This article was originally published by Devex

By Catherine Cheney

Next month, a first-of-its-kind event will take place in Denmark, and it will draw on traditions and ways of living in one of the happiest countries in the world to unlock new perspectives on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Called UNLEASH, the new initiative will gather 1,000 young people from around the world in the capital city of Copenhagen. Then the participants will be transported to “folk high schools,” which are learning institutions in the countryside aimed at adult education. There, they will break into teams to tackle issues such as urban sustainability or education and ICT. The most promising ideas will have access to resources, including mentoring, angel investors and business plan development. Finally, all UNLEASH participants will be connected through an alumni network of individuals who come together at the annual event that will move country to country until 2030.

UNLEASH is a global innovation lab. It is just one of a growing number of innovation labs, which bring people together to develop and test new methods to address challenges across the global health, international development and humanitarian response sectors. But while the initiative sounds new and exciting, the description reads much like many other initiatives springing up around the SDGs: identifying innovative, scalable, implementable solutions, supporting disruptive ideas, and accelerating development impact.

As the global development sector seeks to take on global problems as complex as those captured by the SDGs, innovation will certainly be necessary. But with the growing number of innovation labs not translating as quickly as expected to real progress on the SDGs, some in the industry are also starting to ask tough questions: How can these initiatives go beyond generating ideas, transition into growing and scaling, then go on to changing entire systems in order to, for example, achieve SDG 1 to end poverty in all its forms by 2030? Experts tell Devex the road to success will not be an easy one, but those who have tested out and improved upon models of innovation in this sector are sharing what is working, what is not, and what needs to change.

Going beyond the buzzword (and dealing with growing pains)

Some of the greatest champions of innovation to achieve the SDGs are some of the greatest skeptics of the growing number of innovation initiatives across the global development sector.

“I think you have to ask the question, what is innovation, in addition to asking yourself what you are hoping to get out of innovation,” Maura O’Neill, the former chief innovation officer at U.S. Agency for International Development, told Devex. “We have to distinguish between invention, improvement and innovation.”

Too often, global development professionals seek out ways to bring innovation into their organization, rather than starting by asking what they are trying to achieve, some experts said.

“Innovation is a buzzword that is talked about but often not operationalized in meaningful ways,” said Blair Glencorse, founder and executive director of Accountability Lab, an incubator that provides training, mentorship and resources to civil society leaders.

The key to the success of an innovation initiative — whether in-house innovation units, roving innovation champions, or incubators or accelerators — is less about form and more about function, he said. While his organization is an innovation lab in and of itself, larger organizations can operationalize on innovation too, as long as there is a commitment to innovation from the top, a learning mindset and a diversity of perspectives, he said. Unfortunately, the push for innovation leads some development organizations and social entrepreneurs to focus on technical solutions, such as solar lamps or water filters, rather than political problems, such as why governments cannot provide light or water to their citizens, he said.

One of the challenging dynamics the sector faces is a divide between traditional program approaches and a new generation of development professionals focused on the potential applications of new technology and tools, said Kevin McAndrew, director of partnership innovation and strategy at Save the Children.

“Innovation is a process,” he said. “When we say, ‘we need to become more innovative,’ that’s unfortunately perceived as a proxy for saying things like, ‘we need to use the newest tech that no one understands just for the sake of doing it.’ What we are really aiming to do is to focus on the problems we have and doing everything we can to solve them.”

McAndrew said he would describe his approach to innovation as an accelerator and a light touch incubator. This works like a magnet, he said, because those who want to be sucked up can raise their hands and get the resources they need to be successful, either from a small number of internally dedicated staff, roving champions across program teams and country offices, or funds from the NGO and its private sector partners. At Save the Children, innovation is a deepening and accelerating of what the organization is best at, rather than a place where staff is trying to use whatever the new technology is as a way to appeal to donors, McAndrew said.

The International Rescue Committee brands its own work to design and test new solutions as research and development, not innovation, said Ravi Gurumurthy, vice president for strategy and innovation at IRC.

