Learning from the Humanitarian Innovation Laboratory

Innovation is all about survival – how often do we hear versions of that line? But in the field of humanitarian aid this really is the case. Innovation can sometimes be a matter of life and death. It’s a world characterised by crisis – but it’s also somewhere from which we might learn some new lessons to help manage innovation.

When disaster–natural or man-made–strikes we need innovation and we need it fast.  And often the ‘mainstream’ solution pathways are blocked so we have to invent radical alternatives, to improvise.

Think about an earthquake and the problem of moving food and medicine around becomes massively more complex when the roads are unrecognisable lumps of rock and gaping fissures.  How do you handle water and sanitation when pipes are broken and smashed?  How do you communicate when your phone lines are down?  How can you provide healthcare when the hospital is in ruins?  How do you house thousands of people whose homes are part of the wreckage?  Under these conditions we need as much creativity as we can get – and we need it fast.

The good news is that there are some impressive examples of innovation in this context.  For example:

  • Emergency shelters erected using lightweight durable materials which can be assembled fast and by unskilled people.
  • 3-D printing technologies being used to provide critical parts to keep broken infrastructure operating.
  • Simple low cost hygiene products to avoid sanitation-linked infection and provide clean drinking water.
  • Novel healthcare solutions to prevent the spread of disease and treat victims fast and effectively.
  • Cash-based options (via vouchers or mobile phones) to give people resources to procure what they need to feed, clothe and care for their families

The process is one we would recognize as core to innovation – taking knowledge and configuring it to create value to end-users.  Sometimes it’s the result of novel R&D, – for example using drones to carry relief supplies over damaged terrain, or Big Data to help in the management and logistics of large temporary settlements like refugee camps.  But much of the time it is adapting and configuring existing knowledge to new purposes.  A good illustration of ‘platform’ innovation of this kind is in the use of mobile phones:

  • creating an ‘instant’ banking system across which people can access cash and use this to buy food, medicines and other essentials
  • open street mapping to provide up-to-date information about affected populations, damaged infrastructure, key emergency locations, etc.
  • reuniting displaced persons
  • crisis mapping and emergency communications
  • creating online access to key information but also to provide employment opportunities
  • and, of course, providing resilient and fast to implement voice communication.

The continuing ability of disaster to surprise us and the scale of misery which it brings mean that humanitarian innovation (HI) capacity is at a premium.  Fortunately there are growing efforts to make the HI system not only more efficient (via better solutions and infrastructure) but also more effective by learning lessons from the past, from across the sector and, crucially, from wider innovation management experience.  (For example the UK’s Department for International development recently commissioned a review of the HI ecosystem and discussion of the theme formed a major part of the United Nations Humanitarian Summit this year which led to the setting up of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI)).

HI work can be loosely grouped around five major challenge areas…and within each of these there are great examples of product, process and other forms of innovation.

So what’s going on in HI?

HI work can be loosely grouped around five major challenge areas: food supply, nutrition, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), shelter and healthcare and within each of these there are great examples of product, process and other forms of innovation.  (There are some excellent examples of such activity available here).

But the sector also faces challenges in the way it manages innovation, including the following:

  • The ‘heart vs. head’ challenge

By its nature HI attracts people with a strong desire to do good, to make the world a better place.  Unfortunately whilst they may be rich in goodwill they often lack some of the core entrepreneurial skills needed to turn an idea into something which creates real and sustainable social value.  This isn’t just the challenge of learning about ‘the discipline of innovation’ and how to manage it – it’s also about doing so under particularly difficult conditions with limited resources, lack of control and an urgent need to build and work with diverse networks

  • The ‘fuzzy front end’ challenge

HI is often a matter of finding novel solutions to old problems – but the kind of experimentation and prototyping which we might recommend based on ‘lean start-up’ and other ‘agile innovation’ practices is hard to pull off in a context which is strongly risk averse.  This isn’t simply the problem of a slow moving organization with a strong immune system – in the HI case there are powerful forces at work to restrain uncontrolled experimentation.  Most of the financial and other resources are donated and so there is a strong sense of ‘stewardship’ being careful about the projects which these resources are spent on.  And there are also powerful ethical considerations – trying out minimum viable products and experimenting with prototypes amongst suffering populations is not practical or desirable.  So the resource allocation system for innovation is strongly biased towards backing safe bets and proven ideas.

