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5 questions to ask before starting an innovation project

There has been a proliferation of innovation-specific development funds in recent years, a trend that seems to have spread from the business world to the development / aid sector.

Innovation has an important place in development, and in my experience the most effective innovation projects are the ones that make incremental improvements to an existing product, process or system. While innovation can be extremely useful in the right situation (for example, see tools4dev articles on collecting data using smart phones, GPS mapping, and using technology to monitor field activities). In the wrong circumstance it can be a monumental waste of time and money.

Here are five questions you should seriously consider before embarking on your next innovation project:

1. Is there already an effective but ‘less innovative’ solution to your problem?

A lot of problems that we try to solve in development / aid projects already have solutions that we know work. For example:

  • Vaccinations save lives (despite what anti-vaccers will tell you)
  • Having properly trained and supervised teachers – with small class sizes and sufficient equipment/facilities – improves education outcomes
  • Social safety nets reduce poverty
  • Boreholes and piped water supplies provide safer drinking water

These solutions are not new and we have plenty of data to show that they are effective in solving the problem that they’re trying to address.

Not all development problems require new solutions.
David Lewis, London School of Economics & Political Science

One of the main obstacles we face as development / aid workers is that neither the political will nor the funding are available from high income countries to completely solve these problems at scale in low income countries.

For example, the education sector in Malawi is overloaded. Class sizes can be very large (80-100+ students per class), the number of student/teacher contact hours is low (school days run for about 4 hours), and there are a huge number of students with close to half of the country’s population under 14. Malawi needs massive investment and expansion of its public education; more teachers, more classrooms, more books and stationery. The funding to do so is simply not available, from taxation revenue or donor funding, but we know what a possible effective solution is, because we’ve had that solution for close to a hundred years in high income countries (longer in some countries).

“Innovation” is often used to search for a single solution, rather than look at large amounts of money and will needed to fix things with methods we already know work.

The failure of PlayPump points to a huge problem in meeting water challenges – simply put, there is no panacea. Water problems are very complex and come in a multitude of flavors.
Daniel Stellar on the state of the planet blog

If the problem that you’re looking to “solve” already has proven and effective solutions, then maybe you don’t need an innovative new idea. You need more funding for boring solutions that actually work.

2. What does your long-term success (or failure) look like?

A key part of innovation is the idea that you’re doing something new, be it utilising new technology or a new process or approach to an existing problem. If what you are trying isn’t “new” in some way, then it probably isn’t “innovative”.

Keep in mind that the long-term success or failure of your innovation is unknown. While you may achieve success in one area, the innovation may have unintended negative consequences in others.

Be aware that other organisations may have already attempted the innovation that you are advocating, and failed. One of the problems we face in development is that not all failures are reported, making it hard to learn from all that has come before us. One organisation that is looking to change this lack of sharing is Engineers Without Borders (Canada), with their Admitting Failure campaign.

3. Is your innovation economically scalable?

A really important question when thinking about your innovation project is if it is likely to offer the best economic scalability. This can be quite hard to determine, as innovation is about trying new things. The impacts of developing solutions that don’t scale well, can be quite dramatic. For example, one of the problems that WaterAid had with the Play Pump was that it was four times more expensive than conventional water pumps (and no, it didn’t produce four times the water).

Another example involves the use of smart phones / tablets for development projects. The oneclass initiative by onebillion is looking for donors to fund the purchase of tablets (iPad Minis) and other equipment so that students are able to use local language education applications (e.g. maths, english, etc.). Each oneclass is estimated to cost approximately 12,645 GBP and includes the cost of a building to host the classes.

The native language applications by onebillion show great promise and studies have shown they lead to improvements in education outcomes in Malawi and the UK. The problem is that rolling this type of program out on a national scale is beyond the current (or near future) resources of a low income country such as Malawi. Malawi’s primary education funding goal is to reduce the teacher to student ratio, which is currently targeted at 1:60, although is much higher in certain school / regions of the country.

What else could be done with the donor money your project is absorbing?

Linked to the question, what else could get funded with the donor money that you’re absorbing to research, scale and implement your innovation? Running an innovation project that might work ahead of solutions known to be effective can result in smaller outcomes for less recipients.

Don’t forget where the money comes from, and that each of us has a responsibility to design and implement effective development solutions. The best solution may well be something innovative, but please keep in mind that it might not.

4. Are you innovating for the sake of innovating?

The recent emphasis on innovation has spread from the business world to the development / aid sector, with a multitude of innovation funds offering money to development projects.

Lots of donors and organisations seem to run innovation projects for the sake of looking innovative. An example involves charity:water. Rather than spending a small amount of money to monitor the operation of their water pumps, Google awarded them $5 million to setup “real time monitoring” of their pumps, a project that is also taking three years to implement.

If the main purpose of your innovation project is to create Development + Technology P*rn for your annual report, then you are doing it for the wrong reason.

Kevin Starr looks at two innovation projects in development, the LifeStraw and One Laptop Per Child in a PopTech Talk on Development Failures.

Are you innovating just because you know how?

Some people decide to do an innovation project just because they’re good with a particular technology.

However, just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I know how to create an online database of maize prices, but that doesn’t mean that I should create one since none of the subsistence farmers in my area have an Internet connection (and even if they did the cost of data would be more than they make in a month).

It’s important to consider whether the innovation is useful, beyond you own personal passion for a particular technology.

5. Are you trying to solve the underlying problem using only technology?

Technology can do many things to an existing process. It can:

  • Make the processes faster
  • Make the processes more reliable
  • Store lots of data
  • Make the process more interactive
  • Allow people involved to communicate more easily
  • etc.

However, technology alone cannot solve an underlying problem. Taking a bad system and replicating that bad system with better technology won’t necessarily lead to improvements.

In my experience, the most effective innovation projects are ones that make incremental improvements to an existing process or system using technology (e.g. making the process faster, more reliable, etc). A fundamental requirement is that people are already using the existing system (if they don’t use the existing system then they probably won’t use the new one).

If you’ve thought about these questions, and you still think your innovation project is a good idea then check out the Human Centered Design Toolkit.

Photo by ian munroe

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About Piroska Bisits Bullen

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Piroska has worked on a range of international development programs involving local NGOs, international NGOs, UN agencies and government. She holds a Ph.D. in public health, has published articles in several journals, and was a speaker at TEDx Phnom Penh. Piroska is passionate about using scientific evidence and creativity to design programs that work.
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