Profiling the international development mutants

As part of our refreshed DIY Toolkit and Nesta email update, we’ll be profiling an innovator working on the edge of development – the development ‘mutants’. In this first edition, we talk to the man who coined the term, Giulio Quaggiotto, about the effect these mutants are having on traditional development players and how they can best collaborate.

You’ve previously written about the rise of a new breed of ‘international development mutants’ who are shaking up the world of development. Can you remind us who they are, what they’re doing, and what new trends you’ve seen in the last year?

For a long time, the development sector has been dominated by international financial intermediaries, development organisations and global NGOs. Recently, the dominance and relevance of these established players has been challenged by what I called “the mutants”: startups, social enterprises, informal self-organised collectives often originating from the South.

These mutants are more adept and effective in crawling the solution space to uncover locally relevant and, at times, counterintuitive solutions (think of the friendship bench in Zimbabwe or Indonesia’s waste banks).

In addition, private sector companies are increasingly offering services in areas that used to be the domain of development organisations (see Airbnb’s recent launch of a humanitarian spinoff, Orbital Insight’s poverty mapping satellite analysis and Google Earth’s malaria risk maps, or Alibaba providing citizens with sensors to monitor water quality).

These new players typically bring alternative approaches, expertise and business models that challenge established development orthodoxies and hierarchies

Take the case of Paraguay’s Poverty Stoplight that set out to completely redesign household surveys so that they are actually useful for the poor (as opposed to central planners). It has now also expanded to the UK.

Missing maps, WeRobotics and Forensic Architecture are other well publicised examples of how mutants bring new know-how and technical savvy to the increasingly obsolete toolkit of established development players.

Mutants can also typically mobilise faster and fill the gap of relevancy that is sometimes unwillingly generated by governments and NGOs – witness the flurry of bottom-up initiatives around the refugee crisis, in response to the slow reaction of the establishment. Techrefugees, to name just one example, emerged as a self-organised global network within a few weeks, operating on a shoestring and making the most of new communication technologies.

Have you observed any shifts in the way that traditional development players are thinking and operating as a result of engaging with these innovators?

I think it is fair to say that the incumbents have learned to be more humble – it is no longer a rare occurrence to hear phrases such as “we don’t have all the answers”.

The flurry of challenge prizes and hackathons, the adoption of “co-production” lingo, the rush to establish incubators, accelerators or innovation funds, can all be interpreted as symptoms of a more or less explicit acknowledgement of the growing role of the mutants.

How much this is a reflection of a genuine change in attitude and questioning of traditional roles is up for debate.

You’ve suggested some things that the development sector can do to partner more effectively with the mutants. Do you have thoughts on how mutants themselves can engage constructively with funders and others to encourage adoption of their methods?

I would say that getting funds for an initial proof-of-concept is increasingly less of an issue, whether through the above mentioned new instruments such as accelerators and funds, or by adroitly exploiting the development sector’s lingering fascination with new technologies (e.g. sprinkle blockchain magic dust, and hardly any funder will say no these days).

It is more difficult, however, to find sources of long term funding and, perhaps, more importantly, organisations willing to genuinely question their modus operandi – see, for instance, the resistance still faced by mutants like GiveDirectly in advocating for cash transfers to the poor.

At their best, mutants challenge the “white saviour complex” that still informs much development work and donors’ policies

For this reason, genuine partnerships based on shared values are often difficult.

Having said that, organisations are not monoliths and smart mutants can use demonstration projects as a way to uncover those champions inside incumbents who are willing to hack the system to make things work. It is important for them to reduce the transaction costs for a meaningful engagement by understanding the procurement and partnership constraints faced by willing project managers.

In addition, since long term, systemic solutions will require collaboration among a variety of players, mutants can play a role in catalysing entire value chains rather than proposing single point solutions.

So, for example, if you wanted to get a traditional development player to support a social impact bond, or restructure their supply chains by tapping into locally 3D-printed products, you could map and galvanise in advance all the various actors across the system rather than expecting slower organisations to take the lead. All of this while playing to the strengths of traditional development players that, depending on the context, bring with them the advantage of having direct access to governments and being perceived as neutral brokers.

Data collaboratives like the one recently set up by UNICEF and GovLab are an interesting example of emerging system level cooperation mechanisms that mutants can engage with.

What can organisations like Nesta do to support and leverage partnerships to encourage more experimentation and innovation in international development?

Nesta has a very strong record in spotting emerging trends and bringing them to the attention of the broader innovation community as well as governments and the private sector. It would be a natural extension of that role to have an ongoing horizon scanning program to spot emerging mutants, quickly detect emerging patterns and help international development organisations make sense of this brave new world.

It would be great to see Nesta strongly advocating for positive deviance, lead user innovation and other “solution mapping” approaches

Actions that are still counterintuitive for many development organisations.

Supporting demonstration projects like the one currently under way in Moldova (to redefine poverty statistics), or the open innovation in health pilots in Brazil, is another important role that Nesta can play, given its convening power and the legitimacy it can bring to experimentation.

Who are some of your ‘hot tips’ to look out for in the development mutant world over the next few months?

Fintech and digital identity are all the rage these days and are attracting a great deal of mutant experimentation (keep an eye on the intersection of fintech and Islamic finance).

Personally, however, I am particularly fond of organisations that marry technological savvy with a deep understanding of social dynamics. They are attempting to reframe the likes of money, data and infrastructure by bringing to the fore the social capital dimension that underpins them.

I am thinking of examples as diverse as Rhizomatica or Kampoeng Cyber, Social Cops, the above mentioned Poverty Stoplight or, in a different context, Sardex or the Lion Barbers Collective.

I also like to think that mutants can play a strong role in promoting the logic of preventative investment through mechanisms like forecast based financing or catastrophe insurance.


Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their i…

View profile