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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The era of development mutants

"Transition zones is where most edgeryders live. It is there that you will find the key to successful societal adaptation. Why? Simple: because only there do you find both the incentives and the capacity to drive change. In the center, the élites have little incentive to adapt – they are not on the firing line. In the periphery, the dispossessed have little capacity – staying afloat is a full-time job. But on the edge it makes complete sense to try long-range, radical stuff out."

- Alberto Cottica

If you were looking for the cutting edge of the development sector, where would you go these days? You would probably look at startups like Premise who have predicted food trends 25 days faster than national statistics in Brazil, or GiveDirectly who are pushing the boundaries on evidence – from RCTs to new ways of mapping poverty – to fast track the adoption of cash transfers.

Or perhaps you might draw your attention to PetaJakarta who are experimenting with new responses to crises by harnessing human sensor networks. You might be tempted to consider Airbnb’s Disaster Response programme as an indicator of an emerging alternative infrastructure for disaster response (and perhaps raising questions about the political economy of this all).

And could Bitnation’s Refugee Emergency programme in response to the European refugee crisis be the possible precursor of future solutions for transnational issues – among the development sector’s hardest challenges? Are the business models of One Acre Fund, which provides services for smallholder farmers, or Floodtags, which analyses citizen data during floods for water and disaster managers, an indicator of future pathways to scale – that elusive development unicorn?

If you want to look at the future of procuring solutions for the development sector, should you be looking at initiatives like Citymart, which works with municipalities across the world to rethink traditional procurement and unleash the expertise and innovation capabilities of their citizens? By the same token, projects like Pathogen Box, Poverty Stoplight or Patient Innovation point to a brave new world where lead-user innovation and harnessing ‘sticky’ local knowledge becomes the norm, rather than the exception. You would also be forgiven for thinking that social movements across the world are the place to look for signs of future mechanisms for harnessing collective intelligence – Kawal Pamilu’s “citizen experts” self-organising around the Indonesian elections in 2014 is a textbook case study in this department.

The list could go on and on: welcome to the era of development mutants. While established players in the development sector are engrossed in soul-searching and their fitness for purpose is being scrutinised from all quarters, a whole new set of players is emerging, unfettered by legacy and borrowing from a variety of different disciplines. They point to a potentially different future – indeed, many potentially different futures – for the sector.

More than anything, these ‘mutants’ are a reminder that the palette of tools traditionally used by the development sector is increasingly inadequate for the task. Whether you look at the use of evidence or procurement, financing or planning; the inability to upgrade their toolkit has led traditional development players to a crisis of sensemaking and a lack of effective action. This, in turn, has led many to question their legitimacy.

With the notable exception of EveryChild, who have publicly committed to decommissioning by 2017 (arguably the most disruptive innovation in the sector in recent times), the reaction of the establishment to the rise of the mutants has been akin to the European reception of the first platypus specimen from Australia; long considered a “Chinese hoax” and for this reason refused from scientific collections. But what if we wanted to invert this paradigm? How could we move from denial to fruitful collaboration with the ‘edgeryders’ of the development sector and accelerate its transformation?

Adopting new programming principles

Based on our experience working with development organisations, we believe that partnering with the mutants involves two types of shifts for traditional players: at the programmatic and the operational level. At the programmatic level, our work on the ground led us to articulate the following emerging principles:

  1. Mapping what people have, not what they need: even though approaches like jugaad and positive deviance have been around for a long time, unfortunately the default starting point for many development projects is still mapping needs, not assets. Inverting this paradigm allows for potentially disruptive project design and partnerships to emerge. (Signs of the future: Patient Innovation, Edgeryders, Community Mirror, Premise)

  2. Getting ready for multiple futures: When distributed across an organisation and not limited to a centralised function, the discipline of scanning the horizon for emergent solutions that contradict the dominant paradigm can help move beyond the denial phase and develop new interfaces to collaborate with the mutants. Here the link between analysis (to understand not only what is probable, but also what is possible) and action is critical - otherwise this remains purely an academic exercise. (Signs of the future: OpenCare, Improstuctures, Seeds of Good Anthropocene, Museum of the Future)

