are the unique challenges and pitfalls? How does innovation management differ from the wider public and the private sector? These lessons are out there, but remain largely tacit: in the heads of those involved in the innovation movement and seldom shared more widely. The risk here is that without such learning being shared and applied, development innovation efforts will be based on principles and lessons that are not appropriate to the context.

3. Innovation processes and systems

Development innovations typically succeed despite, rather than because of, the labyrinthine architecture of development. In a forthcoming study on innovations in global infectious disease responses, I characterise successful processes as ‘serendipitous relay races’: the baton gets picked up just in time and moves on to the next stage. The way in which innovation processes are designed and supported does not always take account of institutional barriers and capacity gaps. Without such considerations, innovation processes risk becoming – and often are - idiosyncratic, weak and disconnected from the problems they are seeking to address.

Relatedly, although the most successful innovations have been open and networked in nature, resulting from collaboration of many organisations, many are more closed and institutionally focused. This has led to a spate of institutionally branded innovations, especially but not exclusively in mobile and digital technologies. In the extreme, such development innovation leans more toward marketing than research and development. It becomes advantageous for organisations to brand themselves as innovative, to have a few signature technologies that communicate this branding, and to use these aggressively to further their fundraising goals. This can and has led to an internally focused and competitive approach to innovation. While some competition is of course vital in innovation, the current institutionally centered approach risks replication the wider dysfunctions of the aid sector. It runs counter to both the principles of development and the latest thinking on open innovation from the private sector.

4. Expectations

Innovations may well be oversold as the answer to development problem, without enough emphasis on the importance of failure. The potential payoffs of innovation are considerable, but so are the costs and the risks. In a time when development leaders are demanding more private sector know-how and approaches, it is remarkable that our approach to innovation is still so steeped in development grant giving protocols.

The reality is that in the private sector, successful innovation generates a surplus to cover failures. There are not always such benefits in development. Failures are painful to all concerned. The reality is that we need a more honest conversation about how much the sector fails already, albeit in conventional and therefore institutionally acceptable ways. To paraphrase Keynes, we need development innovation to risk unconventional successes.

5. Technocracy

An age-old problem in high-tech form: the road to development is paved with bad inventions. The history of development is one of flawed attempts to cut-and-paste new ideas into contexts with little attention to how well they fit in them. The current efforts in innovation have not been immune to the established cultural and organizational norms of aid. This has influenced who gets to innovate for development, and how. In the rush towards exporting high-tech innovations, there has not been nearly enough emphasis on actors in developing countries: communities, civil society, private sector and government bodies. Even development practitioners risk being sidelined: the message internally seems to be that innovation is done by Silicon Valley types in hoodies, and the job of development experts is to get out of their way.

This is not just damaging, but it also goes against lessons of successful development innovations from the past twenty years. It also risks ignoring the politics of development innovation: questions of who gains, and who loses, and how these will be navigated dissolve away in the friction-free technocratic vision of development. Put simply: the closer innovation processes are to development challenges, the more sensitive they are to local political and cultural contexts, and the more they involve developing country communities, organisations and governments not as targets but as equal participants, the more likely they are to be successful and transformative.


The Way Ahead

In my view, how well we deal with these inter-related challenges will determine the future path for the development innovation movement. There are three distinct possibilities.

Down the low road, these challenges are not met, and donor attention and interest soon moves onto other areas. Boom quickly turns to bust, and development innovation quickly become a rather embarrassing and seldom mentioned fad. The cynics in the sector are smugly appeased, and can cast their withering eye onto other issues.

The middle road is that innovation becomes institutionalised as a new silo in aid organisations, as has happened with other areas such as accountability, knowledge management, evaluations, and so on. Innovation departments and labs become solidified, they work to promote innovation in little pockets, and the sector can breathe easy and carry on as normal. This phenomenon has been described as ‘building escape hatches’: efforts that enable development institutions to make positive external signals while avoiding real change.

The high road is that innovation tackles these challenges, and thereby transforms itself, and in doing so, becomes a catalyst for the transformation of the whole sector. Down this path, innovation becomes an large-scale, facilitated, disciplined, and determined movement to change development for the better: open to new ideas, new entrants, radical approaches, with a firm eye on evidence, with strategic linkages to the wider sectors on which development processes are so reliant, from science and technology to industry.  

Check back next week for part two of Ben’s blog, where he suggests some essential improvements required to reach the high road and bring about long-lasting and successful innovation efforts in the development sector.


Ben Ramalingam

Ben Ramalingam is a researcher, advisor and author specialising in international development and humanitarian issues. Ben's recent book, 'Aid on the Edge of Chaos', explores how comple…