Breakthrough innovations: Development and humanitarian professionals weigh in

Handover of a solar-powered water pump by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan to residents of Gormoyok Village in Juba. How can we bring to scale climate change-related innovations to the billions who currently need them? Photo by: JC McIlwaine / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Innovation — from clean technologies, to smart gadgets, to financial investments — was a key talking point at the Paris climate change conference. On the government end, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande unveiled “Mission Innovation,” a coalition of 20 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, China, India and the United States, that have committed to double governments research and development investment in the next five years.

The private sector has also stepped up its game: Led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 28 investors with a collective worth estimated around $350 billion have started The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, to provide investments in new innovative technologies to bridge them past the “valley of death” between technical discovery, and commercial application and employment.

But innovation in climate change isn’t just about energy and technology. It’s also about creating more effective adaptation and mitigation strategies, and finding smart ways to get existing energy solutions to the billions who currently need them.

Devex interviewed a number of global development and humanitarian aid professionals working on the impacts of climate change to find out the sorts of innovations that they would like to see rolled out in the coming years, and others that are already working well.

Collaborating with communities to create innovations that work

Arjumand Nizami, country director for Pakistan at Swiss development organization HELVETAS, believes that how we look at innovation needs to fundamentally change, if we truly want to help the end recipient. Nizami advocates for a user-directed innovative process, in which the recipient of the technology plays a fundamental role in its development.

“It’s very important the farmers are at the center of this whole debate on climate change,” she said. “They need to be a part of the discussion — they are receiving the impact of climate change, they have to produce food and have to know what to do with all these changing patterns in order to do so.”

One strategy that seems to be working in Pakistan, she said, is forming collaborations between universities, farmers, and the government. Farmers provide local knowledge on how seasons are changing, and the impacts of climate changes on crops, which researchers use to chart solutions that the government can eventually help to bring to scale.

However, Nizami cautions that collaborative strategies often seem much more straightforward than they actually are.

“You cannot have a linear approach. You must have a mixed approach,” she explained. “There has to be good communication between the universities and the farmers during all stages of the process. It needs to be demand-based rather than top-down, so that we are working on the solutions that farmers are truly looking for. Only then will there be trust, and only then will farmers accept those solutions, and adopt them.”

Even so, she cautioned that there is still a tendency among the governments of developing countries to focus on response rather than long-term solutions.

“Governments in our countries need a lot of training and capacity to understand climate challenges and promote practical and cost-effective solutions to deal with the changes,” she said.

In India, Joy Elamon, chief executive officer of Intercooperation Social Development India, has seen firsthand the effectiveness of a truly collaborative approach, implemented together with HELVETAS. By working closely with farmers and university researchers and market players to test different strategies for the cultivation of organic basmati rice, farmers have adopted a new cropping and water management strategy — in which traditional rice paddy flooding has been replaced with a new irrigation technique, involving alternatively watering and drying the rice paddies. Because farmers were involved in the experimentation process, they were quick to adopt it once they saw the results.

Even so, Elamon shared that this model wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t made economic sense to the farmers: Part of the reason farmers were willing to experiment was because the economic model involved guaranteeing a buyer for the rice — so experimentation was less risky.

“Adaptive strategies need to contain a value-chain approach,” he said. “That is an economic model that brings everyone together, and builds climate change into livelihoods and business model that works for all of the stakeholders.”

Simple solutions are often the best

When technology is part of the solution, it needs to be cheap, simple and easy to use. According to Colin McQuistan, climate change and disaster risk reduction advisor at Practical Action, an NGO that uses technology to challenge poverty, many of the best early-warning systems are effective precisely because they are low-tech, and rely on technologies that communities are already comfortable using. “We need to focus on appropriate technology, not just high technology,” he said.

One example might be a weather prediction system communicated via SMS, or a cyclone warning system that notifying a responsible member of an imminent cyclone via landline or SMS, who then broadcasts the message to the rest of the community by — for example — cycling to higher ground and raising a red flag that is visible to most of the village.  

“The technology in regard to mitigation and efforts to deliver energy in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions is quite well established,” he said. “So it’s not lack of technology — it’s really the case of creating the enabling environment so that the right technologies can be adopted in the right places at the right time.”

Other useful technologies include solar-power pumps, which allow people to extract water from deeper within the earth, and with far less effort than the traditional hand pump. Communities isolated from main power grids can use mini-solar grids, and farmers facing droughts can adopt drip-irrigation systems.

It’s also important to ensure that technologies are context specific and appropriate. For example, a solar panel that works in one country may not necessarily be appropriate for use in another. 

