The potential for science, technology, innovation, and partnerships (STIP) to tackle, or even attempt to solve, the myriad of global development challenges we face is largely dependent on the adequate and appropriate catalysation of their respective eco-systems. These eco-systems, made up of the actors, mechanisms and institutions through which STIP solutions emerge, often need to be primed to be cognizant of and sufficiently responsive to the needs and aspirations of vulnerable, marginalised and/or income-poor populations.
Various factors such as the persistence of human development impediments and the ongoing transition from the MDGs to the SDGs have led many development actors to re-evaluate their approaches to delivering on their mandates. Consequently, there is growing interest in how STIP can proffer solutions that are effective, efficient and sustainable.
One notable actor working to discover alternative pathways to realising its development goals is the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID). It established the Global Development Lab in 2014 to accelerate its impact through STIP and through the cultivation of relevant partnerships. At a Global Development Lab Technology Salon held in Washington DC, several development practitioners gathered together to learn more about the Lab from its executive director, Ann Mei Chang.
An Actor Perspective
The Global Development Lab is viewed as an ambitious and innovation-focused venture which seeks to enable USAID achieve its goals. It is worth noting that while one might assume the Lab is primarily interested in the application of digital ideas, its view of innovation encompasses ideas that emerge from other domains such as science and non-digital technology.
Various discussants described its core competency as that of a “pillar” organisation in which certain development activities undertaken by different agencies have now been centralised for the purposes of achieving effectiveness and efficiency. Nonetheless, partnerships are considered central to its strategy. Therefore, the Lab is focusing on establishing and cultivating alliances with actors from what one might describe as the quadruple helix of innovation: public (particularly with USAID country missions and other government agencies), private, academic and social sectors.
Several attendees seemed to suggest the impact of the Global Development Lab on development, the development experience and the innovation eco-system would likely be driven by the nature and dynamic of its relationships with other innovation actors. Therefore, a keen interest in observing how the transformative potential of the Lab would unfold over time was prevalent in the room.
A Mechanisms Perspective
Development has a tendency to be risk-averse. This is one area where the Lab feels that its “radical” approach to development can add value. It seeks to engender a greater appetite for risk through two mechanisms: processes and investments. In the case of processes, the Lab has adopted a “disrupt-develop-mainstream” innovation approach. In the disrupt phase, the Lab seeks to foster an environment where practitioners can “ideate”.
It also hopes to transition from the current procurement model that might bring in a hundred proposals to one where tens of thousands of ideas are generated. This is a core theory behind initiatives such as the Grand Challenges for Development and Development Innovation Ventures. Building on the belief that ideas can come from some of the most unlikely places, competitions typically award smaller grants.
This funding approach offers a flexible mechanism through which a broader range of ideas can be tested and where failures carry fewer repercussions and can ultimately be turned into learning opportunities. The develop phase provides an opportunity for ideas to be turned into solutions through testing and iteration. An emphasis is placed on achieving efficiency and effectiveness in this phase. In the mainstream phase, the Lab typically aims to standardise a solution, scale the solution to the size of the problem and make the solution sustainable. Its partnerships with other organisations were said to be critical to this phase.
For instance, opportunities to scale solutions through other agencies are often considered and sustainability is often seen to involve building local scientific, technical and innovative capacity and the uptake of maintenance costs by the host country or end users.
Targeted investments are a second mechanism utilised by the Lab. While the previous mechanism focuses on the generation and development of ideas, this focuses on further refining ideas and providing resources in five areas they consider strategic for development: electronic payments, real-time data feedback loops, open innovation, entrepreneurial eco-systems and late-stage innovations. So, if your organisation is interested in partnering with the Lab, you now know where things are headed!
An Institutional Perspective
Attendees at the Technology Salon spent some time discussing some of the issues driving and mitigating institutional change across a changing development landscape. Some of the issues mentioned included:
- The well-known challenges around behavioural change where people are often keen to adopt new buzzwords but reluctant to relinquish entrenched development practices;
- Significant funding cuts which are driving organisations to learn how to do more with less;
- The observation that many people in developing country contexts, who are generally on the receiving end of development efforts, are now racing towards participation in the digital society, often ahead of development agencies themselves.
The Global Development Lab is working to advance institutional change in a couple specific areas. Firstly, it seeks to transition from a development culture that incentivises proposal writing and budget spend-down to one that values the generation of more actionable data and results. This led to some discussion on payment models for development results. So, if you have got any good ideas, Ann Mei and the Lab might like to hear them!
Secondly, the Lab is working to transform the procurement process to one that is characterised by collaboration and rapid feedback loops. For instance, it has introduced co-design initiatives through which it partners with other organisations to discover possible solutions. Six good ideas came out of the most recent co-design round. Four of those six ideas have been funded and the remaining two will receive funding shortly.
Thirdly, it is interested in finding ways to rapidly disseminate learning and scale up innovation network effects within the development system. Much of this activity has typically occurred through toolkits, training and advisory services. However, the beta version of a new online tool, The Global Innovation Exchange has just been released. This marketplace is expected to provide a space for development-driven innovation actors to find funding, ideas, solutions, connections and much more. It would be great to see these and other ideas take off and transform the development experience.
This is a dynamic time in development. The Global Development Lab is taking some well-considered steps to catalyse STIP eco-systems to produce solutions that measure up to the urgent and global development challenges we face. However, the real impact of the Lab will be demonstrated by the progress it makes in addressing the particular developmental needs and aspirations of those who experience vulnerability, marginalisation and/or live on the lowest of incomes. This will require hard work and deep commitment over the very long term.
Ritse Erumi is a doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics.