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Innovation and crisis: The six factors that spark radical innovation in turbulent times

‘I think never before, outside of a wartime situation, have I seen such synergy and concordance coming together. This response has been quite unprecedented.’

That’s how Dr Sania Nishtar, the Prime Minister of Pakistan’s Special Assistant for Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, sums up how, in the space of a few weeks, the country flung together a social safety net for 12 million households whose cash incomes had dried up due to the Coronavirus lockdown. Dr Nishtar’s experience is a case study in how crisis can spur innovation and what we can learn that might help us to innovate more effectively in less extraordinary times.

A case study in rapid innovation

As the COVID-19 crisis enveloped Pakistan in April, the Government imposed a lockdown which meant that the many millions of people who earn subsistence incomes in the informal, cash-in-hand economy would not be able to feed their families. The Government implemented an $8 billion emergency economic package, $900 million of which was earmarked to provide $75 payments to most of the 24 million people paid cash daily for informal work. The challenge was how to get the money quickly, to the people who needed it most, who by definition did not interact much with formal institutions.

Dr Nishtar had two things going in her favour. Almost everyone in Pakistan has access to a basic mobile phone, even if it was shared. Everyone has a unique citizen identification number. Dr Nishtar’s anti-poverty agency Ehsaas, located at the heart of Government, used these as the starting points for the improvised system. Working closely with other government departments and mobile service providers, Ehsaas created a free SMS number to which people could text their unique citizen identification code to claim the $75 payment. Some people did not know how to type the message, so volunteers were mobilised to help them. Within days, millions of messages were flooding in, each with a unique ID number attached, which had to be sorted using a quickly assembled data analytics platform to work out who was eligible. Not everything worked smoothly. Some people had to wait weeks for a response. But the majority of people found out within days whether they were eligible for the emergency cash.

A crisis forces people to see the world in a different way because it ruptures the assumptions on which everyday life proceeds and so creates a doorway into a different kind of world, one in which people can improvise solutions inspired by generosity and empathy, goodwill and common endeavour, resilience and resourcefulness often lacking in normal times.

The next challenge was to get the cash to the right people quickly. Dr Nishtar’s team set up local distribution centres and enlisted shopkeepers to act as cash dispensers. To get the shopkeepers to cooperate, provincial governments had to be persuaded to waive some of the taxes they collect from transactions handled by retailers. Ehsaas then had to create a system to send out messages, in batches of 300,000 to 500,000, to make sure the local infrastructure was not overwhelmed when people came to pick up their cash. When people turned up, they had to undergo a biometric test to prove they were who they claimed to be. Those tests did not always work. The system came under near-constant cyber-attack.

Yet within eight weeks, Ehsaas managed to make $75 available to millions of the poorest breadwinners who between them supported around 52 million dependents. It did this by assembling an improvised public-cum-private, national and local, digital and face-to-face system, which relied on both small shopkeepers and mobile telephone companies, artificial intelligence and an army of community volunteers. Only in crisis would this creative, collaborative innovation have come together so fast.

Stories of radical innovation

This is just one of many stories of systemic, radical innovation from across the developing world collected by the UNDP’s Innovation Hub in Bangkok, from test and trace systems in Kerala to telemedicine in Indonesia. Those involved in these initiatives talk of being able to innovate in a crisis in a way that is often impossible in normal times. What can we learn from innovation in crisis that would make innovation easier when the turbulence passes?

A crisis forces people to see the world in a different way because it ruptures the assumptions on which everyday life proceeds and so creates a doorway into a different kind of world, one in which people can improvise solutions inspired by generosity and empathy, goodwill and common endeavour, resilience and resourcefulness often lacking in normal times. That is a paraphrase of Rebecca Solnit’s account, in A Paradise Built in Hell, of the field of ‘disaster sociology’. The father of that field, which emerged from the study of the civilian experience of the Second World War, the American sociologist Charles Fritz, put it this way: ‘Disaster provides a societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutionalised patterns of behaviour and renders people amenable to social and personal change.’ Crisis creates a potent mixture of disruption of the status quo, freedom from convention and tight constraints, of time and resources, which drives radical improvisation. Doing things differently becomes the only and obvious solution.

When that happens six factors come together. If we can understand this combination, we might have a chance of fostering the ‘can-do' culture of crisis in normal times.

