[Podcast] Solutions Cast | Episode 3: Innovation in development 101

Solutions Cast is a podcast series hosted by Innovation-AccLab Pakistan. In this series, we explore disruptions in the system, form connections, and highlight local innovation & solutions.

In this episode, Ehsan Gul (Head of Experimentation) is joined by Javeria Masood (Head of Solutions Mapping) with a mission to make you embrace innovation! They explore what innovation means in the social development space, and if everyone has the license to innovate.

Ehsan Gul: Welcome to the solution cast series by UNDP Acceleration Lab Pakistan. Today I am joined by Ms. Javeria Masood, who serves as Head of Solution Mapping, and I am Ehsan Gul, who serves as Head of Experimentation at the UNDP Pakistan.

When we were designing the session, we thought what should we talk about! What are the usual conversations we have and what are those buzz words which we often hear in our community, which is innovation? Why don’t we demystify it, why don’t we decode it for the users out there who usually are seeking innovation services without realizing what it entails. We thought to expand it further and try to decode it. So welcome Javeria.

Ehsan Gul: My first question is, I use the word series, so what is series? What are these 10 episodes which we are designing for the innovation community, as well as for the community who wants to listen out there?

Javeria Masood: Similarly to what you have just said, we within our work frame have many conversations on daily basis which defragmented a lot of these concepts in the way they are applied in our work and generally in the larger context. So often we are asked these question that what is innovation or what is systems design, or what are these tools and methodologies that you keep advocating for?

So we thought that it would be a good idea to do a very basic level ten sets of sessions which not just take every one through that what we do, but also how we operate on all of those methodologies. Today is the introductory session, and then we’ll take you through a journey to discover all concepts.

Ehsan Gul: So to begin with word innovation, what is it, and why is everyone talking about it?

Javeria Masood: ‘Innovation’ has to be one of the most overly used words and under applied concept. Anywhere you go, everyone is talking about innovation. You go to an auto-mechanic they talk about it, people in the health sector talk about it. And its often mystified in a way that it sounds really big, which it isn’t as far my understanding goes. So I won’t go into the definitions of innovations because I know there is a plethora of that out there. But for me innovation is to solve a problem or improving on something, making it more effective, making it more convenient, and, to try and look at the things with a different angle. For example, you are sitting on a sofa and it has simple design, but if you add slight mechanics or slight increase in height, that can solve the problem of comfort. Or makes your experience more comfortable. This is called innovation in my opinion.

Ehsan Gul: Keeping or defining the boundary—how do you see innovation in social development space?

Javeria Masood: So where ever there is a social dynamic, meaning where there are a lot of overlapping dichotomies and aspects—whether they talk about people, their cultures, the space, or the problem itself, or the history of problem. For example, if we talk about social problems like environment, health care or education, they require a very deeper understanding of what the problem is. That is why to approach innovation we have a whole tool kit of methodological frameworks, application tools etc. What they really mean is that you go in the field to understand what the problem is, and speak to people for the contextual inquiry.

Ehsan Gul: As I was asking what does innovation mean to social development sector? How can we bring innovation in domains like environment, health or energy?

Javeria Masood: If we are associating innovation with improving something, so in order to improve it, you need to study it. This is why it is very important that whichever domain you are bringing innovation in, you need to first understand what it is.

Javeria Masood: Another term that we overly use is ‘Mapping’. What I mean is that for a matter of understanding you map out an issue and its different dynamics. You further map out the process in which that process unfolds, all stakeholders, all the touch points, the overlapping problems, and particularly the problem behind the problem.

So when you really chart out what exactly is happening, then you begin to see and identify patterns that are not working well or can be altered, replace, or reduce. For example, when we talk about improving services, a lot of the time, as we work with the governments and the services they provide to citizens. In that case very often the thing which is talked about is time. How much time a citizen takes to avail these services, example, passport, National Identity Card, taxation, etc., In that process, we try to map out place where these steps can be reduced. Actually this is called Systematic Innovation. In that process the tools and frameworks we use are contextual inquiry, empathetic analysis, brain storming, ideation, and prototyping. So as we began to talk about them we can go deep in these tools and frameworks.

Ehsan Gul: Why is it important to empathize with the community if really need innovation in the first place?

Javeria Masood: Because you want to know the people whom you are designing for. No matter how much experienced I am, how many places I been to, or have how many people I have met, I am still limited in my understanding of the larger world. There are so many cultures and micro cultures which come with their own nuances, and they shape how we are as people. So what is applicable in one micro culture, may or may not be applicable in another one, even though both are humans. So it is very important to understand people. For instance, if I say that I want to design to solve the problem of education, since it is not accessible to everyone, and in my mind I want to work with a rural space. But at the same time I come up with a very high-tech App. So when I take it there, it’s not well received. Because I missed out an important part of talking to people. May be the language that I have designed people are not familiar with, may be the thing I have designed is supper dependent on electricity or internet, or any other aspect, like certain visual elements are there which may or may not be offensive to people. So co-creation is a very important aspect of innovation. You co-create with the communities and that process lets you be empathetic with them.

Ehsan Gul: I have seen that when it comes to the word ‘innovation’, people often get a little nervous, and think that this must be a thing of ‘cool kids’, those who have studied the design techniques, probably this is not for me! So how can we make people embrace innovation? And how we can make them believe that it is not for those ‘cool kids’ to do it, it is everyone’s responsibility, and why is it so important to innovate?

Javeria Masood: I think you answered the way you phrased the question. But starting with the last thing you said that why it is important. In this regards I would say that status-quo works for a certain time, but change is constant. Things are constantly changing, whether it is through the pandemic, or new technologies, or changing behaviors of a society at large, or environment for instance. So you need to constantly pivot yourself or be open to altering or improving things the way they are. That requires for you to move away from what is happening currently, and try to make it better. Because nothing operates in isolation. If you design an excellent kind of an App and with new smart phones, it can be obsolete. Hence you need to be upgrading yourself. It is also strongly existing at the cultural level. As people we have to constantly adapt and be open to certain things.

Ehsan Gul: What does it mean when you use the words—pivot, change or bring innovation in practice– and how does the function of exploration help with that?

Javeria Masood: Exploration is a most fun thing to do. You put aside every assumption and just open to discovery, observing and just looking at what it is.

Ehsan Gul: You mean a chaotic space?

Javeria Masood: Chaotic space or you just have your note-pad or microscope to go and explore. And you identify any interesting patterns, what isn’t happening or what should happened. Though I know that we are talking which makes it sound easy. But you need a lot of training that goes before you develop that lens of observation. Example, if there are 20,000 people at an airport and they all are minding their own business. But the person who has that lens of observation is constantly looking with the lens of stories that come up and how things are unfolding, what are the connections and what are the signals. So this is why exploration is very important. Because it allows you to leave the space of obvious and go to the space of unobvious. That is where you form connections, and that is where all of our work lies.

Ehsan Gul: One of the articles you have written on signals of disruption post COVID-19. Tell us your strategy to look beyond the obvious?

Javeria Masood: So to see the future I actually I went into the past. I started reading about what happened 100 years ago when the Spanish flu happened. And then how some of the things that we have now in this existing world are here only because of the innovations that took place to respond to that particular emergency. Example, the powder room. It actually started there. So in houses people would come and go, and anyone coming from outside, their first touch point would be the sink to wash their hands. At that time, if a person had to bring coal in the kitchen from outside, they’d first go to the sink, wash their hands, and then go around the house.

Similarly, the great fire of Chicago. After that your building by-laws completely changed. Distance started coming between buildings. So that if a building catches fires, it is still in isolation, and it doesn’t spread. So I started looking at what had happened previously, and how and in which domains did it influence. As you see currently, while we’re recording, we’re maintaining the distance. It’s probably something we may not have been that cautious of. The way we are interacting socially has changed. We are seeing how spatial planning is happening has changed.

Ehsan Gul: Even working spaces have changed. We are seeing empty offices!

Javeria Masood: Yes, indeed, the working modality has changed. But in so many cases there is a positive side to it. There are people who can’t commute, who can’t be away from home due to responsibilities.

Ehsan Gul: Particularly working parents, right?

Javeria Masood: Yes. But now it has become acceptable to work from home. So it is the process of mapping around and trying to have the foresight lens. That if this aspect will change, what are some of the other ones it also effects.

Ehsan Gul: Another term usually associated with innovation is grass-root innovation. Mapping the grass root solutions to these providers, or these young people out there or any one per say who has any solution to a local problem. Do you want to define for our audience what is grass-root innovation?

Javeria Masood: Sure! And I will use a very interesting local word which is ‘jugad’. This kind of responds to that point that innovation is for cool kids or it is something which is so high ended, or an advance level. Grass-root innovation is any kind of tinkering or ‘jugad’. Example, if a chair breaks, and you have some kind of object to give it a standing, and that is how you have solved that problem. For instance, you go out and you observe that there are a lot of carts selling corn or any other food item.

Ehsan Gul: Raydhi wala (informal vendor), right?

Javeria Masood: Yes, so in the summers it’s so hot and I have seen many of those venders come up with really creative ways to have shade or have a little fan on their carts. Because they are mobile and can’t have a permanent source of power. So how they have imbedded the battery systems in their carts are an excellent kind of grass root solutions, and it is very important to map these. Because you can use this intelligence, that how they locally sought something in such a low cost level that can be scaled up and applied in other spaces as well.

