On DFAT's InnovationXChange: 'We need to take risks — appropriate risks'

Chris Vein, former chief innovation officer for Global Technology Development at the World Bank. Photo by: Stephen Brashear / The DEMO Conference / CC BY-NC-ND

When Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched InnovationXChange in March as an innovative hub to solve aid-related problems, there was limited understanding of how this would impact the Australian aid program. Six months on, the program within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a more defined direction and a clearer vision for the future.

Chris Vein has been involved in the program from the early stages. A former chief innovation officer for Global Technology Development at the World Bank, the American has two key roles as part of InnovationXChange. First, he serves as a member of the 14-person International Reference Group. Second, he advises Bishop, secretary of DFAT Peter Varghese and InnovationXChange head Lisa Rauter to think through strategically what is possible with the hub and how it should be built to fully achieve its potential.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, identified Vein as the man for the job. When he was first approached about the project, Vein was still working at the World Bank with his role searching out innovative approaches and projects that had the potential to scale around the world. Technology-based solutions were fundamental to this work and it was this drive for technology-enabled innovation in the Australian aid program that enticed Vein to the job.

Vein credits his decision to join the program to Bishop’s commitment to innovation and DFAT’s willingness to embrace technological change. And with the change of leadership from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull, Vein sees innovation as becoming more influential in Australian government processes.

“In talking to the foreign minister, it became clear that she understood that these tools could really help the aid program,” said Vein in an interview with Devex. “I think what is exciting is that Australia is setting up a research and development lab to integrate innovation into the foreign policy program, starting with aid before scaling it through the rest of DFAT. That, to me, is groundbreaking.”

Vein concedes that sources of innovation are not always based on technology. He highlights that InnovationXChange will promote new ways of thinking, even on traditional crosscutting development issues. For instance, gender equality will be a priority for all development projects supported by the hub.

“It has been identified as high priority by Julie [Bishop] that XChange projects be seen through the lens of women and girls,” Vein explained.

The initiative will also dovetail with other programs promoting innovation in development, such as the Global Innovation Fund in which the XChange will invest $30 million over the next four years, along with other investments from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and Omidyar Network.

Vein defines three key functions of InnovationXChange: determine how technology or new approaches can solve development problems; determine what is needed in DFAT to fine-tune and scale solutions; and communicate back to DFAT to improve work flows and enable innovation.

But one of their first outcomes will be enabling a platform for communication and information sharing between government, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and research institutes that can better enable DFAT to solve the hard problems of foreign aid.

“We will bring the best and brightest of NGOs, the research sector and more into the actual operation of the XChange,” Vein explained. “There are problems DFAT may have had years to solve but have never been able to crack that nut,” he said.

Currently, InnovationXChange is consulting with a wide range of potential collaborators including the New Zealand Foreign Ministry, Fairtrade Australia, the Difference Incubator and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This process will help determine priorities and needs of the development sector. Within six months, Vein anticipates that formal partnerships between DFAT and these organizations, and others, will be formalized.

The XChange’s management structure is, in some ways, as unconventional as its mission and seems to acknowledge the importance of bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to the table. Particularly, the International Reference Group — the multidisciplinary steering committee of which Vein is a part — will provide expertise on development, business, culture, economics and technology.

Vein describes Bishop as the driving force in establishing the IRG with such impressive credentials. But he emphasized that IRG members are dedicated and passionate about InnovationXChange and assisting Australia to think outside-the-box on aid-related issues. Their role is not only to provide a network of contacts and expertise, but also to provide key guidance and direction for the program — even if there is debate within the group over appropriate solutions.

Among the members is Australian Council for International Development President Sam Mostyn, who, according to Vein, enables a strong connection to the Australian NGO sector.

Another member is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. DFAT and Bloomberg Philanthropies have already established a partnership to help fill a gap in health knowledge for the Indo-Pacific region to ultimately inform Australian policymakers.

“What Michael Bloomberg and I supported each other with the belief that this type of thinking is why we are where we are. We need to take risks — appropriate risks,” said Vein. “We are not going to waste taxpayer’s money. But just because something fails, that does not mean it is a bad thing. One learns out of failure.”

If InnovationXChange is to succeed, Vein stressed that there needs to be a cultural shift within DFAT away from traditional siloed approaches to delivering programs. In his view, Australia was at one time a global leader in innovation, but this potential had, until recently, faded.

“If you look at the leadership potential of Australia 10 or 20 years ago, leadership on things like technology, open government and open data, Australia was really at the forefront, more than other countries,” he explained. “And then they fell away. Other countries then stepped in, like the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden.”

“What has been fascinating to watch is how the XChange is already becoming the ‘safe’ place to go by leaders within DFAT to solve a problem and ask for expertise,” Vein said. “The XChange is becoming the focal point for creative problem solving.”

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

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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