January 30, 2013

Questioning innovation

Innovation is popular in aid at the moment, so much so that there is a steady spate of articles which range from trashing its potential contribution to development through to challenging Western, donor, countries’ assumed roles as the ‘providers’ of innovation.

In this post I want to argue that there is a middle  ground between the unthinking mantras that are increasingly peddled by agencies and the growing number of entirely justifiable critiques.

An Economist article made the point succinctly over a decade ago, ‘what precisely constitutes innovation is hard to say, let alone measure.’  Some concluded, as a result, that innovation was a ‘new theology’.


However, with a growing chunk of economic growth being driven by industries and products that in fact didn’t exist ten years previously, such dismissals seem increasingly Luddite.

While clarity and precision in thinking about innovation is all-important, it is far from easy. We are not helped by the fact that many innovation stories are in fact apocryphal – retrospectively woven to lend the star protagonists much more agency and awareness than in fact they possessed. This is true of even the best known innovation stories. Take Alexander Fleming’s infamous and much-lauded discovery of penicillin – Fleming himself used to describe the conventional account of his contribution as the ‘Fleming Myth’.

Typically in business the market is the ultimate arbiter of innovation, and as we know, most products fail. In aid, however, the market does not provide an adequate indication of what is successful and what is not. This is largely done by the aid system itself. Bill Easterly made much of the fact that the market could get Harry Potter books anywhere there was a demand, which he compared unfavourably to the inability of the aid system to get simple treatments like vaccines to where they were most needed:

There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.”

But as Amartya Sen subsequently argued:

the disparity in the results is indeed heartbreaking… [but] there is a radical difference… between the enterprise of supplying “what is in demand” — which is integrally linked to the buyers’ ability to pay — and that of supplying needed goods and services to people whose income and wealth do not allow a need to be converted into a market demand.

While Sen’s point applies more broadly to aid delivery, it is also relevant to new ideas and innovations within aid.

In any case, whether because of market failure or the wilful self-interest of aid agencies, innovation – which is an ambiguous enough concept in the business realm – becomes very murky territory indeed in development. It is hard to say  what innovation actually is, what it generates, and for whom. Like the famous ruling about pornography, many are of the view that ‘I know it when I see it.’

Such vagueness is the ideal seeding ground for development fads, and indeed, innovation is fast becoming the latest ‘fuzz-word’. Everything is being labelled ‘innovation’: as one blogger memorably put it, we seem to be suffering from Innovation Tourette’s.


Little wonder that growing numbers of thinkers and writers see the need to beat innovation with a big snarky stick. These criticisms play a vital role in highlighting the risks and downsides of  all shiny new aid agendas – and innovation is no exception.

Having observed such trends in the past, I think there is a danger that between the rise of the fad and the indignant reaction to it, we lose sight and sense of why the issue is question is actually important. Specifically, we risk learning the wrong lessons about what innovation actually is, and the potential it has to add to our work.

What we need is a more precise and accurate way by which to separate the innovation wheat from the faddish chaff. This was in fact one of the key motivations of a study I co-authored with Kim Scriven and Conor Foley while at ALNAP back in 2008-9.

So what did our study suggest in terms of getting more precision in innovation? We found it useful to ask some key questions to identify whether a particular idea or approach was in fact innovative.

