6 ways to innovate for development in 2015 and beyond

What exactly does innovation mean in the context of development? Photo by: Sebastien Wiertz / CC BY-NC

This is a big year for development. As the Millennium Development Goals are set to run their course, the international community must agree on new development priorities. These new targets are set to be adopted at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

As negotiations on finalizing the new development agenda heat up, one thing is clear: Delivering on these goals will require investment in innovation.

What exactly does innovation mean in the context of development?

First, it means to embrace complexity, acknowledging that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions for the persistent development challenges across the globe, many of them being interconnected such as the multiple effects of climate change. Innovation implies that breakthroughs can only be created in partnership. These are two of the nine innovation principles the U.N. Development Program endorsed last year together with seven U.N. entities, seven foundations and donors. That same year, we launched the Innovation Facility with the support of the government of Denmark.

The Innovation Facility’s “Year in Review” report is just out. As we approach our first anniversary, below we highlight six areas identified over the past year where UNDP will seek to innovate in 2015 and beyond.

1.   What, exactly, is the problem?

Social challenges, including in the “global north,” are becoming increasingly complex, for example the fluidity of commodity trades in the agricultural sector for food security. We focus on understanding the problem as well as possible, based on available data.

UNDP is working with U.N. Global Pulse and other partners on big data analysis to help give us and governments the most detailed picture possible. We also embrace ethnographic methods that help us better understand the diverse perspectives of the people affected by development challenges. In Georgia, for example, we analyze patterns of individual stories — micronarratives — in collaboration with Cognitive Edge to explore underlying causes of challenges and identify possible solutions.

2.   The best ideas come from surprising people and places.

We encourage our experts to look for models and ideas outside of UNDP. These can be cases of positive deviances, people who found practical answers to tackle a challenge in their communities, or open innovation challenges to get the brightest brains work on development challenges.

Such challenges are a call to startups, NGOs and other partners to propose concrete solutions for a challenge or an opportunity, such as our latest challenge on using technology to promote citizen’s engagement. We establish spaces that allow us to design development solutions right alongside those affected by the problem, like a social innovation lab in Egypt to find solutions to the hurdles of reporting incidents of sexual harassment and violence, or supporting youth entrepreneurs in Armenia to get their social business off the ground.

3.   Test, measure, improve.

Instead of banking on only one idea, we test several in parallel and see what works best.

How can we “nudge” people to make choices that benefit their health, for example? In Moldova, we are working with the Behavioral Insights Unit to address the problem of low follow-up medication for tuberculosis and are testing different interventions in randomized control trials.

4.   Who wants your idea?

Whenever we invest in an initiative, this question needs to be answered from the get-go. A business plan helps identify actors that might eventually bring the idea to scale. This can be a government, the private sector or NGO partners.

Last year, our team asked: What development cooperation can learn from evolution? How can we create an environment of flexibility and adaptation in organizations often based on rather rigid mandates, fixed plans and risk aversion?

5.   Can we create shared value?

To achieve the post-2015 agenda, massive investment by governments will be necessary. But this must also be matched by a paradigm shift in the role of the private sector in development.

Through local partnerships, we explore opportunities for shared value. In China, UNDP launched a “data innovation lab” with Baidu, one of the country’s largest internet providers. The lab identifies valuable data sets and uses big data analysis to support China’s development goals.

The first collaboration addresses the problem of e-waste — a whopping 3.5 million tons annually. Together with Baidu, UNDP developed a mobile application called Baidu Recycle, which links electronics consumers to legally certified e-waste disposal companies for safe disposal and recycling. In just a few months, it was used by 100,000 people. Version 2.0 of the app is currently under development.

6.   Forget failure — learn!

Innovation involves calculated risks. Some ideas will not yield results. But labelling these “failures” discourages open discussion about what has not worked, and why. This is an impediment to learning, which is an integral part of success. We focus on learning by testing ideas, ultimately improving our performance.

In an ever-changing world, there will be no shortage of complex challenges and the need to constantly learn and adopt. Last year, we tested novel concepts in 49 initiatives across 54 countries. We invite you to send us your feedback on our “Year in Review” and to join the conversation on Twitter via #inno4dev. We remain in constant beta.

You can help shape our coverage on global development innovations by emailing gdb@devex.com or tweeting #innov8aid.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Benjamin Kumpf

    Benjamin Kumpf is working on social innovation for the United Nations Development Program, exploring new and emerging data for development, behavioral insights, lean and agile development and other extraordinary topics to change business as usual.