Flower-recycling, frontier technologies and experimentation: what’s on the horizon for development innovation

By Geoff Mulgan, CEO Nesta, and Benjamin Kumpf, UNDP Innovation Facility Lead.

This post complements the discussion at the UN General Assembly side event ‘Making Innovation and Technology Work for Development’. The event was jointly organized by the Government of Denmark and UNDP on 27 September 2018. Watch the recording here.

Photo: NESA by Makers/Unsplash

The Sustainable Development Goals have garnered remarkable momentum across the globe, providing a framework for thinking and acting on the world’s most urgent challenges. Since they were agreed there has been growing recognition that more, and better, innovation will be needed if they are to be achieved. Here we set out some ideas on what that means in practice, distinguishing the different ways in which investment can support innovation, and the often crucial roles of politics and power in making innovation effective.

A wicked problem: the cleaning of the Ganges River

Let’s take the Ganges river to illustrate these points. One-tenth of the world’s population relies heavily on the river and its tributaries. To hundreds of millions of Hindus, the Ganges is not merely a river but also a goddess, Ganga. But the Ganges is also one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world. The degradation of the Ganges is a complex problem. It spans across countries, it affects religious group dynamics, it is caused by multiple factors which each require distinct solutions and its governance is distributed across different legislative and juridical systems. Making it cleaner will require behavior change at scale and changes to the agendas of many interest groups and political parties.

The movement committed to cleaning the Ganges has important characteristics of the different forms of innovation we propose.

It is an emerging mission:

The Save the Ganga movement proposes measurable, time-bound ambitious goals and works on bringing actors from different sectors together to coordinate efforts. This includes activist groups, policy-makers and business.

Ganges River. Photo: Yashas Chandra/ UNDP India

It requires testing and scaling bottom-up solutions:

A portfolio of technical innovations is needed to address the multitude of factors contributing to the river’s heavy pollution. One of these factors is, surprisingly, flowers. About 8 million tons of fresh flowers are left by pilgrims in the river each year. Toxic arsenic, lead and cadmium from the fertilisers used to cultivate these flowers affect the health of millions of Indians through waterborne disease. The social enterprise HelpUsGreen, one of many players in the growing Indian circular economy movement, collects discarded flowers, then recycles them into 100 percent organic vermi-compost fertilizer and sells this to European and Indian consumers.

It also requires testing frontier technologies and investments in transformative innovation:

Upgrading sewage systems or industrial cleaning methods with Internet-of-Things technologies and sludge technology. Other contributors include better governance mechanisms of community-based watersheds and even legislative innovation since earlier this year, the Ganges was granted the same rights as living human entities. The decision of the court was inspired by the example of the Whanganui river, revered by the indigenous Māori people, which was declared a living entity with full legal rights by the New Zealand government.

Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals

This example illustrates how many different types of innovation can combine and indeed must be combined if the SDGs are to be achieved. Since they were first agreed a consensus has emerged amongst Governments and development organizations that dedicated investments in innovation are required to achieve the 2030 Agenda, echoing the findings of a 2017 report from the Centre for Global Development.

More attention than ever before is being paid to sparking, spreading and scaling new ideas, and to the need to bend some of the extraordinary waves of technological change happening across the world towards the needs of the poorest. There’s interest in new ways of organizing development, such as pay-for-success approaches and creative uses of data. We’re beginning to see the replacement of log-frame based traditional development projects and the engagement of new players, and more concerted strategies to galvanise innovation around big challenges.

The recent revival of the language of ‘mission-driven innovation’ within the European Union reflects this shift in thinking. Developed world governments always used to recognize that dynamic business innovation rests on a base of public funding. But that was sometimes forgotten when market-based solutions were seen as the only option. A prominent example is manifested in the core components of a smartphone. Often attributed mainly to the genius of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, essential functions of our phones would not exist without dedicated funding from US research institutes such as the US Department of Defense and ARPA-E, while the World Wide Web originated at CERN in Europe. Without these organizations, and the investments made in them by multiple governments across the globe, our phone’s touch screens, batteries, map functions or even AI applications such as Siri would not work. The private sector was much better placed than governments to make these fundamental technologies useful. But they couldn’t have done so without the earlier public support.

Many governments therefore pursue a portfolio investments approach for innovation, usually distinguishing between core, adjacent and radical innovations, and using very different mixes of grant funding, loans, guarantees and equity to support them.

But despite the recent interest current innovation investment strategies among development organizations remain very small scale compared to traditional development funding, and often lack a systematic approach to instruments such as venture funds, incubation or acceleration support and improvement-oriented innovation such as augmenting existing monitoring mechanisms with emerging data sources.

