More 'candor, honesty' needed for innovation in global development

An area in Mafraj, Jordan, where a camp has been set up for Syrian refugees. The U.N. Development Program is currently exploring innovative ways on how to address the problem of waste management and at the same time provide livelihood opportunities for both refugees and host communities in the country. Photo by: Alessandra Blasi / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Innovation is definitely becoming a fixture in global development. Every year, thousands of ideas are thrown into grand challenges competitions or innovation labs, hoping to be noticed, win funding and then scale up.

If your idea gets picked, you’re lucky to get the funding — and sometimes technical support — to move ahead of others, who now feel they are up against the wall and won’t be able to progress unless they win next year’s challenge, or stumble upon a willing investor. But the truth is that winning that award doesn’t guarantee your idea succeeds or makes an impact as you hope it would. If you ask Brenton Caffin, who has years of experience in the innovation space and now works as director of innovation skills at London-based charity NESTA, all these grand assumptions are hogwash.

“One of the things that I say quite often when people [say they] need money for innovation is sometimes what you can do is repurpose and think about the resources that you actually have,” he told Devex at the sidelines of the recent Data Innovation for Policymaking conference organized by the U.N. Development Program in Bali, Indonesia. “Sometimes all it takes is people’s time … to try something different. There are lots of examples where stuff has been tried out using little or no money, and then once it’s proven, [that’s the time] they can find money for them to scale up.”

This is what Caffin told several UNDP officials working in Egypt and Turkey, when they raised the problem of waste management in Syrian refugee areas, while at the same time exploring livelihood-creation activities for both refugees and host communities. He discussed with them the possibility of making waste a valuable commodity, rather than seeing it as something negative and costly to manage.

“Rather than seeing it as something that you need to keep paying to process, could they create revenue — generating opportunities, whether it’s methane capture or recycling,” the expert explained. “Doing so created new roles for people in those communities that do the collection — the sorting.”

Caffin, though, underscored the importance of testing all your assumptions in a given idea, because, he argued, “At the end of the day, even the greatest idea probably has lots of things about it that won’t work.”

Trial and error is part of the process, and he said it’s best to “fail early,” “fail small,” and be ready to “concede defeat,” a notion he found that, unfortunately, many aid agencies are not attuned to.

“No one wants to admit that a project hasn’t worked,” the innovation expert explained. “I think there’s a bit of complicity between development agencies that know things aren’t working but don’t want to say, and those who know that things aren’t working but are happy to accept the report that comes back so they don’t in turn look silly in front of their client.”

Caffin believes the industry could benefit from a “little more candor and honesty” — that not everything works according to plan, but agencies can always turn that failure into a learning experience they can input into their next venture. He thinks failure can even be shared to others and become valuable knowledge. Caffin quotes Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed 10,000 times to make a light bulb. I found 10,000 ways on how to not make a light bulb.”

This, perhaps, is what’s missing in the innovation space: the lack of a knowledge base where individuals or organizations aiming to solve a development challenge could go to find an existing solution or initiative, look for its merits and weed out its errors, and then tailor it for their own purposes. What happens often is that they focus on creating new models or interventions and how to scale them up, without regard or idea that something, somewhere, there exists an innovation quite fitting or just needs a little tweak to address a particular need.

“For every grant challenge that’s out there, there’s another that’s doing the same thing they’ve always been doing,” Caffin said. “For every lab doing really interesting or small-scale idea generation and incubation, there’s a tale of frustration about how they couldn’t get funding to scale up the things they’re working. [But] if there’s something that’s missing, it’s actually just being able to piece all of that together so the ecosystem is much more conducive for exploring idea … and building and testing new ideas and prototypes.”

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.