Hey UNDP! This is how we can leverage innovation for development

Just a couple of weeks ago, I came back from Rwanda where we are implementing a “Design for Innovation” Training on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Innovation has come to the forefront of the development discourse – and development practice – within the last years. Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced the launch of its network of 60 so-called ‘Accelerator Labs’ spanning across nearly eighty countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. To put it in UNDP’s own terms, the initiative is aimed at “re-imagining development for the 21st century”. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But what exactly is it that should be “re-imagined”? What do we – as Fraunhofer IAO, Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CeRRI) – aim for when implementing projects in the name of ‘innovation for development’ – in Rwanda and elsewhere?

What is development all about?

For the longest time, development had predominantly (sometimes perhaps even exclusively) been understood as economic development, focusing on macroeconomic indicators such as GDP growth, job creation, and structural transformation. Pointing to the danger of ‘growth without development’ (that is macroeconomic growth without any significant improvement in people’s lives), scholars such as Amartya Sen have coined an alternative, human-centred understanding of development. Shifting the focus from purely economic concepts to people’s well-being in terms of life expectancy and years of schooling, for example, the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) provides for the most prominent example of the human development approach shaping both development theory and practice. More recently, concepts of development as sustainable development have gained prominence over the growing awareness that environmental issues are inextricably linked with socio-economic ones and developing countries would be struck hardest in case of an environmental catastrophe.

What role for innovation in development?

Given these differences in objective, what role is there to play for innovation in development? At the Fraunhofer IAO, we think of it like this:

In terms of economic development, innovative activities must allow for local value creation rather than extracting value by leaving the majority of the economic benefit to large multinationals. The distinction is an important one as it urges us to think about the question how states could capitalize upon their resource wealth more carefully. To truly spur economic development based on (tech) innovations, these must provide opportunities for local upgrading within global value chains and domestic capacity building.

Advancing human development requires us to promote leverage-oriented innovations. There are countless examples of tech-based innovations, particularly in finance, healthcare, and education empowering previously marginalised groups and directly improving their quality of life. The mobile money transfer system M-Pesa provides millions of people with access to financial services, creating opportunities for economic participation. Yet, not every (tech) innovation out there actually leads to human development as many merely provide goods for everyday consumption.

Lastly, innovation could play its role of a lifetime in battling the mounting environmental crisis. ICT-based innovations bear an enormous potential for creating sustainable solutions for future societies by conserving resources. Stattus4, a data-enabled Brazilian Start Up saving more than 2.3 billion euros of water by detecting leakages in water pipes, is only one in many examples here. However, there is no guarantee for innovations to reduce resource consumption and embrace more sustainable patterns of production. Increasing amounts of electronic waste act as a painful reminder of how they might as well further deplete resources instead.

Why do we care?

As part of Fraunhofer – Europe’s largest application-oriented research organisation – we care about innovation improving people’s life – in Germany, Europe and beyond. Rather than disappearing in some basement’s drawer, we think that technology research should serve real world needs. For innovation to live up to developmental expectations, we think it must embrace both economic as well as human and environmental concerns. This is more than an academic debate. Defining your end will allow you to choose the right means to harness the full potential innovation bears for development. I am utterly convinced that rather than letting things to their own device, we could (and should!) design for the ‘most developmental innovation’. How, you ask? Look no further and read my next post on how to make ‘innovation for development’ truly work.

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