Ehsan Gul: Even you can systemically bring all these little solutions together and make a beautiful umbrella which works for everyone. So mapping local ‘jugad’ solutions and bringing them at one place for that systemic change.

Ehsan Gul: A lot of our work is around system rethinking—means innovation within the system. In bigger organizations such as UNDP, innovation sits at periphery. How do we counter that? How do we instill a culture where innovation is promoted not at the periphery, but at the heart of the organization?

Javeria Masood: There is an organizational psychology as well, but people are important part of this. Change, by nature, we all are very hesitant to move towards. We all are very comfortable with anything that is familiar. So just this idea of us changing something becomes a very daunting thought. If an organization is operating for a very long time with certain kind of orthodox procedures and process, every-one who is part of that organization is familiar and comfortable with it. There is a level of acceptance that this is how it’s done. So largely when you are in the rut of projectizing, just delivering and executing; there isn’t a lot of time or space or even personal motivation to look back, observe and explore and identify that how and why we should look at it differently.

So innovation, because at its root is challenging the status-quo, (and I am also talking from my experience working different organizations or project) is that every time you come up with something that is not familiar, and you think you have to change, but at the same time you think that you will get criticized. That also comes as hindrance. That is why, no matter how familiar the word is, and no matter how often as a concept it is present in our portfolios, still to bring it at the core has become little hard.

That’s why people like us constantly advocate for this, not just at the organizational level but at the cultural level as well. One example of that could be your session you did on sparking curiosity. That again comes into how you can train yourself to be more observant, to ask the right questions, and also why it is important to change.

And I believe it is a larger understanding which I haven’t heard any one disagree with that the way development has been working actually is not working. Because it is always having that humanitarian approach that this is an immediate problem, you go and give money or mobilize and it is solved and you exit. This is why a lot of time foresight, longevity or sustainability are not part of it.

We talked about empathy. Whether the community who is catered for is going to take it off and add to it. And that’s not considered. And that is why innovation is something, whether we accept it or not, has to be brought in at the very center of this in a systemic way. So that every facet of our work that we do, whether communication with community, donors, setting up goals impact measurement or anything, it has to have the undertone of being open minded, curious empathetic, having systemic understanding longevity, and all of these principals we have talked about.

Ehsan Gul: Okay let’s suppose founders of some startups, small business or executives of large organizations who are listening to us, what recipe you will offer to them if they want to bring innovation into their system? As you mentioned a few, such as bringing people on board, impact indicators etc., it is good to hear that how much is human element is important to it?

Javeria Masood: As we discussed, cultural mindset is very important. You do need the right kind of people, who have this interest to push the boundary and at the same time the people who are very comfortable in their work. So this is why we talk about people, you need cross disciplinarity. You don’t need same kind of people, with same kind of expertise and same background. I meant you come from a very strong environment of innovation and sustainability background, and I have done architecture and it varies in our professional journey. So when we look at something, we look at it very differently. And that’s where the value is and that’s the value we offer.

Ehsan Gul: And that’s the way we have created a safe space to listen to each other, actively listen and then either find a midpoint, where we all agree or at least move towards the changes which works. At the end finally we look at what worked and what didn’t work. And it is okay if someone fails within the team. I call the Accelerator Lab the Human Lab. We can provide toolkits, we can provide links to resources to go through design and all, but more than that it’s the human element. That brings me to next question around facilitation.

Javeria Masood: Can I interject and talk about something you ask early about the recipe? So one is this human aspect, this multi-disciplinary approach. The other is testing and prototyping again and again. You constantly want to test that what you are saying. Basically practicing the theories, we talk about. That’s where your domain largely is to ensure experimentation. To learn, to see that how it works. That’s where startup community largely operates. Instead of sitting and coming with a great solution, products or services, and you spend a lot of time, resources and energy on it, and then you take it out in the market and eventually it doesn’t work. So it’s better to do small tests to see what works or what doesn’t.

Ehsan Gul: Or the usual practices let’s say, you put a million dollar and project gets failed. Why don’t you do the smaller version of it and then increase the resources.

Javeria Masood: Yes, I agree. When you test something, as a team you also want diversity. May be somebody could tell you a different perspective, that you haven’t thought about. That is why talking to community is very important. Like, to design a cart you must create with people who are going to use it. Bringing the end-user, whether it is our development work or any other space, is very important.

Ehsan Gul: So it means we need to make our organizations more porous. Open innovation floor, as oppose to loop of close innovation?

