Hello, Innovation…Is that you?

Looking towards local communities for user-led solutions to tackle development challenges.

November 22, 2019

Sources: Pfizer/Wonderbag

Wonderbag in action: Source:Pfizer/Wonderbag

The Promise of Innovation

Innovation is an attractive word, it invokes imagery of inspired pioneers who help us do things in more ingenious ways than before and engenders expectations of change through disruption. Most importantly, innovation promises impact.

It is precisely because of this promise, that the word has become a well-worn mantra in the corporate world. Within Industry, innovation has become the de facto protector, safeguarding competitiveness and long-term survival of any organization.

The promise of impact is also why innovation has increasingly become central to the way development organizations approach their work. Faced with ever-evolving socio-economic and environmental problems, there is a need to move away from business-as-usual approaches and identify nimble solutions that keep pace with and combat wicked development challenges.

Case in point is the UNDP Accelerator Labs initiative, a global network of 60 Labs serving 78 countries that strive to catalyze innovative solutions to address complex challenges. The Labs identify solutions together with local actors and validate their potential to accelerate development. Yet what types of innovation are the Labs looking for?

Innovation, an Empty Promise?

Have you transformed the way you innovate? Note that you can switch the two buzzwords in the sentence and it still sounds good, and still means nothing.”

― Dan Lyons, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.

Because the term innovation has become so prevalent in certain dialogue — used to describe everything from a visionary idea, to radical improvement, to a simple value-add — it has become a concept that floats free of concrete referents to be filled with meaning by its users. In short, innovation stands on the precipice of becoming a full-fledged buzzword: a fashionable term that speaks to everything, and nothing. To avoid innovation becoming a buzzword within the development space and ensure that its promise of impact is not an empty one, a clear (or perhaps clearer) definition is required.

Fake Promises - What Innovation Is Not

While there are as many faulty definitions of innovation is as there are project designers in this world, there are two that can stake claim as the worst offenders.

1.     Innovation is a creative idea.

Creativity is necessary but insufficient preparation for innovation. Put differently, all innovations stem from creative ideas, but not all creative ideas are innovative. Creativity is an imaginative exercise whereas innovation is a productive undertaking. A creative idea is just that, an idea. However innovation is a novel idea in action, whether in the form of a product, service, or method. Taken one step further, innovation is different because of what it produces: a solution that introduces change into a relatively stable system. This change not only affects a system, but also the mentalities of those operating with it.

The Accelerator Labs’ objective is to search for innovations that not only produce impact on the ground in a way that has never been done before, but also challenge the mindsets that believe existing solutions are sufficient to begin with. This approach to sustainable development is crucial as the conventional modus operandi is the implementation of system-level solutions that often take the form of long-term strategies, executed in incremental steps towards solving a problem. A focus on innovation will provide solutions to challenges that are revolutionary rather than evolutionary. Yet in saying this, it is important to note that innovation is not enough. Which brings us to the second innovation fallacy.

2.     Innovation is a silver bullet.

The notion that an innovation can act as a panacea to a multitude of problems is a remnant from the corporate world, where businesses fixate on finding THE solution that elevates them to stratospheric heights. Unfortunately, this “iPod mentality” does not work well within the development space, where the challenges are beasts too big and too complex to be slayed by a single solution alone. Yet, while one innovation might not be the silver bullet to an overwhelming challenge, multiple innovations may supply the arsenal that can.

Central to the Accelerator Labs’ approach is the assembly of a portfolio of solutions made up of a variety of innovations that approach a distinct challenge from multiple directions i.e. economic, technological, social. Further, because the goal is a multiplicity of innovation, the Labs are in constant search of novel solutions to incorporate into their portfolios. This ensures that their portfolios, like the challenges they aim to eradicate, are ever-evolving. Yet where does one find these innovations?

The Promised land - finding innovation at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid

A common approach to sustainable development is a top-down one where governments, NGOs, or businesses create solutions and provide them to those worst affected. While one should not discount the merit of providing goods and services to the people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, one should also not ignore the fact that marginalized people are not at the bottom of the knowledge, ethical, or innovation pyramids.

Because peripheral actors are immersed within the problem space, they are well positioned to respond directly to local situations. Rich in knowledge but often poor in material resources, what often emerges from such situations are user-led solutions that are fundamentally different from those that existed before. What surfaces is innovation in its truest form.

The Accelerator Labs intend to build on the resources in which “poor” people are rich and target grassroots innovations, treating them as sources with which formal public and private institutions can engage. The goal is to surface and reinforce locally sourced solutions at scale while mobilizing a wide and dynamic partnership of actors contributing knowledge, resources and experience. Solutions like the Wonderbag. 

A Bag of Promises – A local example of innovation

The Wonderbag is a simple but revolutionary non-electric portable slow cooker invented by South African natives Sarah Collins and Moshy Mathe. In response to the frequent power outages in South Africa in 2008, Sarah remembered her grandmother taking pots off the stove and wrapping them in blankets to keep the food cooking. Inspired by this form of thermal cooking, Sarah and Moshy created an insulated bag that maximizes heat retention and continues to cook food which has been brought to temperature by a conventional method such as fire or stove for up to 12 hours without the use of any additional fuel source.

Additionally, Sarah developed the Wonderbag as a response to the deep inequalities and gender divides that she saw in her home country. She witnessed many rural women spending most of their days relegated to a stove, while many girls were spending 4-6 hours a day gathering firewood instead of doing other productive activities.

The Wonderbag enhances these women’s quality of life by drastically reducing time spent cooking, collecting firewood, and sparing them from excessive smoke inhalation. Time is not the only thing safeguarded as 82% of local rapes happen while women and girls are gathering firewood. This local innovation also acts as a powerful catalyst for climate change. A single Wonderbag used for one year can reduce carbon emissions by 1 Ton, reduce deforestation, conserve 1,000 litres of cooking water, and reduce indoor air pollution by 60%.

A Promise is a Promise

If we do not clarify our meaning of innovation it will lose its value, becoming a word that speaks to everything, and nothing. Innovation is an idea in action that solves a problem in a way never been done before. Not only do these solutions have the potential to effect substantive change within systems, but also the attitudes of those operate within them. Prime examples are the grassroots innovations developed by people close to the problem.

Rather than treating them as a sink of public aid and assistance, the UNDP Accelerator Labs will look towards local communities and peripheral actors as sources of novel solutions to complex developmental challenges. It is the Accelerator Labs’ mission to grow these solutions so that they impact the largest number of people. Yet a focus on grassroots innovation is not solely the responsibility of the Labs.

I encourage all those who work within sustainable development to look towards local communities, identify user-led solutions, and validate their potential. If we can bring enough local solutions to the fore, then we can ensure that innovation delivers on its promise.