“We need to adapt solar technologies for different environments,” said Kishan Khoday, team leader for climate change at the United Nations Development Program. “For example, there’s a huge need in the Middle East, where you have sandstorms that batter the solar panels and reduce their lifespan, and face excessive heat beyond anywhere else in the world. On one hand, this concentration of heat solar energy production — but adaptation also needs to be built in to the technology to maximize its life span, particularly given even higher temperatures expected in the future as a result of climate change.”

Planet Worth: An online conversation exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change hosted by Devex in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich.

Innovation in risk-mitigation, empowering communities

Neal Donahue, senior vice president for Southern Africa and the agriculture and food security technical practice at Chemonics, works with agricultural communities. He believes that when it comes to adaptation to climate change, one of the key challenges is how to catalyze large-scale behavioral changes at the community level.

“Where we need more innovation is around changing community based attitudes toward how they approach traditional livelihoods in the face of increasing uncertainty from climate change,” he said.  

According to Donahue, it can be challenging for communities to realize that many of the “facts” they thought were fixed are now variable, and that traditional approaches to growing crops that have worked for generations may no longer be effective due to climate changes.  

“This almost gets into culture, and whether or not individuals have a reverence to the past or forward orientations,” he said. “We need to figure out how to change the way that people think about the way they do their job — how they look at how they are growing crops, or which crops to grow, so that when climate changes, they are able to adapt and change with it.”   

According to Donahue, such changes are often particularly challenging for the people living in poorer communities because they have no security: Experimentation is risky, and a risk gone wrong can wreak havoc on their livelihoods and families.

“You and I have resilience to lose our job for a month,” said Donahue. “But you take a crop from an emerging-market farmer, and they’re cooked. Their kids may stop going to school, and they may not have food to feed their family. Once education and nutrition come into play, a one-time event can have a lifelong negative impact.”

Thus, finding ways to buffer individuals from poorer communities against the risks inherent to experimentation and change is another opportunity for innovators.

There are some risk reduction solutions that are already making considerable impact on the ground: For example, the proliferation of “microinsurance” that attempts to protect small-scale farmers against some of the shocks of climate changes. But there is still far more that needs to be done.

“One place that no one is working in is the care economy,” said McQuistan, referring to the role traditionally played by women in running a home, and caring for children and ailing family members. The washing machine was a groundbreaking device in the developed world, he said, because it freed a lot of time that women traditionally dedicated to washing clothing.

“If we can find ways to free up women’s time, that allows them to dedicate more time and contemplation to family challenges we could unlock their innovative potential to develop their own solutions and adaptations to climate change challenges.”

Innovating better partnerships and holding governments accountable

Governments also have a large role to play in innovating climate solutions, and bringing existing solutions to scale. Many climate change professionals are championing a more bottom-up approach, which puts the burden on individual governments to find their own climate solutions.  Whether or not this approach is successful depends largely on individual governments’ existing systems and capacity.

“We need to see more innovations on the level of government systems,” said UNDP’s Khoday. “And we need ways to hold governments accountable to the agreements they make.”

This is already happening in some places: The past 30 years has seen an explosion of environmental courts and tribunals around the world that specialize in deciding environment, resource development, land use and climate change disputes. In India, for example, the Green Bench of the Supreme Court hears public interest environmental cases filed by citizens.

“Most of these courts take claims by civil society, calling for greater government action for environmental protection, or claims against violation of law relating to pollution cases. It’s useful because it’s a way that civil societies can hold their governments accountable to the agreements they’ve made around climate change.”  

It’s also necessary for governments to develop mechanisms that incentivize the adoption energy solutions that are cleaner, so as not to contribute to carbon emissions: For example, Brazil relies on a mix of traditional, solar and hydro energy, which is awarded via the auction of long-term contracts. By using long-term contracts rather than the traditional short-term contracts, investors are incentivized to find inexpensive, capital-intensive renewable energy technology, and build that capacity over 10 years. Kenya is another country slowly but steadily building capacity in building wind and solar energy production.  

Donahue cautions, however, that energy mitigation in developing and middle-market economies, while a good start, is not a long-term solution.

“I believe that mitigation remains a critical issue, but where we work in the world — developing market economies — is the tail of the dog on this, if we accept the generally accepted belief that human contribution to carbon dioxide is one of the major factors driving climate change,” he said. “We can help countries that are coming on line not exacerbate the problem, but really making an impact on mitigating or even reversing carbon emissions would have to be driven by the countries largely responsible for producing it.”

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.