COVD app on smart phone

Image courtesy of Brian McGowan via Unsplash

Six factors that foster innovation in a crisis

A shared focus

Crisis breeds innovation because it demands a sharper, shared clarity of purpose. That is true for societies as well as individuals. Amid all the chaos, a crisis can provide what corporate anthropologists Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen call The Moment of Clarity, when the point of what you are doing becomes clear: saving lives, caring for one another, putting food on the table. The trade-offs between competing claims on resources, which are normally hard to adjudicate and so slow down change, can be cut through with confidence about what really counts.

Outside a crisis it is much harder to create this sense of shared purpose. One way to do so is to frame a challenge as a crisis to garner greater commitment: just before COVID-19 emerged, campaigners had stopped talking about climate change and instead focused on the ‘climate emergency’. The need for shared purpose is one reason more governments are interested in mission-driven innovation, to mobilise collective effort to tackle big societal challenges. There are limits to how far this can be taken though: not everything can count as a crisis at the same time.

Urgent timescales

A crisis demands urgency because it can get out of hand, growing exponentially and outpacing normal responses, as the UK found to its cost by locking down later than many other countries. Crisis compresses timescales and forces people to work at speed, eliminating the steps in processes which add very little to outcomes. When time is short, we have to focus on what is really critical and not bother with the rest. That is how vaccines were developed and approved in record time. Elements in the process that are usually sequential, were carried out in parallel, compressing the time from initial prototype to approval from years to a few months.

A prime example is the way the UK’s highly praised RECOVERY programme was set up to test treatments for COVID-19 in real time in hospitals up and down the country. Normally it would take several months to set up a trial with 12,000 patients; in this crisis it took just two weeks.

Focus and urgency need to be combined to achieve results: governments should set clear, tight timescales for ‘mission-driven innovation’ to force teams to work in innovative ways. (But it is worth noting that one downside of a crisis is that it can drive out innovation which requires longer timescales and more diverse perspectives to unravel challenges and opportunities which are less obvious.)

The need for scale

In a crisis, one which engulfs the entire country, innovators have to find solutions that work at scale from the outset. They do not have the luxury of an extended period of prototyping to refine their solutions. Ehsaas had to find a solution that worked for millions of families within days. Working fast to achieve scale shortcuts the innovation process, eliminating often lengthy processes of ideation, research and prototyping but also processes like ethics reviews. Instead, the emphasis has to be on what works fast, everywhere. That favours solutions which are simple and robust. (One downside of a crisis is that it can be bad for more fundamental, blue-sky research into more speculative solutions.)

Too often, public sector innovations get trapped on location: they do not spread beyond the local pockets in which they were developed. As a result, the public sector is rich in innovative solutions developed in one place which fail to scale more widely because there is no effective mechanism to achieve that.

That kind of defensive parochialism is much harder to justify in a crisis. People cannot afford to rest on their laurels; they need to show they are learning fast. Power is often centralised to mandate new solutions. Demand for and take-up of more effective solutions is driven by the scale of the need.

Repurposing resources

The need for urgency, focus and scale favours solutions which repurpose existing technologies rather than inventing things from scratch. That may be true of innovation in all settings, but crisis accentuates the advantages of repurposing and recombining what already works.

Giulio Quaggiotto, the UNDP’s innovation guru who is working with governments across Asia to support their responses to COVID-19, put it this way: 'Having something to build upon really matters. Starting something from scratch during a crisis is difficult. Building on or repurposing what is already there is much more effective.'

An obvious example is the way South Korea and other Asian states drew on their experience with the SARS epidemic: that meant South Korea had thousands of epidemic intelligence officers to call upon. The Indian state of Kerala built its highly effective response on its community-based health and care system. Greece was quick to repurpose existing technologies to new ends, using a simple SMS system to regulate its lockdown. In Bangladesh, more than 11 million people have self-reported COVID-19 systems using a simple SMS system which is analysed in real time by artificial intelligence. That has allowed the authorities to spot ‘hot clusters’ of the virus 10 days earlier than they were able to at the start of the pandemic. More than 200,000 doctors and nurses went through an online training course to operate what Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor with UNDP and Member of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force in Bangladesh, calls an ‘Uber pool system for doctors’.

The imperative to repurpose rather than invent explains why a crisis can lead to a sudden surge in usage of solutions that were developing only gradually in normal conditions. Indonesia has created a primary telemedicine system for 300 million people by working with a handful of startups which had been finding it hard to gain traction before the crisis. The crisis has accelerated the adoption of solutions that were developing only tentatively.

