Opinion: Innovation often fails to scale — maybe we can fix it

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My career has shown me innovation in varied settings — private enterprise, the public sector, and nonprofits. And it has led me to a provocative statement: The notion of scaling innovations in international development is informed by faulty thinking. That leads to misguided approaches, inappropriate implementation, and flawed assessments of why programs scale or don’t.

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That combination is why many good innovations get stuck: like a jeep in deep mud, an enormous effort pushing pedals, spinning wheels, and yet, not moving. That may seem harsh, but international development actors are still not yet thinking about scale with the right mindset or the right vocabulary. This limits the potential for social innovation to fulfill its promise of improving people’s quality of life.

When I joined the World Bank in 2009 to lead a new innovation lab, my mandate was to help expand the space for experimentation and learning within the bank, with an emphasis on emergent technologies. That mandate was intimidating in an “expert-driven” culture. Experts want detailed plans, budgets, clear success indicators and minimal risk. Someone told me, “the organization loves innovation as long as it’s been done before.” Now that the bank faces changes again, it may be a good time to consider this anew.

Bringing innovation risk to risk-averse institutions

Innovation is about managing risk, navigating uncertainty intelligently, and venturing into the unknown. From my previous experience, including a stint with Google, I learned that you fail fast and fail forward. It was a step-by-step process, but parts of the World Bank came to see innovation as essential to achieving its mission. The process taught me a lot about seeding innovation in a culture of expertise. That included change in how we think about technology, teaming, problem-solving, and even leadership.

As a newcomer, my goal was not to change the World Bank’s culture. I just wanted to create a space where our team could try new things, learn fast, and create impact. We initially focused on technologies and platforms that, if they took root, could be very powerful. The most powerful example of this was launching the bank’s Open Data initiative.

Open data made the bank’s trove of information on countries, people, and programs widely available and searchable. Despite the expectations of many bank staff, people came in droves to access it. In the same vein, we launched the Mapping for Results initiative to show the relationship between where we lent money, where the poor live, and what impact, if any, our programs were having. Within 24 months, Open Data and Mapping for Results became mainstream at the World Bank and many other development institutions.

That was Phase 1, where we had important successes but we needed a more systematic approach to innovation. We needed a methodology, a process, and a way to measure results. We also needed a safe space to take calculated risks and test ideas that were not ready or too disruptive to pursue elsewhere in the institution. So we set up innovation labs, which was Phase 2.

New forms for collaboration

The innovation lab idea required us to collaborate on experimentation in an utterly new way. We worked with other parts of the bank and a few outside organizations to incubate the Open Development Technology Alliance, now part of the bank’s digital engagement team. The alliance worked to enhance accountability and improve delivery of public services with technology-enabled citizen engagement, such as mobile phones, citizen science, and social media.

I remember how putting a phone in the hands of committed students in Tanzania led to them map an entire urban slum pointing out where government services were reaching people and where they were not. For the time, the whole world could see in plain sight who was served and who was not courtesy of a GPS device and Google Maps.

Experts don’t have a monopoly on ingenuity and creativity. Innovations are percolating all around us. We decided to use our innovation labs to highlight and incubate selected innovations with challenge funds. External competitions could identify business model innovations to scale-up through public or private partnerships. We could provide a platform for accelerating incubation, learning from each other, catalyzing partnerships, and mobilizing resources.

Still, the World Bank’s traditional approach of lending to governments and supervising development projects did not address some really complex problems. We needed another kind of lab that innovated the process of problem-solving itself. That was easier said than done.

The bank’s core culture was still expert-driven, yet problems such as climate change, financial inclusion, food security, and youth unemployment demand new approaches. We needed to address the “how” of reforms, and marry know-how with do-how. That meant using integrative thinking. By iterating, we could course-correct as we learned what worked best and in which contexts.

International development grapples with some of the most complex problems in the world. If we only address symptoms rather than root causes, we can make the problem worse. Penalizing teachers for not coming to school, for example, may ignore underlying issues about why they’re not coming.

Welcoming new skills and unexpected actors

The landscape of global development has changed. As the bank’s leadership knows, today’s challenges require collaboration with civil society, the private sector, governments, investors, and foundations, each with their own comparative advantages. Each discipline brings its own strengths too. The idea that solutions come from a wide range of disciplines is not new. It wasn’t a geographer who figured out the conundrum of longitude. The problem solver was a clockmaker who saw a pattern.

We, in international work, need to engage with unexpected actors and develop a systematic process to attract expertise from wherever to test new solutions. This, along with bold experimentation and political will, can move the needle on some of the world’s toughest problems, which involve constantly changing conditions.

Creating jobs for youth in Central Asia is a complex matter, for example. Private enterprise is still new and business conditions are not conducive to enterprise growth. Where I work now, in the Aga Khan Development Network, we launched a program that would provide young entrepreneurs with access to capital and business training. At the same time, we needed to address deep-seated skepticism about private enterprise in a post-Soviet society. Marketing and enterprise support were important so we connected them. Within a year, hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs gained business skills and dozens received capital to launch businesses.

Innovations may not always scale, but our processes can. This is the fundamental innovation challenge for global development and it’s more pressing than ever. As we mark National Innovation Day in this time of change, let’s raise our efforts to meet that challenge.

About the author

  • Aleem walji headshot

    Aleem Walji

    Aleem Walji is chief executive officer at the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., where he oversees a portfolio of programs related to strengthening civil society, inclusion and improved services for the poor. Previously, he was chief innovation advisor within the leadership, learning and innovation vice presidency at the World Bank Group.