“A lot of people talk about innovation, but it is harder to say what they are actually doing, aside from putting old wine into new bottles,” he told Devex.

The IRC brings together constantly evolving multidisciplinary teams of development economists and design thinkers to work on new products and services for people affected by crisis. One result of their work is measuring tape that is purely color coded — without any numbers — for low literacy health workers in South Sudan measuring degrees of malnutrition. When asked whether innovation can exist as a culture within a culture or should exist across the organization, Gurumurthy said both are key, explaining that having a nucleus of people with different skills working in conjunction with others allows the culture to spill over.

Connecting innovation to the larger organization

When Aleem Walji, who formerly led innovation at the World Bank, reflected on the challenge of innovation labs within larger organizations, he called for a move from an innovation island to an innovation peninsula, explaining that innovation labs must be tied to something bigger than themselves.

“What I consider success is when what works or doesn’t is noticed, key lessons are captured and converted into learning, and the little innovation tugboat begins to alter the course of the ocean liner,” he wrote on the bank’s blog.

In an email to Devex, Walji, now CEO at the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., pointed to examples of success — such as the Open Data initiative that now permeates nearly every global practice — and examples of failure, such as his work on social enterprise, which never took hold because it was too far removed from the core of the World Bank.

“Innovation labs have often failed the organization they were built to support because they are created as separate things. They’re put outside of the organization, or in a corner inside the organization, and they create magic in a vacuum,” Chris Vein, the former chief innovation officer for global ICT development at the World Bank, told Devex. “If you do not involve the people in the main part of the organization in the innovation process, you’ll never get success because it will be just one more thing they have to deal with that they aren’t a part of.”

Experts told Devex that we are likely to continue to see development finance institutions and nongovernmental organizations launching separate innovation initiatives because of the growing demand for innovation to achieve the SDGs.

But the industry needs to move from hype to self-discipline, Vein said. Innovation demands moving through a process systematically in order to come up with a unique solution to a complex problem. What will make or break the future of innovation for the SDGs is whether the organization behind it thinks through the basics: goals, resources and metrics.

Innovation labs can offer a safe space for people to try out ideas, but it can also create what Geoff Mulgan, chief executive for the National Endowment for Science Technology, calls the radical’s dilemma. If they operate as part of the system, these innovation labs risk losing their edge. But if they operate separately from the system, they risk having little impact. Nesta produced a useful guide for setting up social innovation labs that emphasizes the need to: clarify your aims and assess your capabilities; think about the design of your team; build your team; implement methods and deliver outputs; and measure impact.

But a risk averse culture can also lead organizations to never get started, stop too early, stop too late, innovate again too soon, pursue too many bad ideas, or scale too little, according to the International Development Innovation Alliance, a group of innovation leads from major funders in global development.

Labs within donor organizations can open donors up to new ideas, help them to experiment with new approaches, and free them up to support the development of social entrepreneurs working on shared goals.

“Innovation and international development is synonymous with partnerships and collaboration,” a USAID official told Devex. “We collaborate to improve the efficacy and efficiency of our programs.” Since 2001, the agency has built more than 1,600 partnerships with the private sector, which are expected to leverage more than $16 billion in non U.S. government funds over their lifetime.

Innovative financing for health: Insights from the Grand Challenges Award Repository

Years in the making, the Grand Challenges Award Repository provides information on 2,009 projects that have been funded through seven innovative health initiatives since 2005 — including five grand challenges, Saving Brains and Saving Lives at Birth. To understand how these initiatives are helping the development community in Going for Goals, Devex has analyzed the data and produced a visualization tool to unlock critical insights.

Donors are testing not just internal innovation initiatives but also models that enable them to support outside problem solvers working on international development problems. For example, in addition to its Global Development Lab, USAID has launched nine Grand Challenges for Development to date, partnering with organizations including the U.K. Department for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Grand Challenges Canada. One of these, Saving Lives at Birth, resulted in a public-private partnership to develop an inhalable form of oxytocin, the gold standard therapy for postpartum hemorrhage, which is easier to transport than the injectable form of the lifesaving drug.

