Humanitarian Innovators Network – July 13th, 2019
A clearly articulated problem that an innovative pilot wishes to solve, is increasingly being highlighted as a key step to realising successful humanitarian innovations. At our recent Humanitarian Innovation Exchange, co-organised with Elrha and Centre for Innovation, DCHI facilitated a breakout session on Problem Articulation and Searching for Solutions. This aspect of innovation is something we as DCHI have especially advocated for throughout our Humanitarian Accelerator programmes this last year.
From the outset of the workshop, there was a clear and open recognition that Humanitarian organisations can run the risk of creating excellent programmes, only to solve a problem that was not clearly identified from the outset. This makes it hard to truly monitor the progress and evaluate the success of such an implementation, or even assess if it was necessary to begin with. Moreover, it was acknowledged that lacking clarity in the initial problem often means that potential collaborations with partners become limited, as it remains unclear whether the innovative solutions or skills they offer, are suitable. At DCHI we are increasingly encouraging Humanitarian Organisations to start with strong problem articulation within our ongoing Humanitarian Accelerator programme on ‘Safety & Protection’, implemented together with the the DRA Innovation Fund. The workshop showcased this example, with thanks to Martine Bergwerff, Chair of the DRA Innovation Working Group, alongside the second case study, presented by Max Vieille, the Global Director of Response Innovation Lab (RIL).
One of the unique components of the DRA Innovation Fund (DIF) is the way that the call has been designed, together with DCHI. Throughout the design the focus has been on problem articulation and collaboration, in a way that helps to focus on potential scaling. Martine explained that, when the DRA started the Innovation Fund, the project proposals remained similarly formatted to that of standard institutional proposals, with little focus on the problem; naturally, this made it hard to identify the really strong innovation proposals. By contrast, the 2019 DIF call strongly emphasised joint problem definition, and required the development of extensive challenge brief’s. Next, organisations used the challenge briefs as their ‘business cards’ when looking for partnerships outside the sector, to find an innovative solution or partnership. The call also has a strong focus on shared learning and peer to peer support, to keep the process as transparent as possible. Martine stated: “Going through all the steps of the new call, was an intensive process that required a different mindset; starting with the problem. However, the investment was worth it, as the quality of the innovation has increased a lot. Partners are now realising that innovation is not that difficult, and that it is necessary to become future proof”.
The second case study, presented by Response Innovation Lab (RIL), provided insight into another organisation that aims to roll out successful innovation on the ground in humanitarian contexts. Their primary focus is to complement the existing humanitarian system by adapting existing interventions. “The RIL develops, tests and rolls out proven concepts that overcome context-specific problems or barriers to aid delivery and community recovery,” Max explained. He went on to share how RIL scopes the innovation ecosystem to catalogue ideas and actors that are offering certain solutions to problems, so that they can identify innovative combinations. For that to work however, RIL relies on humanitarian organisations to present a clear challenge they wish to tackle. RIL also provides a ‘Matchmaker’ Humanitarian implementor, which involves sending a challenge, with a specific request to provide them with a set of solutions for this problem.
One of the primary lessons learned that Martine conveyed from her experience with the DIF, was to focus on problem recognition and build the community before you go into the call. Alongside this, it is important to make sure that there is sufficient evidence that the problem is a reality and that this solution is the optimum one to solve is. Lastly, she encouraged organisations to push participants in an innovation call into think about what their business case is, and what are the business models behind their solutions, in order to enhance the sustainability of the proposed solution. Reflecting upon of the day, Martine further stated: “It was great to see a lot of interest for the setup of the Innovation Call of the Dutch Relief Alliance and the fact that different initiatives around the world are following the same structure. A joint challenge remains how to manage and guide granted innovations throughout the implementation period – this requires dedicated capacity to really make the best of it”.
The lessons learned from Max’s experience with RIL focused heavily on communication with the problem holders as being key. Initially, it was acknowledged that problem holders refers to both the humanitarian organisation, and the local population who are living with the problem: “It is dangerous to get isolated, and trust only a humanitarian organisation saying that for example lack of lighting provides a protection challenge. If you were to ask the beneficiaries, the problem could turn out to be much more complicated”. Therefore Max suggested two levels of communication to ensure the problem and solution are being managed for both problem holders. Firstly, a continuous dialogue is needed with the humanitarian organisation about how much change the organisation can handle, with the necessary question ‘Do the solutions fit a pathway to implementation?’. Secondly, it is also essential to involve the community in the process of identifying the problem and the viability of a possible solution. This includes the feasibility of global adaptations of solutions that aren’t always a proven concept locally.
After the session, we asked Max on his final thoughts: “I want to thank you again for the opportunity to participate in that session. I would say that it was very useful to interact with a broad range of interlocutors. In particular, the discussion brought forth the need to further explore the pros and cons of global vs. local approaches to challenge and solution identification. By combining the capacity and approaches of the various stakeholders present, there may be a way to develop comprehensive systems that can function on both levels, a significant challenge for us all to explore.”
Overall, the workshop offered an in-depth insight into the potential in stronger problem articulation, such as enhancing collaborations and sustainability of solutions, to ultimately make Humanitarian innovations more impactful. We’d like to sincerely thank both Martine Bergwerff, from the DRA innovation Fund and Max Vieille, from Response Innovation Lab, for sharing their insights into this aspect of Humanitarian Innovation.