Let's recognize leadership and scale in innovation

The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation's Development Assistance Committee launched the annual DAC Prize to encourage more investment into the large-scale use of innovative development solutions. Photo by: Chris Potter / CC BY

Innovation is key to human progress — but it takes more than a good idea to change the world.

Although the Chinese may have invented the first steam engines, it was the people around Manchester, England who put them into use and started the Industrial Revolution. Today, patents made in one continent are put into use by companies at the other end of the globe.

The story of human progress is to a large extent about innovations — from the fire or the wheel, to the printing press, the steam engine, the telegraph, and the power of the digital economy.  The world is full of inventions, but not all of them get traction. Some simply don’t make the cut — they may be new, but not sufficiently appealing or relevant. Others simply go undiscovered. There are many reasons why good innovations are not picked up despite great potential.

In development, we can’t let those opportunities pass, and that’s why the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation’s Development Assistance Committee launched the annual DAC Prize — precisely to encourage more investment into the large-scale use of innovative development solutions.

READ:A one-of-a-kind honor

Scale

Millions of people are dying every year from easily preventable diseases, but necessary vaccines and treatment are not produced or distributed at the scale required.

Hydro, wind and solar energy are available technologies, but it has proven difficult to provide electricity for the 1.4 billion people currently living without it. Farmers in Kenya have increased yields with drought resistant seeds, but it is quite another matter to transform the agricultural system to produce more food on land already facing soil depletion, water shortages and climate change.

Poverty reduction and sustainable development will require full mobilization of the best available solutions. The solutions are out there. What we need is to put the solutions to work on a large scale.

Scalability is about using markets and government spending to spread the solutions that work. Costa Rica’s payments for ecological services — once a unique conservation and social program — inspired us when we started the global deforestation initiative UN-REDD. The benefits once given to just 20 Bangladeshi women investing with Mohamed Yunus’ saving schemes at the Grameen Bank can now be shared by millions of micro-borrowers around the world. The mobile money system established in Kenya was originally designed for making microcredit loan payments over the phone as borrowers didn’t have access to traditional financial services. The pilot project worked well and launched m-Pesa into the role as a world leader in the booming field of mobile money. Mobile money is used by over 17 million Kenyans, two-thirds of the adult population, and a quarter of the economy flows through it.

Leadership

We need pioneering innovators and strong leaders. There is often a reluctance to change in the world and it is often much easier to continue old practices. Change is disruptive. Many people will have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

The Industrial Revolution once met fierce resistance and the printing press was once seen as the devil reincarnated. Even slavery was not abolished without a protracted, even violent, fight. The enormous energy system with its harmful carbon emissions and wasteful fossil fuels subsidies will not change unless someone is willing to fight for it. There are certainly plenty of people fighting to keep it as it is. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Deng Xiaoping and Angela Merkel have all shown leadership and the ability to choose the best ideas and implement them. It was Deng Xiaoping’s ability to experiment with innovation, see what worked, and then take it to scale which transformed China and world history while bringing 600 million Chinese out of poverty. Germany’s energy transformation is a political decision to deploy available technologies on a large scale.

Jobs and Gates are not known as brilliant inventors, but rather visionaries who transformed technology into products people wanted at a time they could afford it. Change only comes through leadership.

Ideas for a better world

A key contribution in closing remaining development gaps will have to come from innovative solutions that can be taken to scale.

Aware of this, many development partners have increased their focus on and support for innovation that can offer solutions for development challenges. A wealth of innovative ideas has been conceived, developed and tested over the last years. The challenge is to put the ideas to work to eradicate poverty and green our societies.

The world is full of good ideas and workable solutions in need of someone to put their leadership behind them. The DAC Prize recognizes those who show leadership in taking innovative development solutions to scale, with the aim to help scalable and innovative solutions to gain financial support and policy backing from the development community and donor countries.

We encourage civil society, business and governments to come forward. You don’t need to be a Deng Xiaoping to apply!

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About the author

  • Erik Solheim

    Erik Solheim is chair of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee since January 2013, and incoming executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. With a solid background in climate, the environment and peace building, Solheim was also Norway’s minister for international development from 2005 to 2012.