Organizations such as UNDP or USAID have frameworks for a portfolio investment approach. But more needs to be done to put together the right combination of tools to support different kinds of innovation. Here we briefly set out what that could mean.

UNDP, investments from the Innovation Facility supported the design of a consortium and the launch of a spartial data sandbox to improve biodiversity. Photo: NASA

Improvement-oriented innovation

To-date, most investments within the development sector focus on improving existing service lines and business models. For example in UNDP, investments from the Innovation Facility supported the design of a consortium and the launch of a spatial data sandbox to improve biodiversity conservation across the globe, together with UN Environment, MapX, NASA and UN Global Pulse. When the Ebola crisis happened, UNDP and partners invested in quickly designing a mechanism to pay relief workers via mobile-phones, improving the response to this crisis. With Nesta, UNDP designed a customized toolkit to help UNDP intrapreneurs and managers apply principles of adaptive management and user-centric methods in their daily work. The lessons from putting this into action in turn informed a corporate rewrite of UNDP’s global prescriptive content.

The call to go beyond incrementalism should not discard investments in incremental improvements. They remain essential and the boundaries between improvement-oriented and transformative can be blurry. A small experiment to improve payments via mobile phones, for example, could pave the way for a transformation of how business is done and financial inclusion happens as we see in Kenya with M-Pesa.

Harvesting bottom-up solutions

All too often, innovation in the development context is equated with imported tech gadgets and a Silicon Valley-type heropreneurship discourse. But many of the most valuable ideas come from communities themselves, especially when they can be helped to adapt emerging technologies. Doing this well involves systematic harvesting of ideas and effective answers. That can be helped by research on positive deviants in communities or a lead-user approach, or by open innovation methods that encourage local communities to offer solutions, sometimes with a financial reward, and sometimes with some coaching, for example on how to use data or adapt smart phones. Done well these can generate a double value: on the one hand identifying creative solutions which might be useful elsewhere, and on the other hand growing local capacities to adopt and adapt.

Mission-driven innovation

The Sustainable Development Goals are global and universal: they apply to the global North as much as to the global South. As the 17 goals entail 169 targets and since contexts differ significantly, governments across the globe, often supported by the UNDP, are investing in contextualizing the agenda at national and local levels. The UN Development Systems supports this with advisory packages on Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support. The acceleration elements aim at supporting governments and national stakeholders to target resources at root bottlenecks to sustainable development, paying special attention to synergies and trade-offs across sectors. This provides an ideal entry-point to operationalize the concept of mission-driven innovation in the Global South. Revived for the European Union by Mariana Mazzucato, and proven on many occasions over the last century, this approach encourages the formulation of ambitious, yet measurable and time-bound missions. Such missions need to transcend one sector and require a portfolio of interventions and innovations to be successfully achieved.

Such missions can be derived from bottom-up and emerge as the result of successful mobilization of social movements. The emerging mission in India on cleaning the Ganges or the pivot to renewable energy in Germany are examples of bottom-up informed missions. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNDP supports multi-sectoral players to rally investments and action around the mission to curb air-pollution: curating platforms and supporting partners with the design and executing of strategies and help to unlock further investments. To formulate missions that are supported by a sufficient number of actors and ideally encompass electoral cycles, they need to be coordinated and governed.

The UNDP is currently testing platform-based models to support national partners with addressing complex problems that span across sectors and vertical government structures. Such platforms ideally curate bottom-up solutions, bring in emerging actors, link multiple (innovation) ecosystems and provide the forum to upgrade policies directly supporting innovation, be it driven by public actors, established private sector companies or startups, and explore new ways to advance missions — such as radical reforms to the legal status of a natural entity.

One of the most famous 20th century missions was the call to send a man to the moon. It triggered massive investments in innovations in different sectors in addition to rocket science including nutrition and textiles. To achieve the SDGs, we need some comparable moon shots and a comparable willingness to invest in transformative innovations.

Transformative innovation

While improvement-oriented innovation seeks to improve the efficiency of existing systems and operating models, transformative innovation takes a long-term approach to shifting entire systems, looking for fundamental breakthroughs. This kind of transformative innovation takes several forms.

One set of approaches aims to tap the potential of frontier technologies. For example, the UNDP Innovation Facility is investing in a trial to test whether machine learning algorithms can improve the effectiveness and speed of operation of the criminal justice system in Brazil. Such experiments have to address questions beyond the immediate reliability of AI training data, potential biases and transparency issues, to engage with questions of accountability and governance. Other examples are experimenting with the use of drones in disasters or medical provision.