  • Q1. Is the idea being proposed a new Product, a new Process or service, a new way of Positioning aid, or a new Paradigm or mental model? Or is it some combination of the four? (see more here)
  • Q2. What are the origins of the idea, and what does it aim to do differently to what is already out there? Where, exactly, is the novelty – is it a whole new thing, or is it new combinations of existing things? What, in partciular, are the implications for relationships with aid recpients? Did the idea involve re-thinking that age-old and much-critiqued relationship?
  • Q3. How disruptive is the innovation? Is it transactional, in that it enables existing efforts to work; incremental in that improves these efforts, or transformational in that it radically changes these efforts?
  • Q4. What precisely are the expected benefits the idea should confer? Can these benefits be framed in terms of existing evaluation criteria of enhanced relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact or sustainability of aid? Or are there other, newer, criteria that matter? How can the benefits be measured – qualitatively, quantitatively, or some blend thereof?
  • Q5. What are the potential risks and downsides of the idea for all parties – especially aid recipients – and how will these be mitigated against?
  • Q6. Where can the idea be located in an overarching innovation process? Is it at the early stages of recognition and invention, is it in need of development and implementation, or has it been tested and is now ready for wider diffusion?  (see more here)
  • Q7. What are the networks and relationships that will support and facilitate the innovation process? What capacities and competencies are necessary? Are these in place? How can they be built?
  • Q8. What is the potential scope of the innovation in terms of wider diffusion? Who might benefit, and in what ways? What is the route to scale, and who needs to be engaged to get there?

There are no doubt many more questions that could be asked, but the above provide a good starting point for what might be termed ‘innovation due diligence’. The key, in my opinion, is to use these and others questions to develop more honest, rigorous stories about ongoing and historical  innovations: about how they came about, why, and with what benefits. Such questions are useful because they help us look at innovation from a more systemic perspective: looking not just a idea, but the overall social, technological and institutional context from which it has emerged.

These questions should be relevant whether you are a donor bombarded with new proposals and ideas, an operational aid worker seeking to get funding for your exciting new idea, a blogger wanting to shine a light on the depressing excesses of innovation-speak, or a researcher wanting to investigate an supposed innovation in a systematic fashion (in fact I think we need far more of the last category, but that’s another story).

We will need to keep wielding the big stick as necessary, to curb against such excesses of aid ‘innovation-speak’. But we may also at times need a magnifying glass and ruler – metaphorically speaking – and asking these kinds of questions could help with this. My $0.02 is that if a would-be innovator can’t take a reasonable stab at these questions, they aren’t working hard enough, or they are over-selling something. A lot is spoken about creativity in innovation, but recent work suggests – in echo of the old 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration line – that the larger part of innovation lies in the proper execution of the idea.

I think there is a special role for the aid blogging community in asking such questions and demanding answers. We have seen in the past few years how bloggers have mobilised in a largely self-organised fashion to push back against various poorly considered ideas.

I know there are many bloggers who want to engage with innovation in a serious fashion, and who are dismayed by the current hype surrounding it. We should be able to highlight the good and bad of what we see emerging from the aid innovation agenda. And aid agencies should be willing to open their ideas up to the views and scrutiny of this emerging, globally networked, community of thinkers and analysts. This kind of effort has, in other distributed sectors, developed into new crowd-sourced marketplaces for innovation such as Innocentive. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t happen in our sector.

Our ultimate goal, I’d argue, should be to work to bringing the perspectives of aid recipients into the mix as part of our standard operating procedures. Now that in itself could be seen as a real innovation.

The need for such engagement goes beyond mere niceties. The most effective ideas we uncovered in our 2009 study were precisely those that re-thought and re-formulated this core aid relationship: cash, community approaches to malnutrition, transitional shelter. Put simply, these were the innovations that we found to be most worthy of the term.


Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Innovation seems to me to be about learning new ways of doing things. The acquisition/creation of new information. The other side of such learning is about access/retention of old information. There is however a tendency to privilege the former and neglect the former. A balanced view of innovation might include more attention to the equally important task of accessing and using what has already learned. This will mean more attention to the relatively boring tasks of making past data and documentation available over a longer span of time and on a wider more publicly accessible basis. Fortunately there have been some good moves in this direction recently, through the commitment to greater aid transparency and open government processes.

  2. Excellent post.

    My own contribution to the innovation discussion: http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/06/08/moving-into-the-real-world/

  3. […] OCHA’s emphasis on the research-and-paper presentation portion of the grant is important, I think, and speaks to Ben Ramalingam’s concern that, “We are not helped by the fact that many innovation stories are in fact apocryphal – retrospectivel….“ […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Accountability, Economics, Evaluation, Evolution, Influence, Innovation, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Research, Technology