  3. Running multiple parallel experiments: According to Dave Snowden, in order to intervene in a complex system “you need multiple parallel experiments and they should be based on different and competing theories/hypotheses”. Unfortunately, many development projects are still based on linear narratives and assumptions such as “if only we run an awareness raising campaign citizens will change their behaviour”. Turning linear narratives into hypotheses to be tested (without becoming religious on a specific approach) opens up the possibility to explore the solution landscape and collaborate with non-obvious partners that bring new approaches to the table. (Signs of the future: Chukua Hakua, GiveDirectly, Finnish PM’s Office of Experiments, Ideas42, Cognitive Edge)

  4. Embracing obliquity: A deep, granular understanding of local assets and dynamics along with system mapping (see point 5 below) and pairing behavioural experts with development practitioners can help identify entry points for exploring new types of intervention based on obliquity principles. Mutants are often faster in adopting this approach and partnering with them is a way to bypass organisational inertia and explore nonlinear interventions. (Signs of the future: Sardex, social prescriptions, forensic architecture)

  5. From projects to systems: development organisations genuinely interested in developing new partnerships need to make the shift from the project logic to system investments. This involves, among other things, shifting the focus from providing solutions to helping every actor in the system to develop a higher level of consciousness about the issues they are facing and to take better decisions over time. It also entails partnering with mutants to explore entirely new financial mechanisms. (Signs of the future: Lankelly Chase, Indonesia waste banks, Dark Matter Labs)

Adopting new interfaces for working with the mutants

Harvard Business School professor Carliss Baldwin argued that most bureaucracies these days have a ‘non-contractible’ problem: they don’t know where smart people are, or how to evaluate how good they are. Most importantly, most smart people don’t want to work for them because they find them either too callous, unrewarding or slow (or a combination of all of these).

Seen from this angle, for most traditional development players, mutants are ‘non-contractibles’. Establishing effective partnerships with them requires abandoning much of the implicit paternalism that informs development work (see the World Bank’s 2015 World Development Report’s chapter on the cognitive bias of development practitioners) and developing new interfaces by innovating core operations:

  1. Communications: in order to attract interesting people, you need to be interesting in the first place. How many development staff have been asked by their boss to be interesting? Much development communications is still dominated by corporate communications departments and geared towards success stories or fundraising pushes.

  2. Procurement and financing: these are often biased towards established local NGOs or consultants, but struggle to accommodate others such as a self-organised collective or an individual user innovator. By defining both the problem and the solution, traditional procurement also stifles local innovators who might have come up with different, non-intuitive but locally relevant approaches to solving problems. The traditional financial toolkit of development organisations (grant, loans, microfinance) is showing all its limitations when it comes to unleashing local talent. Could one frame, for example, direct cash transfers or basic income as tools to unleash local innovation? India’s national innovation foundation’s set of financing tools to enhance locally grown solutions would make many traditional development players offering pale in comparison.

  3. Human resources and partnerships: compare the job ads and staff handbooks of many development players with, say, a startup like Valve and you can immediately see where the problem lies. Often, establishing effective partnerships with mutants is a matter of trusting local staff to take decisions and giving them the freedom to bypass processes designed for a ‘command and control’ era. Unless human resource and partnership departments find new trust mechanisms and interfaces to enable seamless exchanges with outside organisations, working with the mutants will be left to a small group of lone intrapreneurs, taking risks against all odds to make things happen.

Embracing the mutants

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

- Jack Welch

In our experience, a close observation of the edges and the identification of mutants does not come naturally to many development organisations. Not only does it require concerted horizon scanning and asset mapping efforts, but, perhaps more importantly, it requires challenging some deep cultural assumptions about the need for externally driven solutions and expertise.

Innovation practice is traveling faster than many development organisations care to acknowledge, let alone adopt. Keeping up with the mutants, partnering with them and leveraging their expertise is ultimately a question of legitimacy. Unless innovation initiatives can demonstrate results on this front, calls for the demise for traditional development players will continue.


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…

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