Collaborating on the Next Generation of Humanitarian Innovation Capabilities

Over the last five plus years I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of organizations tasked with building a robust innovation capability within the Humanitarian Sector. It’s provided me with a front row seat as concepts such as failing fast, user centered design, and program pilots were taken from Silicon Valley and shaped to the task of supporting those in the world who are most in need.  

There was a lot to do, and a lot has been achieved.  Over the years programs and organizations emerged to tackle different aspects of the innovation challenge, applying new practices in widely varying contexts.  Today, fast moving pilot projects that pivot in response to new learning are familiar and widely adopted.   

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Now, having mastered innovation’s core skills, there is a growing need for a next generation of innovation practices.  These methodologies need to be designed for the sector’s uniquely complex challenges.  Problems such as taking innovations to scale in resource poor environments, driving complex system change as called for in the SDG’s, or enabling creative community engagement per the Grand Bargain require new level of innovation capabilities.   

While the aid sector has been able to build on the innovation insights of commercial innovators, the job ahead will require the aid sector to pioneer complex new methodologies.  This will require a collaborative effort that brings together experts and insights from diverse innovation programs across the sector.  The host of innovation advocates currently working in relative autonomy will benefit from three shared strategies that draw their efforts closer together:   

1.     Broad intentional collaboration

2.     Shared frameworks

3.     Actionable tools and extensible platforms

The difficultly of the problems that dominate the next generation of innovation won’t be easily solved by a collection of independent efforts.  A deeper collaboration among innovation advocates would leverage the substantial innovation capabilities that have already been developed in the sector to push innovation practices forward.  Here are some thoughts on how this collaborative creative effort might emerge.  

1) Intentional Collaboration 

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The first strategy would build on the strength of the many programs already active in the development of humanitarian sector innovation practices.  Creating a more tightly integrated web amongst these actors would make it possible to deal with next generation challenges around complexity, integration, and adoption. 

This collaboration should go beyond a periodic convening of the experts, instead committing to an ongoing effort to collaboratively develop thinking, models and materials.  Given the many skilled innovation organizations in the sector, there are ample opportunities to draw on the unique resources organizations have for research, design and testing.  For example, five organizations, RIL, GAHI, HIF, START, and ALNAP are actively collaborating on the challenge of developing an integrated view of the varied use of evidence (MEAL) in the evolution of complex humanitarian innovations.   

As innovation challenges become bigger and require greate investment to deliver, it will also be necessary to include advocates and participants outside of web of specialized innovation programs.  Adopting complex strategies such as scaling innovations or engaging local communities in system change will be a big ask of institutions.  Early high-level sponsorship and engagement can help establish channels for advocacy that will help pave the way for adoption  of new practices.

Strategy 2 – Shared Frameworks

It is not enough to merely choose to work together.  Many well intentioned convenings and collaborations have ended with little more than a brightly colored pile of post it notes.   While providing an opportunity for different voices to explore a challenge is crucial, there is little value to the exercise unless the thinking can be organized in a way that enables further rigorous work.  Without a shared perspective or common structure to organize them, ideas and insights accumulate, but they often fail to build on one another.  

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Building this shared framework isn’t easy and is often overlooked, yet integrating complex and messy insights requires a structure to frame the thinking across different actors. The upcoming Pathways to Scale paper from GAHI, developed by Lesley Bourns, Alice Obrecht and me, is an example of a framing model that seeks to  weave different scaling ideas together, while separating observations that actually address different issues.

These frameworks should not prematurely lock down big picture thinking.   They are tools for ongoing collaboration.  Once a working model is available, it should continue to be updated and adapted as diverse actors develop new aspects of the innovation practice.    

Strategy 3 – Actionable Tools and Extensible Platforms

As the number of innovation practitioners grows and the challenges they take on become more difficult, the need for practical actionable resources grows.   This will be particularly true as humanitarians develop innovation strategies that extend established commercial innovation methodologies.   An innovator applying well known lean startup techniques from Silicon Valley can draw on many existing resources to learn the basics. As the Humanitarian Sector develops its own innovation practices around the next generation of complex creative challenges, practice guidance must be provided by the sector itself.  

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Since these practices will be rapidly evolving, they can’t be set in stone documents that are published and then left for years before its next revision. There is also a danger that published information on innovation practices becomes a flood outstripping the interest and available time of practicing innovators.     

This creates a need for extensible platforms that share distilled content, ideas and techniques in an accessible format that supports working innovators.  The HIF Innovation Management Guide is an example of this kind of actionable content and platform publishing strategy.   The “manual” is built around discrete tools organized based on a common innovation framework.  As new tools become available from a variety of sources, they can be inserted into both an online and physical version of the manual and then revised based on a series of edits, critiques, and design pivots from across the sector.  

Collaborating on the Next Generation of Innovation Practices

This is an exciting time. Humanitarian innovation is positioned to take on the bigger more complex challenges ranging from scaling complex innovations and innovating in low resource environments to empowering communities to actively engage in the full lifecycle of innovation 

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Innovators within the sector will need to work jointly to master these challenges.  Collectively acting to intentionally collaborate, leverage shared frameworks, and create extensible tool platforms with actionable tools will help drive this next generation of humanitarian innovation practice forward.