Others are more explicitly about transforming whole systems. Current experiments to rethink the role of regulation (under the label ‘anticipatory regulation’) don’t require much investment but have profound implications for how systems can work — for example in banking or road transport, energy or telecoms. Another example is innovation around welfare like the experiments to test the effects of a Universal Basic Income. Two of them are being supported by UNDP, for example in Serbia, alongside a big and ambitious experiment in Kenya. All of these aim to generate new insights into how systems could change — learning by doing rather than only through paper exercises.

Machine learning algorithms (in Brazil). Photo: Christina Morillo / Pexels

Collective intelligence

Many of these projects will either implicitly or explicitly involve orchestrating collective intelligence — helping whole systems to think and act more effectively. A good proportion of AI projects will turn out to depend for their value on radically new ways of mobilizing human intelligence, as well as machine intelligence, with citizens acting as both providers and users of data, insight and ideas. This month Nesta launched a Centre for Collective Intelligence Design to help this work, focused on the practical skills needed to combine human and machine intelligence to develop innovative and effective solutions to social challenges, from clean air in cities to youth unemployment, care for the elderly to refugee integration.

The ability to design ‘intelligence assemblies’ that combine insights from multiple actors, including those furthest left behind, and expert knowledge — as well as findings from data and results from algorithmic processing — is one of the greatest challenges for governments and for development organizations alike. UNDP is currently gearing up to roll-out SDG Acceleration Labs to help curate collective intelligence. With partners UNDP is exploring the viability of country platforms, and acting as a network facilitator that combines supporting bottom-up solutions and galvanizing top-down action for the SDGs. (More in the chapter on country platforms in the recently published report ‘Moon Shots and Puddle Jumps — Innovation for the SDGs’).

Innovation readiness

It’s easy to fixate on particular innovations. But usually it’s as important to focus on organisations, and how they can be more innovation ready: adept at taking ideas from inception through proof-of-concept to mainstream adoption. UNDP for example, has invested in more than a dozen of trials leveraging behavioral insights — from addressing gender-based violence in Georgia to environmental protection in Mongolia.

But just doing more isolated trials will not provide the entire organization with the capability to design behavioral trials when appropriate. What is needed are investments in developing and institutionalizing practical skills: how to design, run and evaluate experiments; how to manage ethical frameworks; how to handle complex partnerships. To add more complexity: organisations need to work on better understanding how new methods and technologies meaningfully connect in a portfolio approach. How can workstreams on AI, big data and predictive analysis be combined with a behavioral insights approach?

A cross-cutting element to explore the viability of new — as well as old — ways of working is experimentation. Organisations need to know how best to use experiments. They can be designed as quick and dirty explorations or a formal randomized control trial (RCT). They can be deliberately iterative, adapting fast in the light of experience, or sticking closely to a particular design. They can involve users and consumers or be led primarily by professionals or providers. They can focus on policy or implementation.

The UNDP office in Rwanda, for example, realized the value-add of investing in the beginning of a new project or programme in qualitative research to better understand the user-perspective and to involve end-users in the design of the programme, including through prototyping. This resulted in the institutionalization of a respective mandatory budget line for all new projects and programmes.

Involving users directly in the design of interventions lies also at the core of how Nesta and partners collaborate in the States of Change consortium. Over the past 1.5 years, the team worked with leading innovation practitioners in governments to develop a new approach to building capacity in government. It consists of a range of levels in which to shape, and then observe, cultural change and capacity developments (individual, team, organisation and ecosystem), and combines these with overall elements that should be considered when building (and assessing) innovation capacity (attitudes, abilities, behaviour, discourse, roles, relationships, environment, outputs and ripple effects).

We learned that a key factor to successfully innovate is the openness of an organisation to openand quick experimentation, combined with valuing learning as a core output of implementation. An innovation-ready organization is able to scale processes, not only solutions. We also learned that it’s vital to link innovation expertise with an understanding of power and politics since radical innovation invariably involves friction with powerful interests — and teams with the experience to understand how technologies, ideas and politics intersect, as in the example of cleaning up the River Ganges.

The elements set out above together form an agenda for innovation, ideally with distinct funding streams to support each one alongside clear goals and success measures. Innovation can sometimes be made to sound mysterious. It has its own jargons and fashions and sometimes appears to be the exclusive preserve of highly educated urban designers and entrepreneurs. But experience shows that this isn’t the case. With the right help anyone can innovate successfully.

Economists now reckon that at least 80% of economic growth comes from the creation and adoption of new ideas. We shouldn’t be surprised that development too is profoundly dependent on innovation. More ambitious missions will involve challenging many of the assumptions of traditional bureaucracies. But this is already proving to be an energizing journey.

About the authors
Geoff Mulgan
is Chief Executive of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Follow him on Twitter: @geoffmulgan

Benjamin Kumpf is the UNDP Innovation Facility Lead. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf

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