Innovation for development: A starter kit

In my last blogpost, I shared my take on what innovation could and should do for development. To serve both economic as well as human and environmentalist concerns, innovation must be value-creating, leverage-oriented and resource-conserving. ‘So what?’ you might think. After all, what International Development needs least is yet another debate on terms and theories, isn’t it? Knowing that innovation can work as a catalyst for development (in all of its forms), the million-dollar question is how do we bring the ‘most developmental innovation’ to life?

21st century innovation

Our understanding of development has evolved over the years, so has our understanding of innovation. For decades, innovation was framed as an exclusive interplay between two main actors: Science, on the one hand, was expected to produce knowledge, turn it into technologies and prototypes and ultimately hand those over to industry for commercialisation purposes. However, over the years, people came to realize that perhaps, it wasn’t all too smart to allow neither those buying products and being affected by technological change (aka society) nor those elected to determine the future of a given country (aka governments) to the game. Consequently, today’s models of innovation processes have departed from the sequential logic of former years. Understanding innovation as a non-linear and collaborative process, they account for a variety of stakeholders populating the innovation ecosystem and engaging in different forms of interaction and cooperation.

Aiming for needs-driven, collaborative innovation, including increasingly diverse groups of actors throughout the innovation process is a necessity. However, it brings about a new degree of complexity that needs to be accounted for by actively fostering and shaping stakeholder’s interaction – and this is where the key to designing the “most developmental innovation” lies.

How to innovate for development

1. Want to spur economic growth? Get your ecosystem straight!

Shifting your understanding from linear to non-linear models of collaborative innovation is not simply a commodity. Allowing for an exchange of knowledge and technology among international as well as local actors from science and industry is crucial for setting you off on the right foot in terms of value creation. Set up right, ecosystems can effectively translate between science and industry, allowing innovators to take full advantage of latest research findings. Carefully analysing your ecosystem – both on a national level as we did throughout or study on KTT in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa as well as with view to local Tech Hubs and innovation clusters – is a good starting point. Most important, it serves as a prerequisite for actively designing that ecosystem thus strengthening knowledge- and technology transfer.

2. Want to meet people’s needs? Get them involved!

You don’t literally have to walk in people’s shoes to get an idea of their concerns – yet, you are well advised to get them involved if your innovation is to make any significant contribution to their quality of life. Who are (potential) users – and further stakeholders – of a given innovation? What do their expectations look like? And how can they voice their concerns, even without the technical how? Just recently, Fraunhofer IAO launched its Design for Innovation training programme in Rwanda, aiming to promote human-centred innovation by equipping participants with design-based tools to address exactly these questions.

3. Want to protect mother earth? Get environmentalists and techies talking!

Setting new constraints, the quest for sustainability can be a strong source of innovation in itself. Rather than forcing businesses to choose between producing goods that are either socially and environmentally desirable or economically feasible, research shows that sustainability-driven innovation can actually help companies to develop new, cost-cutting business models. Our planet cannot speak for itself – yet there are people very aware of its concerns. Listen to them! Our Earth Lab implemented on behalf of Microsoft provides a perfect example of how different disciplines such as Earth and Data Science, Forestry Science, Product Design, Biotechnology, Climate Research and Artificial Intelligence talking. 42 innovative ideas for saving our planet one step at a time in just two days speak for themselves.

Innovation can kick-start development – and there are people who know how to kick-start collaborative, needs-driven innovation. Both sides – development as well as innovation experts – are well-advised to start the conversation on how to make innovation work for all of us. Having laid out my understanding of what the debate on ‘innovation for development’ is ultimately about, I myself am eager to get talking.

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