Where the 'magic happens' for innovation

Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab talks to Devex at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco.

Innovation can be a real challenge for nongovernmental organizations because of funding constraints and restrictions.

“I think it’s actually really hard for NGOs to innovate,” Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s U.S. Global Development Lab, said at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco Wednesday. “And I think one of the biggest problems is folks like USAID.”

But USAID has recognized that major funders and old systems are part of the problem and the agency is working to address the issue by providing flexible funding models, she added.

Chang’s comments drew laughs from a crowd of social business enthusiasts, and probably some appreciation from her colleagues from UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity and World Vision International at the SOCAP Conference Wednesday. Devex caught up with Chang for a video interview to hear more about the challenges of scaling innovations at NGOs and her plans for the lab.

“SOCAP really works at the intersection of the private sector, the public sector and NGOs,” said Chang, who spent most of her career in Silicon Valley before joining USAID. The former senior engineering director at Google is now tasked with driving science, technology and innovation through a government agency.

“I truly believe that magic happens at that intersection … Having worked in each of these sectors, I think each of them has really unique assets, and each has really significant limitations,” she said, adding, “When we come together, I think we can bring all of our best to the table, and do a lot more than we can do individually, and SOCAP really embodies that spirit.”

Prior to taking command of USAID’s highly buzzed-about innovation center, Chang, an engineer by training, worked at Mercy Corps and as senior adviser for women and technology in the secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

Watch the video above to hear more about Chang’s vision for the Global Development Lab and the future of partnerships for innovation.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.