Javeria Masood: Its two-way street constantly. Whether that is testing, learning, or anything. I mean just sitting here you would be so disconnected with the ground realities that you actually put in your reports. You know this many people are under educated or lack of proper housing, I mean unless you move and explore or observe that space, you will not have a true understanding.

Ehsan Gul: I don’t know whether we scared people with the word innovation or not. So tell me do they have to be trained as designers or innovators, or is it something they can practice by themselves and do what we are suggesting them to?

Javeria Masood: I personally do bank on academic understanding. I do believe that you need to have some kind of training to be aware of the work that other people have done. There is no harm in it. I have seen so many designers in every kind of category, who have self-taught themselves and that’s also excellent.

I do feel that teaching yourself and taking time to explore it. There are a lot of practitioners who have done this, and have put it in the form of books, some degrees, and programs. I think this is the very good way to start off. Again it is a balance. You may have a good degree, from a best school, but if you don’t have the experience and lack of application, then how can you apply something? So it is the combination of both going through the experience, as well as having some kind of a training. We also constantly keep looking at more tools, because there are so many new ways and things to resolve the problems.

Ehsan Gul: Sure, and that’s where we are testing things like collective intelligence, and many other tools which we will be discussing in our series ahead as well. And another thing is that often some myths are associated with this term, so have you encountered any large myths out there?

Javeria Masood: Yes, too many. One is that innovation is something huge and something that has to be radical. It is also something like a magic pill, that you inject somewhere and suddenly something happens. Actually it can be a very slow process. So I love the method of fast value and long value. You have to operate on both levels. And innovation at the cultural change level can be a very slow process. You need to be patient and you need to be strategic in a sense that you are constantly trying to quickly test and show result. One myth is that it is huge and radical. It can be something very small. In fact, it can be something so small. Just moving a chair from here to there can totally change how the space is closed for instance. Or in systems change, from one click to another, or changing an interface or moving one document from here and there does the trick. Now we have DocuSign for example, that has changed a lot of things.

Ehsan Gul: Yes, indeed, now you don’t have to go to office and wait for the files to come.

Javeria Masood: That again is not something radical. Even if you want to bring maths to it, you can calculate the number of minutes solving per person. So it is change.

Javeria Masood: Another big myth is that you bring a consultant, pay that person heavily and your work is done. I don’t think that’s how it works. On local level we have number of consultants, and I am one of those people. But you don’t bring a consultant, that he or she gives you some buzz words, or they will talk about theoretical concepts. It is again about getting your hands dirty, going into field and really being the part of problem to understand it. So this idea of hiring someone, putting up a document will actually result in innovation, I don’t think it works.

Ehsan Gul: Now I will bring back one term which you have used ‘Fast value vs. Long value’. So often innovation teams ask you to do quick wins, do you think it’s good to do quick wins? And if quick wins are there so should we resort to that part of the cycle, or should we look at the short term or long term solutions as well?

Javeria Masood: It is totally contextual. But I have to generalize it. I do think that quick wins are very important. Because often you are working either with other people or within a different space. So in order to gain confidence of all the stakeholders you have to show them some quick results. Not everyone has patience to wait for the longer or slow progress. So that is the way to build confidence, that is the way to quickly show results, that’s the way to get more buy-in. And that again is the way to test whether you are on the right track or not. But all of those smaller, quicker, and cheaper interventions need to have a big picture thought of beforehand. Like strategically what is it that they lead to? What’s the longer vision? And that’s where your longer value chain comes in. All of those elements needs to contribute to what is your vision is for the future. So they kind of run parallel in a way.

Ehsan Gul: So we’ll wrap up with this last question; is Pakistan innovating enough?

Javeria Masood: Because we are so resistant and stubborn as a nation (and I mean it as a compliment) we think that we can solve anything. And we actually do. Even if a lot of people are not familiar with the concepts of innovation, design, system engineering, in some way or the other they are applying it. Whether it is to navigate the traffic, there is a lot of innovation going on. What is sadly not happening is that it is not happening at a systemic level. What we talked about, those things need to interlinked. Any effort anyone is making, it needs to be learn from, needs to be scale up, needs to be connected, so that it has an impact and can sustain also.

Ehsan Gul: And if I have to add one thing, working with the startup community and the innovation ecosystem we need more resources. We need resources which are untied. We need people to take more risk. We need investors, the government, and organizations to be more agile and open for failure as well. And trusting the people out there. It could be that we are not able to see that space and hence think the obvious. May be that person can see the unobvious and give us the signal for the future. But what if we are not able to capture those signals, and don’t give them the resources? Because at the end of the day innovation often doesn’t work without the resources.

Ehsan Gul: So thank you Javeria!

Javeria Masood: It is fun having this chat!

Ehsan Gul: We will come soon with more episodes, so stay tuned and watch this space.