  • The ‘user engagement’ challenge

One of the dangers in HI is that well-intenioned providers make assumptions about what end users actually need, and what will actually work in their context.  Inappropriate solutions provided with the best intentions litter the sites of disasters – complex equipment which cannot be maintained, supplies used for different purposes.  (For example researchers from the Humanitarian Innovation Project found that in Ugandan refugee camps people were using emergency mosquito nets not as an anti-malarial aid but as a source of rope with which to build the shelters which they felt were a more urgent need).

Underpinning this is an assumption that solutions can be designed far from the context in which they are to be implemented.  What is needed is a recognition of the importance of user perspectives – for example how people actually behave under crisis conditions, how they prioritize their emergency needs, how best they can support themselves, etc.

And empowered users are a rich source of ideas – many important humanitarian innovations arose in this bottom up fashion.  For example the crisis-mapping app Ushahidi emerged from users mashing up Twitter and other social media feeds to help provide a reliable information platform in the post-election violence in Kenya.  The app has subsequently been used all around the world including in the Brisbane floods and the Fukushima disaster.

  • The ‘mad Mavericks’ challenge

Under conditions of crisis a key characteristic is that old established solutions may not work – there’s an urgent need for radical thinking.  Agility, risk-taking, experimentation and fast learning are key skills in this context –precisely the kind of environment in which entrepreneurs thrive. But the ‘lean start-up’ model of experiment and fail fast may not be appropriate under conditions where the ethics of playing with people’s lives may be at the heart.  And even if that were OK the organizational context of innovation using public money and with rigorous rules and procedures for careful control militates against doing anything different.  The result is that whilst many HI ideas come from entrepreneurs they are often seen as ‘mavericks’ working below the radar screen, operating undercover, bootlegging their way.  The big question for the HI sector is how to internalize and institutionalize such players – how to create a context for innovation?

An example is the case of cash programming, a radical change in the business model associated with providing food assistance.  The original entrepreneurial experiments took place back in the mid-1980s but it took a further two decades before this powerful approach became accepted and legitimate as a mainstream model.

  • The ‘missing middle’ challenge

HI involves multiple experiments carried out in a ‘crisis laboratory’.  Many of these lead to interesting and relevant solutions which have a positive impact in a local context; the challenge is one of how these can be moved to scale. Dan McClure and Ian Gray call this the challenge of the ‘missing middle’, and it runs right across the spectrum of HI. Part of the problem comes from the nature of the humanitarian innovation process itself which often acts as a brake on moving rapidly to scale. Reliant on donor money, there are many checks to ensure that such money is well-spent and this builds in a concern for careful evaluation and expansion only based on solid evidence.  Allied to this are important ethical concerns which may require cautious ‘look before you leap’ approaches, again slowing the spread of ideas until they have been fully explored and demonstrated their ethical credibility.  And the sector is also characterized by political activity with different strategic agendas associated with major players.

Learning for the HI sector

Of course these are familiar themes to anyone working in innovation management – and that is good news for the HI sector in terms of adapting recipes already proven elsewhere.  This is beginning to happen – for example, the growing use of ‘entrepreneur-labs’ and similar spaces to allow early stage exploration and prototyping. Or the provision of specialist funding streams which offer advice and guidance as well as finance – for example the mentoring available within the Humanitarian Innovation Fund.  And efforts to emulate the kind of ‘ambidexterity’ solutions used in large organizations in their corporate venturing activities.

… and learning from it?

Managing HI is not a different art form so much as a variation on the core theme – essentially how to manage innovation under crisis conditions.  So we have an opportunity to ‘learn from the HI laboratory’. Crisis –driven innovation is characterized by

  • Extreme conditions forcing a radical rethink of solution approaches, potentially opening up new innovation trajectories
  • Users and context are critical – HI requires user participation in configuring solutions
  • Rapid prototyping and learning are a key feature, HI is linked to entrepreneurial experimentation
  • Rapid diffusion- a combination of urgency of need, configuration of appropriate solutions by engaged users and resource backing form major aid agencies to drive adoption to scale
  • Recombination – the failure of existing solutions under crisis conditions forces a rethink and wider search space, opening up potential for cross-sector learning

Given that none of us can be sure about what’s around the corner it’s probably worth looking a little more closely at some of these HI recipes to add to our innovation management approaches.  Just in case disaster strikes!

By John Bessant

About the author

Originally a chemical engineer, John currently holds the Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter.  He’s been researching, teaching and consulting about innovation management for over 35 years and is the author of 30 books and many articles, including the standard text Managing Innovation, published by John Wiley and now in its 5th edition.

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