Zoom call and mug of tea

Image courtesy of Compare Fibre via Unsplash

Openness to collaboration

Crisis creates the conditions for the kind of open-minded collaboration which is virtually impossible in normal times, especially in highly departmentalised public systems. The Ehsaas micro-payments system was created by bringing together different government departments; local, provincial and national Government; mobile phone companies and banks; retailers and community organisations. Ehsaas created a coalition committed to achieving a shared goal in record time.

Crisis spurs collaboration because no one has all the resources they need to find a solution to a big, shared challenge. They have to find novel ways to share data, infrastructure, buildings and technology rather than hoarding resources. A lot is at stake: those who do not collaborate risk being called out.

Recreating that collaborative spirit is hard outside of the conditions of crisis. The conflicts common to the public sector will likely resume as 2021 unfolds. Yet the crisis might yet create a longer lasting legacy of collaboration, not least if more governments recognise the power of mission-driven innovation to create a framework for collaborative innovation around a shared, critical challenge.

Governments and digital service providers may in future collaborate more to provide critical social infrastructures. In Bangladesh, Anir Chowdhury looks forward to a future in which the country has a digital basic income, combined with a mobile-first health system and an online distance learning platform for all children. None of that will be possible, however, without a partnership between government and mobile operators who will be entrusted with what will become vital public infrastructure. The mobile operators will want to know there is a sustainable business model: someone will have to pay.

Another place where a newfound spirit of collaboration may flourish will be in local government, where councils have learned that, in a crisis, the first and ongoing responders are in civil society. Local mutual aid, care networks and food systems might live on after the crisis, as a permanent complement to the local state.

Greater tolerance for failure

The inherent uncertainty created by an unfolding crisis means it's hard at the outset to say what will work. That means failure is almost inevitable and therefore more tolerable. In a crisis not everything will work first time around. As Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, puts it: you have to make 100 per cent decisions with only 50 per cent of the information. There is no option but to accept, embrace even, the radical uncertainty of the situation, and the creative, adaptive solutions that requires.

Bets have to be hedged in the knowledge that some experimental solutions have to be written off in pursuit of the one that works best. Failures are easier to write off in a fast-moving crisis.

Failure is easier to tolerate, however, so long as it leads to rapid learning and better solutions: perhaps after months of mounting criticism from the public, doctors and nurses, the UK Government has created a supply chain to provide hospitals and care homes with the PPE they need. Time will tell.

Whether all this leads to more intelligent, forgiving and thoughtful attitudes towards failure and experimentation in government remains to be seen. If it did, this would encourage innovation.

Having something to build upon really matters. Starting something from scratch during a crisis is difficult. Building on or repurposing what is already there is much more effective.

Giulio Quaggiotto, UNDP

There are plenty of reasons why it would be a mistake to model innovation policy on how we behave in a crisis. Many kinds of innovation are casualties of crisis. Serendipitous innovation is unlikely to thrive in a socially distanced world in which a visit to a café has to be pre-booked. In a crisis patient, blue-sky research often has to play second fiddle to urgent pragmatic problem-solving. A clear sense of shared focus can mobilise collective action to achieve a common goal, but a good deal of innovation comes from the plurality and diversity of values and vantage points in society. Getting government to focus on a single mission is not just difficult, it might be dangerous if less politically sexy missions are neglected.

Yet a crisis like COVID-19 does show us how society can be rapidly reorganised around a different set of priorities. A profound economic and social shock provides a heightened sense of urgency and focus, which in turn creates a newfound willingness to collaborate among people and agencies used to fighting turf wars with one another. The need to work at speed and scale means that inventing things from scratch is out of the question; repurposing existing technologies, infrastructure and institutions is far more effective. All of this requires a tolerance of failure as solutions that are initially not good enough are discarded or improved.

Crisis is not a model for all kinds of innovation. Yet in these special conditions we become capable of turning what was thought impossible into everyday reality. Crisis reveals not just weaknesses but also strengths and capabilities; it creates huge costs but also unexpected dividends in all the new and different ways we find to organise ourselves that seemed out of the question just a few months ago.

Innovation and crisis continued

Comparing wartime strategy to our COVID-19 response

Read the first essay in the series

NHS spitfire

Is our fight against COVID-19 a critical juncture?

Read the second essay in the series



Charles Leadbeater

Charles Leadbeater is a Nesta Fellow and leading authority on innovation and creativity. He has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy.