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The road to innovation is not always an easy or a straightforward one. There are often steep curves, sudden turns, and even blind spots that catch us off-guard and discourage us along the way. In part one of this blog series, we tackled three myths surrounding innovation and we will now move on to explore three challenges faced by innovators in emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). As in part one, this blog post is based on advice given by our panel of HIF grantees and technical advisers, as well as audience members at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) Conference 2017.

Problem Definition

The first challenge is the difficulty in understanding the problem. As explained by both Brian Reed, a lecturer at WEDC, and Claire Furlong, a lecturer at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, this difficulty is twofold – how we define the problem and who defines the problem. Non-WASH practitioners may not always understand the contexts and situations in which emergency WASH services are delivered; but those already involved in delivering emergency WASH can be too comfortable with the way things have always been done and the practices they are used to. If we only focus on the humanitarian sector, or the very closely related development sector, we miss out on the useful skills that people from other sectors bring, such as design experts, as pointed out by an audience member, who can help when unravelling the problem and bring much needed flexibility both when designing a solution or understanding the problem.

Peter Harvey from UNICEF’s WASH team further emphasised this point by highlighting UNICEF’s experience when re-designing their collapsible jerry can innovation to better meet the end users’ needs. This included making the jerry can adaptable with a design that suits different users; those that carry the jerry can on their head and those that don’t. Peter also emphasised the benefits that UNICEF has seen from setting up an Innovation Unit that includes staff with a private sector background, who bring a different perspective and experience.

Lack of Encouragement

Another challenge faced by innovators in emergency WASH is a lack of encouragement. An audience member shared her experience of trying to initiate a WASH financing project, and having partner organisations discourage her team from advancing the innovation as they were worried that the project wouldn’t work and wasn’t worth the risk involved. As a WASH sector, if we want to see improved outcomes, we need to not only worry about our own work, but also support and encourage others when they are trying to improve WASH services and developing innovative ideas.

There is also room for funders to be more encouraging. As Claire Furlong from the Tiger Worms toilet team pointed out, innovation is not linear but goes through cycles. Therefore, we as funders need to realise that innovators have to go through a number of iterations before scaling their project, and we should encourage innovators by providing more funding and flexibility for this stage, as well as be patient with the project timeline.

Fear of Failure

Even when innovators are being encouraged, they still have to deal with the attitude towards failure and the fear of it. Failure is seen to mean that you have wasted your time, your effort, and valuable funds that could have gone towards standard, trusted WASH programming. However, rather than flee from potential failure, we need to prepare for failure so that it doesn’t cripple us and think of how we can turn it in our favour. When we are challenging commonly held assumptions and steering away from the way things have always been done, success is not always evident from the outset. We can reduce the impact of failure by testing the innovation as early and as often as possible, so that we can continue adapting as we go along and learn from smaller failures so as to avoid a larger failure.

Not just innovators, but funders too, often suffer from a fear of failure and in so doing inhibit innovation. This is something we are trying to be more aware of in the HIF and we are keen to learn from our grantees successes as well as their setbacks and we are learning to offer flexibility where possible.

The work of an innovator is not without its challenges and disappointments, and given that innovation happens in groups of people, we need to encourage these groups when they have creative ideas and collaborate with them to bring about effective change. Sometimes this will mean providing funding for a ‘risky’ project that no one else wants to fund or partnering with an organisation that is breaking new ground in emergency WASH.

Join us for the final blog when we look at how we can do just that!

Author: Mambwe Chella, HIF Programme Officer, who provides support to the HIF’s WASH programme.

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