Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

Innovation - stand back and let the cool stuff happen

While I agree with most, if not all, what was said in the Innovation in Africa tips blog post, my personal lesson in life is that you seldom succeed if you set out to be innovative. Ethan is right, good innovation comes mostly from constraint (and sometimes from opportunity or from just taking stuff and using it for something else than the intended purpose). However, most of what drives the world forward is not necessarily impressive or even new. Often small adjustments have a huge impacts or the innovation is consist of applying tired and tested concepts to new contexts. In that sense I guess the only way to learn innovating are computer games, as they constantly make people think outside of the proverbial box (think of RPG-jumps in Quake III or similar abuse of intended game play).

Anyway, innovations can be warming up pretty dull stuff. One of the most compelling innovations in development aid, micro finance, can be seen as a new lease on life for cooperative and savings banks (not very glitzy, are they?). However, these banks were the basis for much of the development in Europe and the US in the 19th century - usually not the kind of development you read about in books, but the kind of development that lifted millions out of poverty.

My personal attempts at being innovative consist mainly of trying to avoid interfering. I work on piloting a way of delivering development aid called output-based aid (OBA for short). The idea is to agree with a service provider to pay an amount of money per output delivered (let's say a medical treatment or a functioning water connection - including water provided for x months to make sure service is available sustainably). How the output is delivered is up to the provider, who needs to incur the costs of producing an output and thus bears the operational risks of the project, as failure to deliver will result in non-payment.

The power of this approach is amazing, but it is a power of small incremental changes and it takes a lot of those to amount to something you would call an innovation. Service providers come up with all kinds of incremental piecemeal solutions to provide services better (and cheaper). A project in Kenya works with community-based water providers who receive 80% of project costs as a loan from a micro finance bank (and have to come up with 20% themselves). If water providers can provide clean water to the beneficiaries in rural Kenya, we buy down half of the loan. The micro finance bank was brought in to address a very specific issue, which is that the community-based providers did not have any money. It's purpose was to fork out cash up-front and to be repaid later. However, in the process of the project the bank made all kinds of efforts to help the project, it hired an engineer to advise on technical solutions, it negotiated bulk supply rates to make inputs cheaper, none of this was part of the project design, none of this was in and of itself novel. However, it addressed issues that the project manager from his office, hundreds of miles away would have had an incredibly hard time addressing.

Another example for this is that of a natural gas company in Colombia, which provided poor households with subsidized gas connections. The company gave poor households piggy banks to show them that they actually could afford monthly bills - gas was the first utility service beneficiaries were to receive. The project resulted in a marked decrease in upper respiratory infections in mothers and children and was well worth the expense just taking into account savings in the health care system.

OK, we also have the traditional type of innovation (that is, the kind involving cell phones). A health project in rural Uganda speeds up the billing process of dispersed service providers by using a text message system. The important part as with most things, this was never part of the project proposal and takes a technology for sending bulk SMS, mostly used for spamming huge numbers of people, and puts it to a productive use.

Examples of this kind abound. They are usually are about somebody seeing something small, make a tiny choice here and there, finding better ways to do things. In short, they innovate, even if their individual actions would not necessarily qualify for the label "innovation". The innovation of OBA itself is mainly that the project sponsors agree with implementer on results, but other than that stand back and let cool things happen.

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