But the evidence base on best practices for scaling developing innovation is still immature, says the IDIA. The elephant in the room at a recent IDIA meeting was scale, said Tamara Giltsoff, head of innovation at DfID, explaining that donors are not set up to manage the innovation funds they invest in and help venture solutions get to scale. The few innovations that do scale are analyzed by the impact they had, rather than the factors that led to their success, the IDIA said of the motivation behind reports it recently commissioned on innovation in the sector.

More organizations across development assistance and humanitarian response need to say “here are the processes in which we do innovation as our core business” rather than “core business plus,” said Jennifer MacCann, director of the newly launched Response Innovation Lab.

3 key insights for funders supporting innovation

The International Development Innovation Alliance recently launched a series of reports on development innovation, hoping to share experience and build an evidence base for how best to support it. Devex explains some of the top-level takeaways.

“If you just have an innovation lab that is a couple people tinkering away, they could come up with great stuff that is either not important to humanitarian objectives, or not supported by senior leadership, or has no route for adoption,” she said. “Having a lab can enable organizations to say, ‘We’re doing innovation. It’s happening over there. I have no idea what’s going on over there. I’m not supporting it. But it’s our checkbox.’”

But experts told Devex that as long as donors ask for innovation, without necessarily tracking outcomes of those efforts or approaches that make them successful, the sector may continue to innovate for the sake of innovation rather than progress.

Sharing what is and isn’t working

The word innovation is dangerous, and the term innovation lab is doubly dangerous, said Chris Fabian, co-founder of the innovation unit at the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“It’s becoming a thing that organizations are pinning their hopes on, but that’s kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey,” he told Devex. “You’re blindfolded, and you’re like, innovation is somewhere there, so let’s just put a pin in it.”

He said he has deleted the innovation lab term from the UNICEF Innovation vocabulary, explaining that while the labs provided spaces where UNICEF could work outside of a rigid bureaucratic structure, UNICEF Innovation is now focused on building on the ideas that were created there rather than launching new labs.

After Fabian and Erica Kochi, the San Francisco-based co-founder of the UNICEF Innovation Unit, first presented their idea in 2007, they had to learn many things the hard way, Fabian said. But the agency developed principles of innovation that inform each of its technology-enabled development programs, which have since been adopted by hundreds of organizations and partners. These principles include designing with the user, building for sustainability, using open standards, and being collaborative — practices without which innovation initiatives fail to deliver on their promise, Fabian said. If he could do it over again, Fabian said he would approach innovation as a pyramid, starting with adopting a set of principles, then identifying partners, next getting real time data, and finally supporting local entrepreneurs.

In 2011, the UNICEF Innovation Unit helped launch the U.N. Innovation Network, a group of 20 U.N. agencies that meets quarterly, convenes working sessions around specific topics, and hosts a Slack channel where members share ideas, including the challenges of driving innovation within the U.N. The team is now working in partnership with other U.N. agencies, with all of them committing to the principles UNICEF Innovation developed, but each of them with a different approach. For example, World Food Programme has an innovation accelerator in Munich, Germany, which puts on innovation challenges, hosts innovation bootcamps, and runs sprint programs to support individual entrepreneurs or teams of innovators working on ideas to end hunger.

Entrepreneurs who go through the program learn approaches such as human-centered design and the lean startup methodology to take ideas, such as smartphone apps for smallholder farmers, from Post-its on the wall to projects in the field.

“From the beginning, we were determined to make sure that the accelerator would not be isolated from the organization. So we insisted that every innovation idea that we accelerated had an organizational owner. This allowed us to build up a group of internal innovation champions and stay in sync with the organization rather than being branded as a detached ‘niche’ innovation team,” Robert Opp, director of innovation and change management at the WFP, told Devex.

If the WFP does not see results within weeks, it will not continue its support of the project, and Opp is talking with other U.N. innovation leads about how testing in these extremely fast cycles can in fact work in the context of their work.

