Supporting innovation: where humanitarians struggle most, and how our new field guide will help

Published on 27/02/2018

We want to equip organisations and project teams with the right methods, tools, techniques and guidance to innovate in humanitarian environments. That’s why we’ve spent the last three months working with Gray Dot Catalyst and The Policy Lab to better understand what resources already exist and where there is most demand for new or improved resources. Over the next few months we’ll be responding to this demand by developing a practical field guide for humanitarian innovation, funded by EU humanitarian aid.

Our earlier literature review confirmed that the sector still lacks practical insights into how innovation is carried out on the ground. In answer to this, our second phase of research aims to generate learning on the methods, tools and techniques that support effective innovation at the project level. We’ll be translating this learning into a set of modules to support the different stages of the innovation process, with an initial in-depth focus on two modules.

During this second phase of research we have so far gathered the views of more than 250 people across the humanitarian innovation space and the sector more broadly, through in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and an online survey. This has helped us to focus in on:
(1) the stages of innovation that need the most targeted support
(2) the cross-cutting issues that need the most guidance
(3) the format requirements that will ensure the guide is most useful to those who need it most.

The findings reflect the complex mosaic that characterises humanitarian innovation – participants presented us with a diverse array of viewpoints, interests and priority concerns. But within this diversity, several themes emerged that have helped to give shape to the direction and focus of the guide.

Better problem diagnosis

In both the practitioner interviews and the survey, there was most interest in exploring challenges at the front end of the innovation process. Many people highlighted the need to strengthen problem diagnosis and better identify existing opportunities, citing the importance of identifying root causes for designing the right approach, and the need to avoid duplication of innovation efforts.

“All is either won or lost at the very beginning of any attempt at finding new solutions to social problems.”
Survey respondent

The results of the survey were similar across all organisational types but, interestingly, it was those who identified as ‘experienced’ or ‘very experienced’ who showed a clear preference for guidance on problem diagnosis. Perhaps reflecting involvement in projects that have wasted too much time trying to solve the wrong problem for the wrong people, an issue that could have been avoided by a better understanding of the problem from the start.

Better field testing

Another key priority identified across our research was the need to support more effective field testing of innovation in operational contexts, bridging the gap between developing viable prototypes in controlled conditions and more refined, context-relevant solutions ready for widespread adoption.

“[There are] too many early stage innovation initiatives with immature testing frameworks.”
Survey respondent

This reflects concerns among some innovation stakeholders that the sector suffers from ‘pilotisis’, with too many trials of new ideas that do not produce sufficient evidence of improvement in current practice to gain traction for wider uptake – and do not always give full consideration of the risks associated with experimentation in fragile contexts.

“As this is the stage where potential harm could occur if done badly, it seems the area most in need of guidance.”
Survey respondent

Key considerations for participants in this research included thinking more carefully about the risks inherent in the introduction of new technologies in operational environments, how to engage more responsibly and ethically with local actors and affected populations, and how to make sure that viable solutions can demonstrate measurable improvements against existing products, services and ways of working.

Cross-cutting issues

We’re aiming for a guide with two sides – one that allows humanitarians to apply an ‘innovation lens’ to solving problems and designing solutions, and one that allows innovators from outside the sector to apply a ‘humanitarian framework’ to innovation management, ensuring the right questions are asked, the right connections are made, and the required tools and thinking are available.

During the literature review and interviews with those working to support innovation at the system level, a number of priorities emerged related to key trends in the sector, overarching concerns with the innovation agenda, and the necessary considerations for innovation in humanitarian contexts.

We believe these priorities have an important place in the guide, and as such, we have chosen to focus on several cross-cutting issues in humanitarian innovation, including:

– the characteristics of humanitarian response environments
– the involvement of affected populations
– using evidence as a measure of success
– ethics, principles and standards
– risk management.

In a rapidly changing sector that is orienting toward both empowering affected communities and embracing an influx of new technologies, there’s a growing call – highlighted in our 2018-2020 strategy – to place renewed focus on ensuring that innovation is responsible, with a strong commitment to the generation and use of evidence, and working in accordance with a robust ethical framework.

Next steps

In the next couple of months we’ll be working directly with those on the frontline of humanitarian innovation to develop and test our first modules in the field. During two workshops in Lebanon and Nepal, also funded by EU humanitarian aid, we’ll be co-creating, validating and stress-testing tools and guidance to ensure that everything we produce is informed by user feedback. We’ll also be gathering case study examples so the guidance is grounded in practical, relatable experiences.

Importantly, the vast majority of people who’ve shared their thoughts with us value face-to-face learning – through mentorship, training and workshops – above lengthy PDFs or other written resources. We recognise that very few people have the time or inclination to absorb a text-heavy manual, so we’ll be working to ensure that the guide is designed to be as succinct and accessible as possible.

We’ll also be in touch with everyone who kindly participated in an interview or responded to our survey to invite you to provide further feedback on this project and join us in building an active community of practice around humanitarian innovation. Beyond this, we’ll be looking to add further modules in the second half of 2018, building in part on learning from our Accelerating the Journey to Scale initiative.

Watch this space.

Elrha is hosted by Save the Children, a registered charity in England and Wales (213890) and Scotland (SC039570).

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