Future Session #5: Opportunities and challenges of innovation in the development and humanitarian sector

How to deal with challenges and seize opportunities in innovation processes?

agenda July 2, 2019

On June 25th, 2019, The Spindle, in collaboration with the Humanity Hub, organised Future Session #5 of the year about challenges and opportunities in innovation processes. This session drew on the process and outcomes of the Humanitarian Action Challenge, a contest for tech solutions for peace, justice and humanitarian action. Challenge organisers, Thomas Baar and Mariken Gaandersen, facilitated the session.

The starting point of this Future Session were the lessons learnt from the Humanitarian Action Challenge (HAC), a contest developed under the umbrella of The Hague ImpactCity which stimulates startups and non-profits to collaborate on designing tech solutions for peace, justice and humanitarian action. The session featured interviews with two participants of the challenge and subgroup discussions with fellow innovators. Together, we zoomed in on the challenges and opportunities in innovation, with a focus on technology as well as collaborations with diverse actors (mainly NGOs, private companies and the public sector). Finally, the facilitators gave a brief overview of the Humanitarian Innovation Guide, which would be launched the day after.

Innovating in international humanitarian action: challenges and opportunities
The session started with interviews with team members from startups that participated in the Humanitarian Action Challenge. Both startups faced difficulties in getting their innovation to be adopted by the international humanitarian sector. In that context, several key challenges came forward: 

  • It is difficult to establish the trust of a partner. NGOs can be distrusting of the private sector, but trust is fundamental to create partnerships that generate impact.
  • It can be difficult to find a niche to innovate in the sector, particularly as working in a multi-stakeholder environment can entail that the parties each have their own preferences regarding a certain innovation.
  • The problem is not always defined well enough and the problem-owner is not always clear about expected results, making it difficult to illustrate the benefits of an innovation beforehand. 
  • How do you make a business model in collaboration with the sector?

The search for common themes
After the interviews, participants of the Future Session split up in subgroups and talked about their toughest challenges while innovating as well as solution directions. In the wrap-up of these conversations, the facilitators distinguished several common themes in the challenges:

  • Problems of collaboration including trust among partners, clashing work cultures, dependency, differences in vocabulary and expectations.
  • Questions of ethics, especially when working with data across and with different actors; 
  • Resource and capacity constraints such as limited time, budget as well as support.
  • Problems of attribution and evidence: how do we measure the impact and contribution of an innovation?
  • The sustainability of innovation: is it viable in the long run? How do we prepare to scale? And how do we fund this?

The solution directions that popped up were: the need for open dialogue among stakeholders; the generation of awareness of the need for innovation both inside the organisation and among partners; putting the user first; set mutually agreed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to be able to evaluate the process, the creation of (and search for) appropriate funds for scaling-up innovations.

To round it all up: The Humanitarian Innovation Guide
At the end of the session, Thomas gave an overview of the overlying main model that is the basis of the Humanitarian Innovation Guide. It is based on several stages that can be helpful in thinking about the innovation process:

  • Start with an understanding of your problem, root causes and starting point;
  • Search for ideas and solutions to your problem that may already be out there, as well as possible collaborations;
  • Adapt the solution to the problem and context; 
  • If the solution is unclear, invent! Generate ideas and develop a prototype for early-stage testing; 
  • Pilot your solution in the field; 
  • Scale the solution to attain maximum impact.

Check out the guide here.

Interested to discover more about important trends and their relevance for the future of development cooperation? Join us in the next Future sessions! The upcoming three sessions will focus on the future of cities. The first one will be on Economic Perspectives on Urban Futures and Resilience and will take place on August 27. Sign-up via the link!

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