In October, the U.N. Office of Information and Communications Technology hosted Silicon Valley leaders for a roundtable discussion in San Francisco to get their feedback on plans to open an innovation embassy. The idea, they said, was to direct the enthusiasm of Silicon Valley leaders to do business with a purpose in support of the SDGs, and to inform the U.N. about how emerging technologies might impact their work. There, Blair Palmer, who leads the San Francisco lab for UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, suggested the team take close look at the U.N. Innovation Network, explaining that it was designed to coordinate efforts, rather than cross wires, particularly given how inundated tech companies are with requests related to social good.

“It’s about being forward thinking, together,” Palmer told Devex. “We are trying to make it more streamlined, but it’s hard. Everyone has different budgets, different remits, different problems.”

She talked about the work UNICEF has done to open source its own learnings on innovation, for example sharing resources from its Wearables for Good Challenge, and she encouraged the U.N. Office of ICT to take a close look at these materials.

Getting past the pilot phase

While innovation labs have led to models of humanitarian action that are more inclusive, agile, risk tolerant and interdisciplinary, the proliferation of innovation labs has not yet delivered fully on their promise, said Joseph Guay, an associate at The Policy Lab who has developed innovation strategies for a range of humanitarian organizations.

“Research and experience shows that when innovation does happen, it can be ad hoc, incremental, siloed and forgotten,” he said. “Affected populations and local communities are often excluded from the process, and viable solutions seldom reach widespread adoption and scale.”

The biggest challenge right now is that, by and large, innovative ideas do not make it past the pilot phase, Guay explained. The sector has not yet mastered the hand-off stage of the innovation life cycle, where pilots leave the lab in order to make a difference in the real world, he added.

Before the Start Network — a global network of 42 aid agencies — launched its call for expressions of interest in running in-country labs to support innovative aid programs, it looked into how other organizations were approaching humanitarian innovation. The team made a visit to a UNICEF-supported innovation lab in Jordan run by Relief International. Boys and girls from refugee camps designed interventions they felt would improve their quality of life there, then pitched those ideas to a group of investors, presenting a stark contrast with more traditional approaches that do not allow the beneficiaries to play an active role in designing the programs meant to benefit them.

“It was a real eye opener to see the potential of the lab model to support young refugees themselves to think up new ways to address not only their immediate needs, but also their broader goals and aspirations,” said Neil Townsend, Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme innovations program manager for Start Network.

Innovation is certainly overhyped, he said, but the problem with the sector remains that there is too little innovation rather than too much. He added that what matters is not so much individual innovation initiatives, but an organizational culture that is open to change. It is critical to embrace this moment when innovation has caught the attention of funders, he added.

MIT’s new initiative, Solve, seeks solutions to some of the biggest global challenges

Entrepreneurs around the world are encouraged to submit proposals to answer some of the toughest challenges related to refugee education, health and the environment by Jan. 20.

When Alex Amouyel became the executive director of Solve — an initiative that brings leaders together across sectors to develop solutions to actionable challenges such as youth, skills and the workforce of the future — she knew she was entering a crowded sector. But what she thinks is still lacking is democratizing access to innovation. That is why solve-a-thons, as she calls them, are happening from Myanmar to Palestine, far beyond the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, where Solve is based.

Solve and UNLEASH, the innovation lab for the SDGs that will launch next month, have a lot in common, and there is no doubt there will be more initiatives like them as 2030 approaches. But experts told Devex they hope global development professionals will work smarter and better not only through innovation but in their approach to innovation.

One of the most disruptive innovations in public health was the idea of the community health worker, said McAndrew of Save the Children. The idea that you could unlock the scale problem of public health by training people to provide care that only doctors could previously provide transformed the sector of global health. More recent innovations to make the process more efficient or make the financing more sustainable build on what was initially a delivery innovation versus a product innovation.

“Starting with the ‘problem first’ is critical, and easy to forget,” he said.

For Save the Children, if the team finds that what stood in the way of delivering their mission was a technology or product, they will look into developing that solution, but if it turns out to be a process tweak, even better, he said.

“The things that are talked about more often are the things that are the sexiest,” he told Devex. “But I think the things where innovation is actually truly accomplishing something on the SDGs are much more incremental and on the edges and not as sexy.”