Opening up international development: new methods for identifying and supporting local innovators
Although Thailand is a middle income country, rural poverty is still a major problem. Siam Organics was set up by two Thai business students to help farmers boost their incomes. It works with small-scale farmers to grow a new variety of rice to appeal to western consumers - the rice comes in a variety of colours and is packed full of antioxidants. In 2015 Siam organics supported 1,026 farmers, training them in how to grow and sell the rice, providing them with a more profitable revenue stream compared to conventional farming.
In every developing country, rich networks of local actors, from civil society groups to startups, local philanthropists to social enterprises, are busy developing new ways to address development challenges. Development professionals face two challenges in understanding this activity. Firstly, they are often pushed for time, under-resourced and don’t have the luxury of slowly building up an understanding of a new field. Traditional methods like building networks by attending events or carrying out desk research are slow and time consuming.
Secondly, local organisations might look and operate very differently to the types of organisations that development funders traditionally engage with. For example, they may have different priorities, different funding models and different ideas about what is innovative. Nesta and others have called these organisations ‘development mutants’, local organisations that are changing the way innovation in development happens.
What new methods are these local innovators experimenting with that could have wider application? And how can international development organisations improve the way they identify and support these local organisations that are exploring innovative approaches to development? These are the questions we will be exploring in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme in Thailand.
Emerging tools for identifying and supporting local innovators
Last year, Nesta worked with the government of São Paulo to explore how companies, governments and researchers around the world are using open innovation methods to improve the innovation process in health. A large part of this involved new mechanisms that established organisations, such as hospitals, universities and research funders, can use to identify innovative practice from unusual sources, from innovation fellowships and online marketplaces to challenge funds and capacity building programmes.
Some have suggested that better knowledge of what local organisations are doing is required. There may be many reasons why innovative local practices are difficult to discover: perhaps development professionals don’t consider their practice innovative or perhaps they are not well connected to international development networks. One potential solution is to hire innovation scouts whose job it is to proactively explore local contexts.
Others have argued that current funding models are turning away local innovators. For example, organisations may be put off seeking support from development organisations if they need to formally register as a social enterprises in order to get funding. Models derived from tech start-up funding programmes which focus on rapidly scaling up promising ideas may be less relevant to good development practice, as emerging evidence is starting to confirm.
We plan to look both within and beyond international development for the most promising methods of identifying and supporting local innovators. If you are involved in using new methods of this kind we would be keen to talk to you.
We will also profile local innovators in Thailand, startups, civil society organisations, philanthropists, social enterprises and others, to learn more about the new methods and organisational models they are experimenting with, and to identify what would support their interaction with the UNDP and other development practitioners. We are particularly interested in connecting with local organisations working in three areas: financing development, understanding local needs and priorities, with a focus on those using data driven methods and those that are carrying out experimental pilots. We hope that the lessons from this project will be useful for international development practitioners around the world and plan to regularly share our findings on this blog throughout the project.